U.S. Coast Guard officials are investigating what caused a boat carrying schoolchildren to sink Wednesday evening after it struck something submerged near a former Navy bombing test site in the Chesapeake Bay.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation vessel was carrying 23 people — including students, parents and teachers from the Kent School in Chestertown and foundation staff — when the accident occurred about 5:30 p.m. They were saved by a passing waterman before rescue boats arrived, a Natural Resources Police official said.
Relatives of 42-year-old Jeremy Shockley of Toddville said he and other watermen were quick to respond when they heard the boat's distress call. Shockley's mother, Susan, described him as a "hardworking waterman" who rushed into action the moment he heard children were in danger.
"What he did is just awesome," Susan Shockley said. "I think Jesus put him and his boat at just the right place at just the right time to go and grab these children. The accident could have been so severe. We are so proud of him."
Matthew A. Clark, a spokesman for Gov. Larry Hogan, said Thursday the governor plans to honor Shockley's actions.
"Mr. Shockley will be awarded a citation from Governor Hogan for his life-saving actions yesterday in the Chesapeake Bay," Clark said. "His quick response helped to avert what could have been a terrible tragedy."
Chesapeake Bay Foundation President William C. Baker pledged to conduct an "investigation into the incident, and cooperate with the Natural Resources Police and Coast Guard, to better understand the cause of [Wednesday's] accident."
John Surrick, a spokesman for the Bay Foundation, said the operator of the boat has worked for the organization for 10 years.
"He takes kids out in those waters all the time," Surrick said.
A spokeswoman for the school called the annual field trip the "culminating experience of Kent School's Lower School Bay Studies science curriculum."
The accident occurred near Bloodsworth Island, which the Navy used as a bombing range from 1942 to 1995. The Dorchester County island and others nearby are still owned by the Navy and the area around them is restricted, U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer David Marin said.
Federal law prohibits boats from passing through a mile-wide circle to the west of the island, Marin said. Nautical maps the Coast Guard provided to The Baltimore Sun show areas outlined with the words "PROHIBITED AREA" and "DANGER ZONE" in pink lettering.
However, there are no visible signs or buoys to mark danger nearby, Marin said.
The boat's captain was taken by helicopter to a hospital in Salisbury, police said, and five people on board were taken to nearby hospitals with bumps and bruises, according to the foundation. The others were taken to a hospital in Easton to be checked for possible injuries.
"This could have been a really bad situation," police spokeswoman Candy Thomson said.
Coast Guard officials are investigating the incident, Marin said. If negligence is found, a fine or charges are possible, he said. He said the investigation could take weeks.
It remains unknown what the boat struck. For decades, the Navy dropped live ordnance, including bombs, rockets and missiles, on the islands.
Shockley, who has been accused of harvesting undersized oysters, credited other watermen with helping him with the rescue. He said watermen have gotten a bad rap, and jokingly referred to himself as a "pirate."
"Thanks to all who helped me and Daniel help everyone get a board safe and Benny and Alex Horsemen who helped me call in the 911 and help the coast guard understand what was going on," he wrote on Facebook. "I guess all pirates aren't bad as everyone thinks they are."
Baltimore Sun reporter Tim Prudente contributed to this article.