As state and federal investigators yesterday began an inquiry into Sunday's sinking of a charter fishing boat in the lower Chesapeake Bay, survivors recounted a harrowing storm-tossed nightmare that claimed two lives.
"I was so tired and I was taking in a lot of water," said Julius Whitman, 62, who bobbed in the wind-tossed bay for about two hours. "Just at the point I thought well, this is it, the sky lit up with the [Coast Guard's] red flashers. Man, was I happy."
Survivors told of how quickly the weather changed. It turned a successful fishing trip, they said, into a blur of seasickness and futile bailing. Finally many passengers were forced to get in the ,, frigid water since there was not enough room for everyone on the life raft.
Both the Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board are conducting investigations into the sinking of the El Toro II, which began taking on water in a storm Sunday afternoon with 23 people on board. The accident occurred about five miles from Point Lookout at the southern end of Maryland's western shore.
A preliminary report points to the loosening of planks along the bottom of the hull, said John Verrico, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
"Some of the gaps between the planks are as wide as 2 inches. We're speculating that the damage was caused by the boat bouncing on the rough seas," Mr. Verrico said. "These gaps appear sufficient enough to make the lower decks fill with water and ultimately sink the boat."
As of late yesterday afternoon, the 60-foot boat was bobbing in the water, mostly submerged, about seven miles east of the Great Wicomico River in the Chesapeake Bay and may not be recovered, officials said.
It had drifted about 10 miles from the rescue site, said Chief Robert Snyder, of the Coast Guard Station at St. Inigoes.
One of the two men killed was the boat's 19-year-old mate, Edgar Curtis Philips Jr., of Piney Point in St. Mary's County. Robert Bernard Shipe, 45, a passenger from Mechanicsville in St. Mary's County who came fishing with his wife, also died.
Three survivors remained in St. Mary's Hospital, including the boat's captain, Joseph C. Lore, 53, and another was in critical condition in a Washington hospital.
At a news conference yesterday, Coast Guard officials would not comment about the boat's safety equipment, nor would they speculate on the wisdom of sailing when heavy winds were forecast.
The case is being handled through the Coast Guard's Marine Safety Office in Philadelphia. Lt. Commander Michael Kearney said the investigation would take several months to complete.
Saturday's drenching rains had slowed to an occasional drizzle by the time the El Toro II pulled away from the dock at 8:15 Sunday morning. On board were Captain Lore and his son, Clayton S. Lore, 30. Twenty passengers, who had paid $27 each, joined three crewmen on the 60-foot vessel.
While the forecast called for partly sunny skies early in the day, the National Weather Service had already alerted boaters of heavy winds and high seas.
Even so, several other charter boats also left the Point Lookout area in search of Virginia rockfish and bluefish.
"The weather was not that bad when we left," said Greg Madjeski, a captain from Smith Creek who saw the El Toro II at midmorning. "If you know anything about fishermen, they want to go catch fish. My group was the same way. They said, 'Let's roll.' "
About 8:50 a.m., the weather service issued a special update, with a gale warning from Point Lookout southward. The update increased the predicted wind strength, to about 40 mph, and warned that waves could reach 6 feet.
"That's a severe storm for the bay," said Jim Belville, chief meteorologist of the weather service's office in Sterling, Va..
The weather service reissued its forecast and highlighted the gale warning at 9:33 a.m.
Despite the forecasts, fishermen might have been fooled by the early morning weather. As the system moved out over the bay, the winds were "really calm" and out of the west, blowing at about 10 knots at Point Lookout, Mr. Belville said.
Meanwhile, the 20 passengers on El Toro II were catching rockfish and bluefish, about eight in all, in Virginia waters where the rockfish season extends until Dec. 19.
Walter Auman, 43, of Owings, who came with his 12-year-old son, Matthew, caught a 42-inch rockfish -- too big to keep under Virginia rules.
About 11:30 a.m., the sky began to darken. An hour later, with the wind and rain pounding the boat, Captain Lore ordered everyone to move into the boat's cabin -- a 6-foot by 15-foot space. "All of us were able to fit in it, but it got hot and stuffy," Mr. Auman said.
"At first the people in the cabin thought that it was fun," said Christopher Falk, 30, of Herndon, Va. "You know, they were yelpin' and stuff," as the 6- to 8-foot waves pounded on the boat.
"Then people started getting sick because of the waves," Mr. Falk said. "About 2 o'clock, the captain looked into the engine compartment and freaked out."
The boat was taking on water.
"You could hear the bow slap and then there would be this awful creaking noise," said Anthony Stewart Mills, 30, of Reston, Va., who had come with Christopher Falk. "I looked at Chris and said, 'This boat is going to crack in half.' "
After about 30 minutes of riding the waves, a crew hand and the captain appeared in the cabin and ordered everyone to don their life jackets. The boat was filling with water.
The captain radioed the Coast Guard about 2 p.m. Captain Lore said the boat was taking on water, possibly because of a loosened plank, Chief Snyder said.
"This is El Toro. We're out here. We have water in the bilge, possibility of sinking," the captain is heard saying on an audio tape of the call. "Starting to bail now. . . . And we're sitting sideways, starting to drift."
At that point, a 41-foot Coast Guard boat took off from St. Inigoes.
The life jackets were methodically distributed. Men in the cabin ventured out into the weather to bail water with five-gallon
"That's when people started to say they were going to die," Mr. Mills said. "No one got terribly panicked about it, but everyone knew what was going on at that point. There was no question the boat was sinking."
Matthew Auman, at 12 the youngest person aboard, remembers Mrs. Shipe, the lone woman, grabbing his hand and taking him to the back of the cabin.
"I was thinking that we weren't going to get out of it," Matthew said.
Mrs. Shipe's husband, Robert, didn't make it. He was one of the two men who died.
As the deck began to take on water, the captain ordered the life raft broken out.
Mr. Mills says he was stunned when he saw that the raft was "only about the size of a queen sized bed. Here you had a boat licensed for 50 passengers and this raft was all it had for a disaster."
The El Toro probably complied with safety rules that require a boat to have a "buoyant apparatus," not necessarily a life raft, to accommodate the passengers on board, said Joseph F. Rupp, president of the Maryland Charterboat Association.
Such devices float "in the water and have a lot of lines attached to them for people to hang on to," he said. "They are not meant to be inside of." As the boat began sinking, Mr. Whitman, of
Cheverly, who had put on two life vests, jumped into the water. "That's the hardest thing I ever had to do."
Mr. Auman and his son grabbed a cooler for flotation help.
Mr. Falk, who was worried that a cast on his leg would make it hard to swim, and Mr. Mills grabbed empty coolers from the deck, and clung to the roof of the boat's cabin.
"Every time a wave hit, it ripped out another piece of the boat," Mr. Mills said. "It was falling apart fast."
At one point, the two men heard a cry for help. They spotted Leroy Eubanks, 54, flailing in the water near the boat. Mr. Mills grabbed a boat hook and used it to pull Mr. Eubanks to the El Toro. The two men hoisted Mr. Eubanks onto the submerged deck, where he could cling to the pilot's deck rim.
In the water, 62-year-old Mr. Whitman, a retired buyer for a clothier, was exhausted and numb, about to give up, when he spotted the red lights on a Coast Guard rescue boat.
The boat had arrived after a rough, 50-minute trip.
A passing tug boat also came to the rescue, plucking Mr. Mills, Mr. Falk and others to safety.
The captain and two others sat huddled together on the roof in blue jeans and heavy jackets, said Tyrone Montgomery, a Coast Guard fireman's apprentice.
Mr. Montgomery said the Coast Guard vessel pulled within 12 feet of the crippled fishing boat. Mr. Montgomery climbed into a raft and hurled a safety line to one of the men on the roof. One by one, he helped them off the fishing boat.
"They were pretty happy," to see him, Mr. Montgomery recalled, but "mainly, they were cold and scared."
Kirk Machovec, a Petty Officer First Class with the Coast Guard, flew to the scene in a helicopter. As the aircraft hovered over the water, he jumped into the choppy sea. He swam through the waves to the life raft. Nineteen survivors huddled in the raft or hung onto the sides.
A 64-year-old man, Horace Ira Smith, of Washington, was in cardiac arrest. He was flown by helicopter to Washington Hospital Center's cardiac unit, where he remained in critical condition yesterday.
While the Coast Guard investigates the accident, some of Captain Lore's fellow captains say he and his son would not do anything foolish.
"They're seasoned watermen, they've been on the water for a long, long time," said Bruce Scheible, who operates 10 boats in the area. "They're very much able to operate."
As for Mr. Whitman, the experience hasn't soured his love for either the bay or fishing.
L "Hell, if you had a boat, I'd go fishing with you tomorrow."
Matthew Christopher Auman, 12, Foxborro Way, Owings. Treated and released from St. Mary's Hospital.
Walter Snatex Auman, 43, Foxborro Way, Owings. Treated and released from St. Mary's Hospital.
William Elliott Barton, 37, Childress Terrace, Burtonsville. Treated and released from St. Mary's Hospital.
William Thor Enos, 38, Maybrooke Ave., Kensington. Treated and released from St. Mary's Hospital.
Leroy Eubanks, 54, Adrian St., Seat Pleasant. Treated and released from Patuxent River Naval Hospital.
Christopher James Falk, 30, Emerald Chase, Herndon, Va. Treated and released from Patuxent River Naval Hospital.
Willie James Floyd, 28, 14th N.W., Washington. Treated and released from St. Mary's Hospital.
Gwak Gyoung, 33, Clavel St., Rockville. Stable, held for observations at St. Mary's Hospital.
David Kim, 14, Clavel St. Rockville. Treated and released from St. Mary's Hospital.
Sunil Kim, 41, Clavel St. Rockville. Treated and released from St. Mary's Hospital.
Clayton Slade Lore (operator of boat), 30, Ridge. Treated and released from St. Mary's Hospital.
Joseph Cobb Lore (owner of boat), 53, Ridge. Stable, held for observation at St. Mary's Hospital.
Virgil Lee Martin, 52, Kent Towne Drive, Landover, 52. Treated and released from St. Mary's Hospital.
Anthony Stewart Mills, 30, Winterport Closter, Reston, Va. Treated and released from Patuxent River Naval Hospital.
Gary Robert Sanguinetti, 32, Autumn Gold Drive, Gambrills. Treated and released from St. Mary's Hospital.
Teresa Marlene Shipe, 37, Crescent Drive, Mechanicsville. Treated and released from St. Mary's Hospital.
Horace Ira Smith, 64, 14th St. N.W., Washington. Critical, transferred from Pax River Naval Hospital to MEDSTAR, Washington.
Raymond Miles Smith, 51, Manor Road, Clinton. Treated and released from St. Mary's Hospital.
Robert Van Swaringen, 39, Othman Drive, Fort Washington. Held for observation at St. Mary's Hospital. Released Monday morning.
Julius Whitman, 61, Jutewood Avenue, Cheverly. Treated and released from St. Mary's Hospital.
Richard Byron Williams, 64, Othman Drive, Fort Washington. Held for observation at St. Mary's Hospital. Released Monday morning.
Edgar Curtis Philips Jr., 19, Route 249, Piney Point. Declared dead at 9:22 p.m. Sunday at St. Mary's Hospital.
Robert Bernard Shipe, 45, Crescent Drive, Mechanicsville. Declared dead at 6:52 p.m. Sunday at Patuxent River Naval Hospital.