As rough waves of the Chesapeake Bay battered her face, 26-year-old Patricia Morgan did all she could to keep treading water in the dark and hope someone would find her.
After nearly three hours in the water on the night of June 7, she was plucked out of the water by Annapolis firefighters. Yesterday, Morgan had the chance to properly thank them for the first time.
"They made it so nice for me on the boat," she said. "I was really relieved."
Annapolis firefighters Greg Young, Michael Lonergan and Philip Morris were part of an 34-person interagency search that included the Anne Arundel County Fire Department, the Coast Guard and the Maryland Natural Resources Police, all recognized for their efforts yesterday by the Association for Rescue at Sea, a Virginia-based national rescue organization.
"We felt it extraordinary because they worked so closely together," said association president John B. Chomeau. "It was a highly successful rescue ... [because] they know each other so intimately."
Battalion Chief Matthew Tobia, spokesman for the Anne Arundel County Fire Department, called it a "one-in-a-million rescue."
"They're searching in complete darkness ... trying to find a person bobbing in the water, and all that's visible in the best situation is her head," he said.
A storm suddenly blew in when Morgan, of Baltimore, and her boyfriend, 32-year-old Carlo Fraizzoli, were on his sailboat near the mouth of the Magothy River.
Strong winds caused the boat to tilt strongly. She believed the boat was capsizing and jumped off the boat without a life jacket, Tobia said.
Fraizzoli said he tried to save her by throwing first a life ring, then a rope, but she couldn't reach either. The boat's motor was disabled by the storm, and the boat and Morgan floated in different directions.
She has never had swimming lessons and doesn't swim regularly, but a determination to stay alive to take care of two younger sisters who depend on her kept her going, she said.
"I was thinking I was going to live," she said. She headed toward the lighthouse east of Gibson Island but when she got there, she found that she couldn't reach the ladder. She then tried to swim toward Gibson Island, which proved to be too far. She grew tired and started to tread water under very difficult circumstances, Tobia said.
"What she was doing was treading water with someone throwing a five-gallon bucket of water in her face every three seconds," he said.
In the meantime, Fraizzoli had called 911 and the Anne Arundel County Fire Department.
Rescuers first located Fraizzoli and the boat, then started a systematic search of the area based on Morgan's last known location, her time in the water, water currents and wind direction.
Three firefighters found Morgan when they heard her screams.
"I kept seeing them in the distance but they never saw me," she said. "I kept screaming and finally they heard me."
She was mildly hypothermic, exhausted and dehydrated from ingesting large amounts of salt water, but she was otherwise uninjured, Tobia said.
Though Morgan was saved, "there are drowning incidents every year," he said. "They are completely preventable if people remember to wear their life preserver."
There were 208 boating accidents reported statewide last year, said Sgt. Ken Turner, spokesman for the Natural Resources Police.
If it looks like a storm is coming, boaters should immediately head for the nearest port, Tobia said. He and Turner recommended that passengers stay with the boat even if it looks like it is capsizing, because boats will usually float even if overturned and are much more noticeable objects in the water.
"If you don't have that life jacket on, [the boat is] something you can hold onto," Turner said. "It's a whole lot easier for rescuers to locate and pull you to safety."
Morgan, who grew up on the bay with motorized boats, says she might stick to those in the future. "I'll go out again," she said, but she'll wear a life jacket.