Wave Dancer Passenger

Dave DeBarger

'I Either Swam Or Climbed,' Man Says of Escape
By Kevin Sullivan Washington Post Foreign Service Wednesday, October 10, 2001; Page A19

MEXICO CITY, Oct. 9 -- Dinner had just ended in the salon of the Wave Dancer on Monday night, and David DeBarger went below to his cabin to go to sleep. Winds were howling outside, with rain slashing horizontally as Hurricane Iris bore down on the coast of Belize.

Then there was a loud clunk, and then a thump.

DeBarger said weather reports had predicted that Iris would strike about 80 miles to the north, in Belize City. So he and his companions - 19 others from the Richmond Dive Club - had felt safe in the boat, moored to a concrete pier in the protected lagoon of Big Creek.

"We weren't treating it as anything serious," DeBarger said in a telephone interview tonight from a Belize City hotel. "I have spent a lot of time on boats. This was just something that you ride out."

But then things suddenly got rougher. DeBarger said he and another passenger began taping the inside of the boat's windows to keep them from shattering in case of flying debris.

As DeBarger began working on the window of the emergency exit, the boat shifted violently and he was thrown against his cabin door. There was yelling. "Put on your life jackets!"

DeBarger scrambled into his cabin and reached for his. But before he could, the boat shifted hard again, throwing him against the cabin's outer wall.

"I felt water immediately. The cabin was filling up," said DeBarger, 57. "The bunk was vertical, and the cabin door was over my head. I either swam or climbed -- I don't know -- to the door and tried to get it open."

In the pitch darkness, DeBarger pushed the door open and made it into the flooded hallway. He swam one way but quickly found himself under water. He swam back down the hall, trying to keep his head in the air pocket. Ahead of him, he could see a flashlight. He heard people's voices.

Someone ahead kicked out the glass in the emergency window he had just been trying to tape. He swam through the hole, about the size of a small television set, and freed himself from the capsized boat. "I felt hands, and people pulled me up into a life raft," he said. "I just went on instinct. I saw a light. I heard a voice call to me. I went to it."

DeBarger didn't know it then, but he and the two other divers in the life raft - Richard Patterson and Mary Lou Hayden - were the only Richmond passengers known to have survived the wreck.

They spent almost an hour in the raft, covered in diesel fuel and debris, banging on the upside-down hull, looking for other survivors. Even in the dark, the rain and mighty winds, they could see that their shattered boat had been driven 60 yards across the lagoon from where it had been tied to the pier.

"I've just spent the day watching people fish my friends' bodies out of the water," DeBarger said. "And now I have to spend the morning at the morgue identifying them."

© 2001 The Washington Post Company

Date: Wed, 17 Oct 2001 02:35:42 -0400
Reply-To: SouthEast US Scuba Diving Travel list
Sender: SouthEast US Scuba Diving Travel list
From: Dave DeBarger
Subject: Re: Wave Dancer tragedy: version by another survivor 

At the risk of getting torpedoed in the crossfire, I will re-enter this thread briefly to respond to a couple of points concerning my earlier posts:

Reef Fish wrote:

For example, you said the whole thing happened in 15 seconds. I questioned that perception, but chose not to follow-up. Another passenger, Mary Lou Hayden seemed to have a rather different perception of the same event. She singled out that fact that the three of you spent 45 minutes at a life raft calling out to your collegues.

[DD] These are two different events. I stated that the capsizing of the Wave Dancer -- from the first hit that threw me across the vessel until the boat was upside down and filling with water -- lasted no longer than 12 - 15 seconds. You apparently thought that this time estimate included the time it took me to get out of the boat to safety. Not so.

[RFL] Glad you clarified this point. That was why I wondered how the CREW could have gotten to the window to pull you out ... in 15 seconds! The hit that threw you across the vessel must have been the SAME hit experienced by the crew and everyone else on the boat, isn't it?

[DD] I can't comment upon what the crew or other passengers experienced. I was on the main cabin deck, most of the others were elsewhere. I'm sure we all suffered from the same "hits" although our differing locations may have resulted in our experiencing them in different ways.

[RFL] But in your original post "I'm still alive", you wrote, "Wave Dancer broke loose from its moorings and capsized. Sixteen passengers and three crew members are known dead, two passengers are still missing and presumed dead; The whole episode took about fifteen seconds." It wasn't at all clear what you meant by "the whole episode".

[DD] I apologize. My original post on the tragedy (from which you drew the above quote) was written immediately after I returned home from Belize. I was tired -- emotionally and physically -- and wanted only to post a brief advisory about the tragedy so that my friends on the list would have confirmation that I was alive and safe. I'm afraid my posting was incomplete on the details of the accident.

[DD] THEN we sat in the raft for approximately 30-45 minutes --

[RFL] That's still another piece of interesting new detail. What was the CREW doing all that time?

[DD] There were three crew members in the boat when I arrived. One additional crew member arrived at the raft by crawling out of the mangroves where he had been carried by the storm when Wave Dancer rolled. Another crew member (the Captain) swam to the raft from the other side of the overturned vessel. While in the raft we spent some time beating on the hull and listening for any response. We also called out, hoping others would hear us. We hung onto the capsized boat to avoid being blown off by the wind. The Captain left the raft at least twice to climb around the overturned hull to the other side in search of survivors, as did at least one other crew member.

[RFL] What happened NEXT, after you were blown off into the mangroves? :-) When were you actually rescued off the sea?

[DD] When our effort at paddling against the wind failed, the Captain left the raft and swam to the Belize Aggressor. He got them to launch their RIB and motor over to our location. They made two trips and returned all of the Dancer survivors to the Aggressor. Several crew members from both boats and a couple of passengers from Aggressor then donned scuba gear and returned to Wave Dancer to continue the search. They returned nine bodies before giving up for the night.

[RFL] This again differed somewhat from your original "15 second" and:  -- This was not an accident at sea. No one floated around in swirling waters awaiting rescue the next day. So, the passenger DID float around and got blown off ...

[DD] Not my meaning. No passenger floated around awaiting rescue. All surviving passengers and crew huddled together in a life raft, then attempted to paddle to safety and were defeated in that attempt by the wind, and were shortly thereafter rescued by the Aggressor crew in their RIB. The point of my statement quoted above -- apparently missed -- was that this was not a scene from "The Perfect Storm" or "Titanic" where individual passengers tossed around in life jackets on a roiling sea awaiting rescue from afar. We can quibble about the semantics: as I said we were not "at sea," we were in a river -- and a rather small one with no waves or current to speak of; we were "floating" in the sense that the life raft was afloat but we did not "float around" haphazardly; we only got "blown off" when we attempted to paddle out of what was a fairly stable situation to final safety. Had help not arrived, we could have eventually worked (paddled) our way along the fringe of the mangroves and back to the area of the dock.

[RFL] When did the Aggressor or anyone else KNOW about the capsized Wave  Dancer?

[DD] I do not know what anyone else knew or when they knew it. I was later told that during the height of the storm the passengers on the Aggressor boat were below decks in the cabin area and so could not see what was happening outside. I understand that there was a crew member on the bridge of the Aggressor boat during the storm, so he might have seen something -- although he may have been distracted when the window of the wheelhouse shattered or when Aggressor's own bow lines parted. There may have been crews on the other vessels tied up in Big Creek, and they may or may not have seen Wave Dancer go.

[RFL] Tell us more about what the CREW were doing during these 45 minutes. When and how were you finally rescued?

[DD] See my response above.

[DD] I am sorry for any confusion caused by my original statement. I hope this clears things up. My estimate of the quickness of the capsizing was intended to provide insight into the reason for so many deaths and the absence of life ackets on the passengers.

[RFL] Indeed, it clarified the picture considerably, for ME. But at the same time, it raised more questions. Have we ruled out the possibility that SOME passengers got out of the salon without any life jackets and were drowned some time during the next 45 minutes or until the rest of you were rescued?

[DD] I can not rule out anything. I was inside a flooded boat without light, trying to get out, and then I was with the others huddled in a raft in high winds and driving rain with diesel fuel in my eyes. I am told that only one body was found in the water; all the others were found either in the boat or in the mangroves. It seems unlikely to me that any of the passengers -- all of whom were divers, and therefore pretty good swimmers -- would have drowned while conscious and on top of the water in those conditions. Although the wind was raging, the water itself was quite calm below the storm. The crew who circled the overturned boat while we were in the raft returned with neither survivors nor bodies.

Then Mike Wallace wrote:

Based on two pieces of information that I have garnered from reading the reports of the incident. The boats were moored to a concrete dock. There was a storm surge that lifted the boats a considerable distance, as much as 18 feet has been reported, and then dropped it back down on the pier.

[DD] I have never said that the boat dropped onto the dock. I do not believe that that is what occurred. I did not feel anything that would correspond to the impact that one would expect from such a blow. If there was a storm surge it was not rapid, like a tidal wave. I have a very "tender" stomach -- I'm quite prone to motion-sickness -- and I would have noticed any sudden lifting or dropping of the vessel. Trust me! 8^(

[RFL] My reading on this is that the severity and suddeness of the storm surge was not anticipated and it resulted in the mooring lines breaking. When the boat dropped back down on the pier it flipped. This would, in my mind, correnspond with Dave's report of how quick this happened.

[MW] . . . except that Wind Dancer rolled over TO PORT. Under your scenario this would have rolled it up onto the dock to which it was moored, unless it had first broken completely free of its moorings and drifted away from the dock. In any case, had it rolled toward the dock it would have been rolling INTO the 140 mph wind -- unlikely given its high profile and the windage of her superstructure.

Keep thinking. This is getting interesting! -Dive safe [\], -Dave

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