Aggressor Passengers (RDC)
Don Trice and David Mowrer
BIG CREEK, Belize, Oct. 12
Sunday was perfect - great weather and friends and five unbelievable dives into Black Beauty and the Front Porch, two exotic reef areas off Belize that draw experienced divers from around the world.
They squeezed in as much fun as they could, knowing Monday's skies would be stormy.
Don Trice was one of 30 members of the Richmond Dive Club circling the waters of Belize early this week.
Late Wednesday, he was one of only 13 who returned - one of 13 who tried to rescue fellow dive buddies in the wake of the most intense storm any of them had ever seen. "After the eye of the storm had passed, we all went upstairs and looked for our friends on the other boat. That's when we saw - the Wave Dancer had capsized," he said. "We had to move."
They saved three.
A cool breeze settled over Big Creek on Monday morning when the Belize Aggressor docked. On board, 10 Richmonders and six other divers waited for their 20 friends on the MV Wave Dancer.
At that time, Hurricane Iris was believed to be headed toward Jamaica. The captains of both live-aboard boats knew the storm was just around the corner and decided the bay, about 80 miles south of Belize City, would be the best place to ride it out.
"The captain called it 'Hurricane Haven,'" Trice said.
The wind picked up.
A few Aggressor passengers got off the boat and walked around the dock until the Wave Dancer pulled up at 3 p.m. The boat moored behind the Aggressor, leaving the Wave Dancer more vulnerable if the storm should hit.
The Aggressor passengers returned to their boat and relaxed with James Bond movies until dinner was ready.
That's when reports began trickling in that the storm was, once again, headed toward Belize City. About a dozen other boats docked around them. One sought shelter in the thick mangroves lining the bay.
"No one seemed to really be concerned at that point," Trice said. "We were all happy and not too scared, but it didn't take too long before people started to panic."
The Aggressor divers ate tacos and fajitas, but most people didn't drink alcohol because they wanted to be ready in case of emergency. They prepared a mental list of the supplies they would need.
"The captain was keeping us posted just in case we needed to evacuate," Trice said. "They wanted us to have something packed - shoes, flashlights, dive knives - the bare necessities."
David Mowrer kept order among the divers. The 53-year-old former businessman, a diving instructor, had a plan.
"He told us to wear tennis shoes or boots, not sandals, because if we had to jump out, we needed to have good footing," Trice said. "Otherwise, you're basically barefoot the whole trip."
Meanwhile, the Wave Dancer passengers were eating a later dinner, at about 7 p.m., when debris began whipping through the air.
"We saw the rain coming and we knew it was about to hit," Mowrer said.
Everyone on the Aggressor stood on the deck as trees flattened near them and large, unrecognizable objects flew at them. They had docked next to a banana warehouse, and Mowrer asked workers to move dozens of pallets that were stacked outside, afraid the storm winds would toss them toward the two dive boats.
Passengers from both ships moved to the cabins below.
"It was so dark and you couldn't hear a thing. We were screaming at each other to make sure everybody had a life vest on and a flashlight in hand," Trice said. "From one end of the hall to the other, you couldn't hear a word. We stayed very still."
Some time after 8, the Aggressor divers heard a loud noise and thought it was a large piece of flying debris. It was the Wave Dancer - ripped free from its mooring lines by Iris' winds - smashing into their boat.
Minutes later, the storm lifted the Wave Dancer into the air and smashed it back into the water.
Mowrer was the first to climb to the main deck and survey the scene.
"Dave was so calm. He just came back down below and told everyone we needed to get moving," Trice said.
Mowrer, Trice and several others mobilized quickly.
"We had the Wave Dancer behind us, protecting us, as well as a tug boat and a building," Trice said. "They didn't have a thing."
Mowrer and Rob Salvatori, another Aggressor diver, paddled a dinghy around the bay to pick up Wave Dancer passengers floating in the water. They picked up the three survivors and three victims, including club president and founder Glenn Prillaman.
Mowrer and others tried for about 20 minutes to resuscitate Prillaman. They could not.
Seventeen of the 20 Wave Dancer passengers - all Richmond Dive Club members - were killed. Two of its five crew members also were killed.
The 10 club members on the Aggressor all made it.
"I put on my gear and tried to save as many people as I could," Mowrer said. "I found two crew members, three other people, but they were all bodies. No one was alive."
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