Belize Aggressor Passengers (RDC)

Robert Salvatori

A surviving member of the Richmond Dive Club remembers the storm, and his friends.
“The Boat Started Disintegrating”
Richmond Style Weekly
Interviewed by Laura Davis
10/15/01 3:28:26 PM

Software consultant Robert Salvatori, 41, is a member of Richmond Dive Club. He was on a dive trip in Belize when Hurricane Iris struck last week. Seventeen of the club’s divers and two crew members died.

I was on the Belize Aggressor. We were behind [the Wave Dancer], and they were in front of us at this dock. We did the normal preparation and got everyone ready.

When the storm hit, we decided we’d all go down below. So we all went down below and put on our life jackets and shoes and, you know, all our survival gear. That’s when we lost contact of the other boat — when we couldn’t see them anymore due to we didn’t have any windows out in front of us anymore.

The wind picked up — what they say was 140 miles an hour with gusts to about 180. … It picked up speed and kept picking up. It hit real hard and then it sort of died out afterwards.

The boat started disintegrating around us. We could hear things just ripping open. There were a lot of reports that our boat wasn’t damaged, but it really was. Water was pouring in above us in the front part of the boat. We felt something from the front — it turned out later to be the Wave Dancer — slammed into our bow and put a hole up in there and tore us up in the front as they slung back and forth, too. We stayed down there for a long time and the wind kept building and the boat kept groaning more and more.

Then there was this very intense pressure change. I don’t know how to describe it. It was like a vacuum, like someone just opened up a bottle and your ears just popped open. One of my ears is still closed due to it. I’ve been through a lot of hurricanes before and I’ve never had the pressure change remotely like this. So evidently we were sort of near the eye, like within 12 miles of it. We were coming close to the eye and things started to settle down a little bit.

The captain asked another instructor who was on the boat to come down and get me, but to be quiet because we didn’t want to have general panic on our boat. We went upstairs, and that’s when we were told that the Wave Dancer had capsized. Our crew knew that but the passengers didn’t — they stayed below. However, the winds were still probably about 80, 90 miles an hour at this time. So we were trying to get ready to try and do a rescue effort.

We could see the boat right near us upside down. So we did everything we could within our abilities to start preparing. We’re alive today because of our captain and crew, because they jumped on it. We were fortunate to get … a secured docking and to prepare our boat and our crew.

So when the storm hit, we all had life jackets on. We all had shoes because we knew there’d be a lot of glass in the area. We all had lights so that if we went in the water we’d be able to be found.

So we went outside; we went to go help the other boat. When we got over there, they started bringing people over. Glenn Prillaman was the first person over. I immediately yelled for my wife who’s a nurse. She started performing CPR on Glenn Prillaman. He evidently expired a while before. They performed CPR, we got oxygen out on him; we tried everything.

The people in our boat at this point are starting to realize what’s going on. The storm is lightening up a little bit. We think we’re in the eye, so we start trying to give comfort to those people, trying to get them warm clothes, towels. They were pretty, as you can imagine, keyed up. We started doing that and our guy took our boat over there. We had a dinghy. A crew member named Steven took that over there and he brought some people back. Unfortunately, from that point on, they were all expired. We didn’t know that. At this time we thought there was a lot of hope.

We sent our boat over there a second time, and the engine conked out and he went to pull on the cord and the cord broke. So we had to leave the boat there. So Steven and our crew member grabbed somebody he could find and swam them across the water.

[Dive club member] Dave Mowrer focused on the boat. He punched out windows and was reaching in there where he could but it was very dangerous, because you couldn’t see anything, because there was diesel fuel and oil everywhere. It was very slippery. He kept falling down on the boat and was cut up pretty bad. But he kept trying … trying to hear anything, any noise.

I saw bodies in the mangroves … so I started pulling people out of there. People would come by with little boats shuttling back and forth. I would help try and get the bodies up on these boats to go back. All the bodies seemed to be in the general area of the boat. So we just kept trying to work around the boat to do as much as we could do. The next day the British army showed up and they took over for us.

I lost some really good friends on that boat — my dive buddies, people I’d gone through all my classes with. We were pretty much a real tightknit group. Not only did we have monthly meeting, but we saw each other every week — a lot of us. A lot of us dove two or three times a week … together. We camped together. You know, just like the week before we all got out, a bunch of us, to dinner.

I’m personally meeting with a son of my buddy. He lost his mother and father in the event, and I want to go talk to him a little bit about what happened and kind of let him know his dad was enjoying himself beforehand.

The club will keep going on. It’s all about camaraderie and sharing and enjoying life, embracing life. That’s the key. I plan on diving as soon as possible.

Richmond Style Weekly

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