It is important to understand that if any of the passengers aboard Wave Dancer were apprehensive about Hurricane Iris, their feelings were never publicly manifested.  I am certain that the overwhelming majority of divers were not concerned about the coming storm at this point in the trip, and they remained unconcerned right through dinner on Monday night. We were on vacation, and the Captain would see to it that we were kept out of harm's way if it became necessary. There was no sense of impending doom.
Dave DeBarger

On Saturday, October 6th, Tropical Storm Iris develops into Hurricane Iris. She claims three lives in the Dominican Republic, and injures others in Jamaica. Weather advisories are regularly being issued by the National Hurricane Center in Miami. Maritime operators across the Caribbean are monitoring the progress of the storm and taking appropriate action to prepare for it.

Saturday, Oct. 6th

11:35 am

30 members of the Richmond Dive Club arrive in Belize City and are met by representatives from Peter Hughes and the Belize Aggressor. Ray Mars arrives on a later flight and on a different airline, having used frequent flier miles to make the trip.

All are taken to the Radisson Fort George where they relax by the pool, shop, or dine until they are able to board the boats.

3:00 pm

NHC Advisory 9

4:00 pm

Twenty RDC members board the M/V Wave Dancer. Ten club members board the Belize Aggressor III along with eight other divers. The passengers are escorted to their staterooms where they begin to settle in for the weeklong adventure.

As Bart Stanley helps Mary Lou Hayden carry her gear to her cabin, he mentions Hurricane Iris. It is only then that she becomes aware of the brewing storm.

5:30 pm

The Belize Aggressor departs first from the harbor at Belize City. Despite an agreement that the two boats would run together, this is the last time the passengers on board the Wave Dancer see their fellow club members until they dock at Big Creek Harbor.

The Wave Dancer motors toward Lighthouse Reef shortly after the Aggressor leaves. Prior to departure, Wave Dancer Captain Philip Martin is given clear instructions by Captain Alan Cull of Peter Hughes Diving Inc. to closely monitor Tropical Storm Iris.

6:00 pm

NHC Advisory 9A

6:30 pm

Dinner is served, and an orientation slide show is presented. After dinner, the passengers relax and unpack. Most are tired from their long trip from Virginia and retire early. In Dave DeBarger's words:

There was no significant level of discussion about the hurricane.

9:00 pm

NHC Advisory 10

11:00 pm

The Wave Dancer arrives at Lighthouse Reef and anchors for the night. Most passengers are asleep,  eager to begin diving the next morning. The Belize Aggressor is nowhere in sight.

12:00 am

NHC Advisory 10A

Sunday, Oct. 7th

6:00 am

NHC Advisory 11A

8:30 am

Passengers make two dives at Half Moon Caye.

9:00 am

NHC Advisory 12

12:00 pm

Lunch is served during a surface interval and the boat moves to Long Caye. It arrives at the new location at 1:00 pm.

NHC Advisory 12A

The National Emergency Management Organization of Belize (NEMO) declares a Hurricane Watch for the northern part of Belize.

Dave DeBarger states:

We were not aware of this, nor of any declaration by NEMO during this time. I do not recall hearing the name "NEMO" while aboard Wave Dancer.

2:00 pm

Passengers enjoy another dive. Several opt for a second dive at the site. Everyone is out of the water by 4:00 pm to rest and relax before dinner.

Captain Martin claims to be in frequent contact with Peter Hughes Diving in Miami and Belize City. However, 2nd Captain Frank Wouters tells passengers that once the Wave Dancer reaches Lighthouse Reef it is out of radio range. He also tells them that the satellite phone on board is unreliable.

3:00 pm

NHC Advisory 13
5:44 pm

NEMO extends the Hurricane Watch southward to include the Stann Creek and Toledo districts of Belize. NEMO advises the public to begin evacuating coastal areas.

6:00 pm

NHC Advisory 13A

7:00 pm

Captain Martin addresses the passengers during dinner, stating that Iris' projected path had shifted more to the south, and that as a precaution he was going to take Wave Dancer to a "hurricane hole" until the storm passed.

He says that he hopes to be able to get a planned morning dive in at the Blue Hole, but that afterward the boat would be heading back.  He offers the passengers two options: debarking at Belize City and waiting out the storm at the Radisson, or remaining with the boat and going to Big Creek.

After a brief discussion, the passengers unanimously agree that they would stay with the boat. After this conversation, Christy, in her capacity as the Trip Leader, went to each passenger privately and asks again if they wish to stay with the boat.  All passengers affirm the decision.

The consensus of the passengers is: "If the boat is safe, we will be safe. This boat has weathered storms in this area before, and they're not going to put the boat anywhere where it will be in danger, so we'll stay with the boat."

Bart Stanley, one of the Wave Dancer's dive masters, and the three female crewmembers confront Captain Martin about the weather reports, the evacuation, and request that they return to Belize City. The discussion becomes heated and several passengers overhear Martin's refusal to accept Stanley's recommendation.

At the same time, Captain Jerry Schnabel is informing the Aggressor passengers about the southerly movement of the hurricane. He weighs anchor and directs his boat back to Belize City.

8:00 pm

Passengers are offered a night dive, Over half the passengers make the dive. Those who do return to the boat full of enthusiasm, many feeling that it was one of the best, if not the best, night dive they had ever done.  It was a beautiful night, the water was calm and the marine life on the reef was abundant.

8:37 pm

NEMO declares that a Hurricane Warning is now in effect for the entire country of Belize and mandates that the public to evacuate coastal areas no later than first light the next day.

9:00 pm

NHC Advisory 14

The Wave Dancer leaves Long Caye and moves to a protected mooring site inside the Lighthouse Reef atoll for the night.

12:00 midnight

NHC Advisory 14A

The Aggressor arrives back in Belize City Harbor but Captain Schnabel does not disembark his passengers. Instead, he takes on fuel and moves the boat and passengers to Big Creek Harbor.

Monday, Oct. 8th

6:00 am

NHC Advisory 15A

Wave Dancer kitchen crew Brenda Wade, Eloisa Johnson and Angela Luk monitor the radio as they prepare to serve breakfast to the passengers. They learn of the mandatory evacuation of the coast and that Iris is closing in on them. Eloisa Johnson phones her sister, stating that the Captain Martin will not listen to the Belizeans appeals to go ashore, and the call is abruptly cut off.

Several passengers on the Wave Dancer are awakened by the sound of a helicopter over the boat. It is the British Army, signaling the boat to pull anchor and head back to Belize City: "Hurricane. Seek Shelter". Hurricane Iris is heading directly for the boat at 22 mph.

NEMO declares that Belize is now under a Red II Hurricane Warning for the entire country. Forecasters predict Iris will make landfall later that day in southern Belize.

6:30 am

Captain Martin fires the engines and heads to Big Creek Harbor, south of Placencia in the Stann Creek district.

9:00 am

NHC Advisory 16

The Belize Aggressor arrives at Big Creek Harbor and proceeds to dock.

10:00 am

Tony Zabaneh, stockholder in the dock and Council Chairman of nearby Independence village drives to the dock to speak with Aggressor’s captain. He offers transportation and shelter to those aboard the boat.

Schnabel gathers the Aggressor passengers together to advise them of Zabaneh’s offer. He gives them the choice of staying on board or seeking shelter inland, but states that they will be safer on board the boat. The passengers decide to stay aboard.

In Miami, Peter Hughes Diving is contacting family members of the crew by phone to inform them that their loved ones are safe and that the Wave Dancer is implementing its hurricane contingency plan.

On board the Wave Dancer the passengers are satisfied with their decision to ride out the storm.  In Dave DeBargers word: "Had we disembarked in Belize City - we would now be taking a long, hot ride over unpaved streets to the interior city of Belmopan, with no certainty of any available hotel accommodations there."

Glenn Prillaman obtains a NOAA chart of the Caribbean, tapes it to the television in the salon, and begins to track the movements of both the Wave Dancer and Hurricane Iris from data spit out by the weather fax.

11:00 am

NEMO issues a warning that Hurricane Iris will make landfall that evening between Dangriga and Monkey River. Big Creek Harbor is located between these locales. NEMO reiterates a mandatory evacuation order for these areas.

Information continues to pass from the bridge to the passengers. The weather fax strips indicate that Iris is projected to make landfall somewhere north of Belize, although as the day progresses the projected 'target area' is steadily moved further south.

Dave DeBarger states:

We never saw any report predicting landfall further south than Dangriga. If (there is) documentation to the contrary, then there is a conflict between the NEMO warning and the weather fax transmissions. The last weather fax that I saw came through at 1:00 pm. The 3:00 pm fax was garbled and un-readable.

Mary Lou Hayden states:

I was in the salon all day, trying to stay out of the sun. There were faxes which were difficult to read, other than the trajectory of the storm.  There was no sense of danger from the crew

12:00 pm

NHC Advisory 16A

Eloisa Johnson calls her sister again, expressing her fear of the impending storm and the Captain's disregard for it. She also calls her boyfriend.

Angela Luk telephones her brother to tell him the boat is docking at Big Creek and to send her boyfriend there to pick her up.

Bart Stanley packs his things, preparing to leave with Luk when Wave Dancer reaches Big Creek Harbor.

Note: the following photographs, believed to be taken by Cindy Pike, were found aboard the Belize Aggressor after the accident.

3:00 pm

NHC Advisory 17

Wave Dancer arrives at Big Creek Harbor.

Upon its arrival, Captain Martin finds the "hurricane hole" already full of boats, also seeking shelter from the impending storm.

There is little room at the dock and the Belize Agressor is already moored at the end, facing into the river.

Captain Martin asks Captain Schnabel to move the Aggressor forward to allow him to squeeze the Wave Dancer between the Aggressor and a tug boat behind it.

Captain Schnabel refuses, and backs the Aggressor up instead.

Martin pulls the Wave Dancer alongside the dock in front of the Aggressor.

This proves to be a fatal mistake. The space is too small and over 50 feet of the Wave Dancer’s bow protrudes out into the river, now exposed to current and tidal surge.

Thomas Baechtold pilots a Zodiac ahead of Wave Dancer into Big Creek. When Captain Martin ties up the boat, Baechtold drives the Zodiac alongside the Wave Dancer in the open water along the port (dock) side, and asks Captain Martin if he was really "planning to leave the boat in that position?"

Baechtold is surprised when Martin answers in the affirmative.

3:30 pm

Angela Luk leaves the boat. Bart Stanley receives a phone call from his brother notifying him that his family were safely evacuated to Belmopan. Stanley tells his brother he has decided to stay aboard Wave Dancer with the two Belizean women because they are frightened.

Dave DeBarger:

I saw Angela Luk leave Wave Dancer.  She was obviously upset and angry.  I was told by Captain Wouters at the time that Luk had been refused permission to depart, and had been told that if she left she could not come back.

Mary Lou Hayden:

Prior to Angela leaving, I saw her, Eloisa and Brenda on someone's cell phone. I did not hear clearly what they were saying, but they were animated and upset. I watched Angela stomp off the boat.

Wave Dancer passengers are never informed that evacuation is an option. It is unknown whether Captain Schnabel relayed any information about Tony Zabaneh's offer of transportation and shelter to Captain Martin.

4:00 pm

Clouds begin to build in the sky.

Wave Dancer passengers watch from the deck as a local crew of laborers drive forklifts, moving stacks of pallets from the dock into a warehouse.

Aggressor crewmembers secure loose objects on deck, check and double-check lines. Life jackets are pulled out of storage and made ready.

Wave Dancer passengers mingle with their Aggressor friends, ride a bicycle and stroll the dock. There was considerable visiting back and forth among passengers on the two boats; friends who had not seen each other since leaving the dock in Belize City on Saturday.

Dave DeBarger:

There was much boasting: "Our boat's better than your boat,"  that kind of thing. Lots of showing off of cabins and ship's amenities. If anyone was worried about a hurricane striking, it wasn't evident.

Passengers from both boats notice that the mooring arrangement for the Wave Dancer seems inconsistent with the mooring of the other boats at the dock and express concern to 2nd Captain Frank Wouters. He replies that their mooring technique is adequate.

Dave DeBarger:

I can't speak for anyone else, but I did call the attention of Captain Wouters to a particular line that had been fastened from Wave Dancer to a piece of reinforcing rod embedded in the concrete dock. The line in question had been run in such a way that it would inevitably chafe on the concrete of the dock, which I was taught is poor seamanship. Captain Wouters responded that I should not worry, and implied that the line in question was not an important one in the overall mooring plan.  I also noted (but did not further complain) that the bow and stern triple mooring lines appeared to be of different materials and of different lengths which, again, I had been taught is poor seamanship.

5:00 pm

Having prepared their boar for the ensuing storm, the Aggressor passengers spend the rest of the afternoon in the salon watching James Bond movies. They are given dinner and directed by Schnabel to collect shoes, flashlights, dive knives, the bare necessities one might need in an emergency.

No such briefing or preparation is taking place on board the Wave Dancer.

Dave DeBarger:

It is true that no special preparations were made aboard Wave Dancer, other than to stow most diving gear in our cabins and to tie down the BCDs and tanks on the dive deck. The deck chairs were stacked and loose items packed away, but the canvas Bimini top on the Sun Deck was not removed.

Mary Lou Hayden:

There was no alarm or briefing. Just 'a storm-front-like line of thunderstorms' would pass through quickly. Captain Wouters ate (dinner) at the table beside us, with Christy and a couple of others.  Captain Wouters suggested at dessert that it would get 'a little rough' outdoors, so if we needed to use the head or go to our cabins, 'better now than later'.  He and Buddy Webb offered to escort us down the steps and across the deck because of the wind and rain.  I did not return to the Salon, but the other women except Cheryl Lightbound did.

Hurricane Iris’ eye is now 20 miles northeast of the Big Creek Harbor Wave Dancer and headed directly for it.


NHC Advisory 17A issued at 6:00 pm:

Landfall of extremely dangerous Hurricane Iris only hours away. Preparations to protect life and property in the hurricane warning area should have been completed.

Captain Philip Martin’s Statement to IMMARBE
For the M/V Wave Dancer Casualty Investigation

"our guests did ask me information with regards to the weather forecast in the light of the tropical depression… (Iris had been upgraded to a hurricane by the National Hurricane Center in Miami by the time the Wave Dancer left port)

…and I gave them the weather fax print out and discussed with the guests the possibility of going to the Blue Hole on the following morning (Monday, October 8th) because the forecast predicted the hurricane to arrive in the Belize border/Yucatan on Wednesday/Thursday 10th/11th. (In fact, when this conversation occurred on Sunday at dinnertime, the NHC had issued a Hurricane Watch for the entire coastline of Belize, and advised that it would soon be upgraded to a Warning.)

At about 14:00 hours, I called the national weather service Hurricane Centre in Miami from the satellite phone and asked for the predicted tract and current location of Iris. I was given 6 hours projection of Iris for the next 3 days, which showed Iris heading to the Mexican Yucatan peninsula. (NHC Hurricane Iris Advisory 12A, issued at noon that day, did indicate that Iris was tracking toward the Yucatan Peninsula.)

I shared with the guests this information. Thereafter, I checked the weather fax at about 16:00 hours and established that Iris’ landfall was still projected for the Mexican Yucatan on Tuesday, October 9th, 2001. (NHC Bulletin 13, issued at 3:00 pm, indicates that Hurricane Iris could hit Belize City, and that a Hurricane Watch was now in effect for Honduras, the country immediately to the south of Belize.)

Thereafter, according to the other steward staff (catering staff) they had heard on Belize radio that San Pedro was being evacuated on that evening and they expressed concern for their families. (NHC Advisory 13A, issued at 6:00 pm, declared that a Hurricane Watch was in effect for the southern part of Belize and northern part of Honduras.)

During the course of the afternoon, I requested Christy McNeil, Group Leader, to conduct a poll as to whether or not to return to Belize City with a view to being accommodated ashore or stay on the boat and proceed South. The vote was unanimous to remain on the boat." (The request from Captain Martin came after dinner on Sunday evening. NHC Bulletin 14, issued at 9:00 pm, stated that a Hurricane Watch remained in effect for Belize southward to its border with Honduras.)

Hurricane Iris' location at 3:00 pm Belize time.


Associated Press
BBC News Online
Caribbean Diving Inc.
Debarger, Dave, Wave Dancer Passenger
Florida Today
Hayden, Mary Lou, Wave Dancer Passenger
Immarbe Report
“Into Harm’s Way”, Carl Hoffman,  National Geographic Adventurer, 10/2004
Miami Herald
National Hurricane Center
Richmond Times Dispatch
San Pedro Sun
Tom Stark Interview, CDNN
Virginian-Pilot, The
Wave Dancer Disaster:  Freak Accident or Criminal Negligence?, Lori Reed, Ambergris Caye

All contents of this site © 2005 Milly Armao, except where otherwise noted.