Heather Johnston, daughter of Dr. Byron E. Johnston and Mrs. Shirley A. Johnston.
| The following is a copy of a letter sent
to the Editor of National Geographic after it published an article on
the Wave Dancer tragedy which was full of inaccuracies and
misinformation. Ms. Johnston's letter raises important, legitimate
questions about the circumstances surrounding her parents' deaths. It
is reprinted here with her permission.
National Geographic Adventure
104 West 40th St., 19th Fl.
New York, NY 10018
The National Geographic Adventure article "Into Harm's Way" by Carl Hoffman tells an unbelievable story: when the Wave Dancer capsized, 17 out of 20 passengers drowned, while 5 out of 8 crew members lived. What secrets did the crew hold, that the passengers were ignorant of?
Although Mr. Hoffman interviewed "more than 23 survivors, eyewitnesses, and crew members," I would like to remind you that none of the seventeen dead members of the Richmond Dive Club, including my parents, were available for comment. The only one of them personified in your article was Glen Prillaman, friend of survivor Dave DeBarger. Since my parents, Dr. and Mrs. Byron and Shirley Johnston, were listed in the Richmond Area phone book until August 22, 2003, I can only conclude that the author made no attempt to contact the families of the victims.
Nor, it would seem, did Mr. Hoffman bother to contact maritime safety officials responsible for the investigation of the accident.
That investigation report is almost two years late. Still, Mr. Hoffman naively wrote, "Even today long after the dead have been buried, and as the International Merchant Marine Registry of Belize prepares to release its report on the accident..." This promise sounds empty, when you read the 'Ambergris Today', a newspaper in Belize, dated November 1, 2001:
"Authorities have launched three separate investigations into the incident as well. The International Merchant Marine Registry of Belize (IMMARBE), which registered the Belize-flagged vessel is apparently leading the investigation. Over the next four months, a four-member team from IMMARBE will be conducting an intensive investigation. If the owners of the Wave Dancer are found to have been negligent in meeting safety/certification requirements, their Belize licenses could be withdrawn. The report is due by the end of January 2002."
We, the victims' families, are still waiting, while Peter Hughes continues to operate in Belize. If this report is indeed about to be released, this is wonderful news. I would appreciate it if you could send me a copy when it comes out.
Despite your "careful" research, including a trip to Belize, you seem to have missed the wealth of information available on the Cyber Diver News Network (CDNN) website: http://www.cdnn.info/special-report/wavedancer/wavedancer.html.
The site includes interviews with Teresa Mars, widow of Ray Mars and a fact-filled interview with Tom Stark, father of Aaron Stark. Aaron was the only American employee of Peter Hughes to drown when Iris capsized the Wave Dancer. This young American dive instructor wouldn't fit well into your embellished story of soft, naive and bourgeois American passengers vs. strong and sensible, but impoverished, third world Belizean employees. As an employee of Peter Hughes, Aaron (and his father) had very different information than the passengers of the Wave Dancer.
(In the year 2003, one would expect a good investigative reporter to try typing "Wave Dancer" into a search engine on the internet. The CDNN Special Report is in the first page of results by the popular search engine Google.com.)
Your article used a photo of the Wave Dancer, taken on the afternoon preceding the accident, which includes my father (top and center). This image comes from a collection that includes pictures of frayed and broken ropes, taken before and after the accident. My brother and I know something about ropes from rock climbing and we wouldn't trust those ropes to hold a poodle. The crew (not the passengers) tied up the boat to the dock. At Big Creek in the eye of the hurricane a dozen or more boats held fast through Hurricane Iris, while the Wave Dancer ropes snapped killing twenty people. I hope the rope photos will eventually see the light of day.
Your article is full of poor decisions made by the passengers aboard the Aggressor, but the only decision that Captain Martin allowed his passengers to make was whether to head for Belize City or Big Creek. At dinner time on Sunday evening, the Wave Dancer passengers were told that Hurricane Iris was headed south of its original destination in the Yucatan Peninsula and now headed straight for Belize City. Of course they voted to head for Big Creek, 80 miles south of Belize City.
According to the AP story by Karla Heusner, while the evacuation was optional in Belize City, officials said it was mandatory for some coastal towns farther south and for offshore cayes popular with tourists. During the night that the Wave Dancer inexplicably spent on Lighthouse Reef the weather reports became even more clear about the expected location of the hurricane's landfall. Yet this information was not passed on to Captain Martin's passengers on the Wave Dancer. According to Dave DeBarger, the last word my parents had on the hurricane was that it was headed for the Belize coast 50 miles north of their location.
My father's closest friends report that he was worried about the hurricane before he left Richmond, and when I arrived at my parents' house, to prepare for their funeral, I found a weather report for the Caribbean still sitting on my father's printer. (By the way this is funeral singular -- my parents were forced by circumstance to share a funeral as they had shared everything else in their 38 years of marriage -- which throws off your count of "17 funerals in six weeks.")
According to the CDNN report by Lori Reed, "At noon Belize time, still SEVEN HOURS before the hurricane slammed into Wave Dancer, they were still headed for Big Creek, a place that is located now a scant .5 degrees or 34 miles from the eye of this powerful hurricane. The national weather service was now also forecasting that. 'STORM SURGE FLOODING OF 13-18 FEET ABOVE NORMAL TIDE LEVELS...ALONG WITH DANGEROUS LARGE BATTERING WAVES...ARE LIKELY NEAR AND TO THE NORTH OF WHERE THE CENTER OF THE HURRICANE CROSSES THE COAST.'"
Did the fax aboard the Wave Dancer stop working, or did Captain Martin choose to keep this information to himself?
Tom Stark and Dave DeBarger report that Captain Martin lied to the Wave Dancer passengers and gave them outdated information.
This information, from a reliable source, contradicts hints and allusions made in the article.
According to Tom Stark, "We know that Captain Philip Martin was communicating with Miami while all this was playing out because I was personally called by Patricia Rose Monday [October 8, 2001] mid-morning and told by her that she had just spoken with the Captain, Philip Martin."
"Into Harms Way" depicts the living members of the Richmond Dive Club as soft, spoiled and afraid of the jungle and the "Third World." I admit that some of the members of the Richmond Dive Club whom you interviewed seem to fit this description.
You describe Dave DeBarger's "hurricane party" attitude in Big Creek. He is one person of many. I find it hard to imagine my parents participating in such activities, at their ripe ages of 58 and 60.
You would have been wise to learn about the deceased passengers and what they were like, before you wrote your article. Does your timid description suit my father, a former Smoke Jumper, born and raised in Montana?
My parents were high school sweethearts from Missoula, MT and my mother, Shirley Johnston, had been diving with the Richmond Dive Club for a few years. This was their first "live-aboard" trip. She was quite used to "third world'' conditions from her many previous trips with the club.
My father, Byron Johnston, excelled at smoke jumping, fly fishing and many other outdoor activities. He was not the least bit afraid of the cold hard ground, and he knew enough to grab the iodine from the first aid kit and hike inland carrying his wife if necessary. If necessary...
The passengers aboard the Wave Dancer were never told that the hurricane was headed straight for them. They were never informed of the evacuation order in effect for their location. They were not told about any concrete buildings on shore. Captain Martin never passed on to his passengers any of the information he received from Mayor Zabaneh, including the fact that Zabaneh was waiting on shore when the Wave Dancer arrived in Big Creek with a "Land Cruiser and a van to evacuate passengers."
Captain Martin's dis-information made it impossible for the Wave Dancer passengers to decide for themselves whether or not it was safe to remain aboard the boat during the hurricane.
I clearly remember Dave DeBarger, who kindly visited our family home during the week that we waited for the return of the bodies, saying that the last he heard before the accident was that the hurricane was headed 50 miles north of Big Creek. Tom Stark confirms Captain Martin's campaign of dis-information in his CDNN interview.
Since I learned on October 9, 2001 that my mother was dead and my father was missing, I have been reading and re-reading every published report of the accident. In my nightmares, I have often revisited the salon in which my parents died, wondering what their last moments were like. Your article was the first I learned that anyone made it out alive from the salon.
A former Water Aerobics Instructor, my mother still swam miles in the pool at age 58. Perhaps she wasted precious time trying to save my father. Perhaps she was simply unable to locate the nearest emergency exit. Perhaps a flying chair mercifully knocked her unconscious, so that her death was sudden and painless.
At age 31, I was executor of both my parents' estates. Even before my father's body had been found, I was asked by SOS International to choose a funeral home to collect both my parents' remains from the airport. All this happened within the short space of hours of my learning that the Wave Dancer had capsized. I did my best to make plans for a double funeral, difficult to plan as no one could tell me when the bodies would arrive. No one was even willing to give me an estimate. Would it be hours, days, weeks or months before the bodies returned to Richmond?
The United States was too busy invading Afghanistan to send a search and rescue crew to Belize. Our own government's embassy in Belize couldn't manage to find a refrigerated truck to transport the bodies from Big Creek, four hours over dirt roads in tropical heat, to Belize City, for examination by the country's only medical examiner. Upon arrival in Belize City, my father was so badly decomposed that his body was unidentifiable to his former dive buddies.
We faxed dental records to Belize City and then waited a very long 36 hours for confirmation that the body in question was indeed my father's. It took a week for the bodies to be shipped back to Richmond for funeral services.
When the bodies finally arrived in Richmond, we visited the Cremation Society of Virginia to choose urns for my parents' remains. We were given my father's wedding ring and his wallet that had been transported back to Richmond with his body. During the long days when my father's status was "unidentifiable" his wallet was in his pocket the whole time! Yet no one had bothered pass this important piece of information on to the grieving family.
(By the way, no personal effects were returned with my mother's body, and so I imagine her plain gold wedding band was stolen off of her dead body while it lay unattended in the hot sun on the dock in Big Creek.)
The State Department representative I dealt with was reading me updates from the Washington Post! It seems like the newspapers should have been getting their information from the United States Embassy in Belize and not the other way around.
During the long months immediately following my parents' deaths our family received absolutely no communication from Peter Hughes that did not come through his lawyers. We did receive our share ($500 per dead body) of the $10,000 fund set up by Peter Hughes and the Diver's Alert Network (DAN). I had understood that Peter Hughes made an initial donation to the fund, which was then added to by the public. I am very confused as to why the final sum was an even $10,000. I wonder what a good investigative reporter might find if he chose to research Peter Hughes relationship with the diving organizations PADI and DAN in general, and this fund for the families of the victims in particular?
Since Peter Hughes Diving refused to speak with us after our parents' deaths, we sued them in an attempt to find out the truth. Because the Belize government failed to aid in the investigation and because Mr. Hughes had made sure it would be nearly impossible to "pierce his corporate veil,'' we had to settle out of court to have any hope of justice.
Although Mr. Hughes claims "The Wave Dancer tragedy cost us a fortune," every cent was paid for by his $5 million insurance policy with Lloyds of London. His actual worth is much greater than that one boat. (His corporate veil involves individual boats being their own separate, limited-liability corporation. So, if a horror like the Wave Dancer occurs, Hughes can avoid any financial loss that might affect his other boats such as the Sun Dancer now operating in Belize.)
Since we didn't go to trial, we didn't get many answers. We did get the satisfaction of knowing that a former judge agreed with us, that Peter Hughes is guilty under Virginia law.
After $1 million was spent to re-float the Wave Dancer, the remaining $4 million was divided amongst the estates of the 20 deceased. That's an average of $200,000 per dead body or a net of $133,333 after the lawyers took their cut. Not a lot, when you consider the true value of life and family, and are shocked into awareness by the number of couples Richmond lost in one night.
It will take a lot more than that for Peter Hughes to buy my silence.
Heather Johnston, PhD.
Department of Mathematics, Vassar College
Daughter of Byron and Shirley Johnston
All contents of this site © 2005 Milly Armao, except where otherwise noted.