July 31, 2008

Passengers, Crew Fished From Sea After Abandoning Boat

CALABASH, N.C. _ An engine fire at sea Wednesday morning forced 26 passengers and crew members to jump from their charter-fishing boat into the ocean, where they clung to rubber life rafts and watched the burning boat sink until help arrived.

"I didn't know at the time if I was making the right decision," said captain Dan Manos of the Miss Calabash II, who ordered his passengers into the water. "But once I had been in the water five minutes, I looked at that boat and I knew I did the right thing."

The fishing charter departed from the Calabash Fishing Fleet's dock early Wednesday for a 12-hour trip. When they were about 18 miles southeast of the Little River inlet _ not even halfway to the first fishing spot _ Manos felt an unusual heat coming from inside the boat, he said.

He opened a hatch and flames shot out. He managed to radio another captain before ordering passengers to start jumping overboard.

"You could feel the fire on the back of your legs," said Manos, a captain of 30 years, adding that he was still wondering whether he could put out the flames himself even as he jumped. "I'll never quit thinking about it. I lost a boat."

In 70-foot deep water, the passengers bobbed in the light chop as they clung to tiny rubber rafts _ too small to accommodate all the passengers. Had any of the passengers begun struggling against the water, Manos said he would have put them in the raft's netted bottom, but he wanted to save that for a last resort.

Passengers variously estimated they were in the water between 10 and 30 minutes, Manos said, before captain Randy Elliott's sports fisher Fisher of Men showed up, just before 9:30 a.m. Elliott and his boat's passengers then pulled most of the floating people out of the water until another boat captain showed up to help with the remaining few.

"There were choppy seas, but we managed," Elliott said.

The Coast Guard launched helicopters from Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga., as well as two small boats from Georgetown, S.C., and two more from Oak Island, N.C., to help in rescue efforts, said Lt. Cmdr. Eric King. The passengers had all been taken safely aboard the fishing boats as the Coast Guard arrived.

"All the people, when they started getting to where they could see land, they were like a kid going to the fair," Manos said.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation, but the boat and its operators have a clean safety record, said Petty Officer Chris Harwood with the U.S. Coast Guard Station in Georgetown. King noted that Wednesday's distress call was made on the boat's VHF marine radio, highlighting the importance of carrying one.

Bob Taylor, owner of the Miss Calabash II, said he plans to send divers out to try to find the boat and see whether it is salvageable.

"She's an awesome little boat. She's built like a tank," Taylor said. "If the hull is still intact, that's my battleship. I'd love to have it back."

Though he said he was devastated by the loss of the boat, he praised Manos for getting the passengers off it safely. The company owns several other charter boats, Taylor noted.

"We got all the passengers and all the crew home safely," Taylor said. "I could care less about anything else."


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