Child survives under capsized boat

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The 6-year-old was huddled in an air pocket in the cabin for 2-1/2 hours

The 6-year-old was huddled in an air pocket in the cabin for 2-1/2 hours

Rescue diver Kenneth McCracken feared the worst as he made his way through an overturned vessel in search of a missing 6-year-old boy.

Some 2-1/2 hours had passed since the 24-foot Wellcraft swamped and capsized in early June, tossing four adults into the James River in Newport News, Va. The adults were rescued quickly by a good Samaritan, but the boy — last seen napping in the cabin — was missing.

So McCracken was surprised to say the least when he finally made his way into an air pocket in the capsized boat and saw little Darrell Nelson, alive and well, staring back at him. Darrell was clutching a life jacket and was perched in the cabin with only his knees in the water.

“We thought that we were going to be retrieving somebody who was, unfortunately, dead because of the amount of time the boat was turned over in the water,” says McCracken. “You can imagine our pleasant surprise when we peeked underneath there, and he was alive.”

Darrell was on an outing June 5 with his aunt and uncle, Joseph and Eloise Harris, who own the Wellcraft. They also had two other nephews, Cedric Fearrington and Alberto Roman of New York, on board. The boat was anchored and the family was fishing for stripers around 5:30 p.m. when a swell came over the stern. The Harrises attempted to weigh anchor, but more water flooded the cockpit, and the boat quickly turned over.

Tom and Chris Clayton were fishing nearby and witnessed the capsizing. They quickly motored to the overturned vessel and helped the four adults, who weren’t wearing life jackets, into their boat. Darrell was nowhere to be found.

Lifeguards from nearby Huntington Beach paddled out in kayaks to help. The Newport News Fire Department was summoned, and the surrounding waters were searched, according to fire department spokeswoman Dana Perry. McCracken and three other department divers — D.C. Johnson, James Simonson and William Diggs — also were called in to search the capsized vessel.

Several attempts were made to enter the cabin, but divers couldn’t see in the murky water. Two attempts to right the vessel were unsuccessful, as well.

The Coast Guard called in a construction tender used to maintain wood pilings and waterway signs. The divers rigged the boat so the tender could lift it enough to let some light into the submerged cabin through the windows.

When McCracken emerged into the cabin in full dive gear, he says he and the boy were equally surprised to see each other. The diver says Darrell didn’t look frightened, but it took a few minutes to coax him out of his safe haven.

No one was injured, but Darrell and Eloise Harris, who was briefly knocked unconscious when the boat capsized, were taken to a hospital for observation.

Darrell became an instant celebrity and was featured on NBC’s “Today” show. With a beaming smile, Darrell insisted he wasn’t scared during the ordeal and is looking forward to going boating again.