Survivors! - Soundings Online

Survivors!

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Here are 10 amazing survival stories from the last two years. Hang on to your seat.

Here are 10 amazing survival stories from the last two years. Hang on to your seat.

Robert Lambe Jr.

With no life jacket or survival gear, Robert Lambe Jr. clung to a piece of wood and prayed for rescue after his 40-foot fishing vessel capsized and sank about 80 miles off Bermuda.

Weary and hypothermic, the 35-year-old commercial fisherman was plucked from the Atlantic by the Navy hospital ship USS Comfort more than 18 hours later. Lambe, who is from Bermuda, credits years of recreational scuba diving and his physical conditioning routine — as well as prayer — for keeping him alive.

“I just hung on for dear life on top the piece of wood that I was on, and just tried to relax and stay as calm as possible,” Lambe said in an interview with CNN.

Lambe’s two crewmembers, both lifelong friends, died in the Jan. 7, 2003, accident. The trio had set out in Lambe’s New Nuts II to locate an abandoned yacht in hopes of salvaging it. Conditions were dicey but nothing that the veteran fishermen felt he couldn’t handle.

The three men were in the cabin planning their return after a fruitless day of searching. Around 6:30 p.m. Lambe was at the helm when a rogue wave slammed New Nuts on the beam. She rolled and quickly filled with water. Lambe managed to free himself from the boat and swim to the surface. He never saw his friends again.

“My two crewmembers were an arm’s length away from me when I saw waves above the window,” he was quoted as saying. “It all happened really fast. … Before I knew it the boat was upside down.”

Lambe tried to hold on to the overturned hull, but New Nuts sank in about 20 minutes. Lambe found a piece of wood floating nearby, perhaps debris from the vessel, and clung to it with all his strength. He was rolled throughout the night, yet he never lost his grip.

Luckily, New Nuts’ EPIRB transmitted a signal. A Coast Guard C-130 launched from Air Station Elizabeth City, N.C., about 2:45 a.m. Jan. 8 located the source of the signal. An unused life raft canister, seat cushion and life jacket were found in the area of the EPIRB transmission. The winds were westerly at 35 to 40 knots, and seas were 15 feet.

A second C-130 relieved the first later that morning, and around noon the relief crew located Lambe. They dropped a survival package and an inflatable life raft (see photo above) which Lambe was able to climb into.

The USS Comfort had a few days earlier departed Baltimore, en route to the Middle East, and was diverted to the scene. Comfort’s crew found Lambe in the life raft and in relatively good condition, despite the hours he spent in the 66-degree water.

* * * * *

Melinda Lopez

Melinda Lopez was climbing a ladder at the stern of a 76-foot shrimp boat last October when she slipped and fell — unnoticed by her fellow crewmembers — into the Gulf of Mexico.

Lopez, 32 years old and the cook aboard the shrimper Ike and Zack, swam for 13 hours through the night until she reached an abandoned oil platform. She set up a series of innovative distress signals to alert rescuers and passing ships of her plight. Lopez was rescued nearly 27 hours after she fell off the shrimper, and rescuers credit her survival to her perseverance and forethought.

Lopez’s ordeal began around 4 p.m. Oct. 7. A mother of three from Palacios, Texas, she was on break and wanted to read a book at the stern. She caught her shoe climbing the ladder, fell into the water and was pulled under.

“When I came up I was about 200 yards away from the boat,” recalled Lopez.

She screamed and waved her arms, but she wasn’t heard.

Lopez started to swim for another shrimp boat nearby, but that boat also got under way before she could reach it. Darkness fell, and Lopez thought she may have been swimming in circles. Still, she kept at it, alternating strokes and taking frequent breaks by floating on her back. She panicked briefly when a large fish bumped her.

Finally, Lopez spied the lights of an oil rig in the distance.

When she finally reached the platform — about seven miles southwest of where she had fallen into the water — Lopez was able to grab onto one of the supports. Waves buffeted her, but she didn’t let go. Exhausted, Lopez could barely climb the ladder.

“I don’t even know how I got up the ladder, I was so tired,” she said.

She collapsed, vomiting and crying, when she reached the rig’s first level. Lopez knew her ordeal wasn’t over.

“I didn’t want to die on that platform,” she said.

When she regained some strength, Lopez searched the platform and found a blanket, a first aid kit, some chips and beef jerky. She also found water bottles in the trash and sipped what was left in them.

The survivor continued scrounging to find anything that would help her attract the attention of passing ships. She painted “SOS” on the platform’s helicopter landing pad, set adrift life jackets she found with distress messages, and tied long pieces of bright yellow caution tape to trash bags, wrapping the bitter end around the platform’s rails and dangling the bags over the side. She also triggered a security alarm, hoping the noise and flashing lights would attract attention.

“I was just thinking of everything I could do to survive,” Lopez said.

Around 8:30 a.m. Oct. 8, the Ike and Zack crew realized Lopez was missing and contacted the Coast Guard. An HH-65 Dolphin helicopter from Air Station Houston was launched, along with the cutters Heron and Typhoon and an HU-25 Falcon jet from Air Station Corpus Christi.

The helicopter crew spotted Lopez and the “SOS” around 6:30 p.m. She was sunburned, had cuts and abrasions, and was in shock. But she was alive.

* * * * *

Rivano Cabenda

A 12-year-old South American boy who was swept out of a wooden fishing boat grabbed a piece of driftwood and survived five days without food or water.

“It was cold, and I was tired and thirsty, but I did not drink the salt water,” Rivano Cabenda of Suriname told the Associated Press.

Cabenda and his uncle were fishing in Suriname’s CoppenameRiver in May 2003 when a breaking wave smashed their 26-foot fishing boat. The uncle was found a few hours later clinging to a wooden post, but he feared the worst for his nephew, who was holding the driftwood in the swift-moving river.

Cabenda was carried out to sea and first landed on a desolate shore 94 miles up the coast in Guyana. After spending the night on the beach, he was frightened by a wildcat and took to the sea again with his piece of wood.

Fishermen found the boy the following day as he drifted near shore. He was sunburned, dehydrated and had a gash on his foot.

* * * * *

Warren Steiner

Warren Steiner’s 22-foot Angler sank so fast that he didn’t have time to grab a radio or PFD from the cuddy cabin.

Steiner was a few miles off New JerseyAug. 12, 2002, when his boat was swamped in 4-foot seas. “I was drift fishing with the engine off when the boat turned stern-to and began taking on seas over the transom,” he said.

Steiner stayed afloat by holding a cooler for 20 hours until he was rescued.

“I couldn’t believe how fast it sank,” he said. “Before I knew it, [the boat] was gone and the cooler popped up to the surface with the lid intact. I had my cell phone, but that got wet.”

Steiner, a 46-year-old heavy equipment operator from Lanoka Harbor, N.Y., swam to the cooler and held the lid tightly to his chest, wrapping his arms around it. A party of anglers passed nearby but apparently didn’t see Steiner or hear his calls for help.

Steiner was swept north about five miles in a 25-knot southerly. At one point he could see lights from Seaside Heights, N.J. He started kicking toward shore, but the tide took him out again. During the night, Steiner felt a big fish brush up against him. His legs were cramping and turning numb from the cold water.

Meanwhile, Steiner’s family had notified authorities. Helicopters from Air Station Atlantic City, N.J., a C-130 rescue plane form Air Station Elizabeth City, N.C., an HU-25 rescue jet from Air Station Cape Cod, Mass., and rescue boats from Station Barnegat Light and Manasquan Inlet searched 14 hours for the overdue angler.

Despite the effort, it wasn’t the Coast Guard that found Steiner. The following day, William Filce was fishing for fluke in his 25-footer and spotted the cooler floating in the water. “He said he thought I was a Sunfish [sailboat] and came over to investigate,” said Steiner.

Filce pulled Steiner on board with the cooler and alerted the Coast Guard to call off the search.

“He told me, ‘People are out looking for you,’ ” said Steiner. “I said, ‘God bless you.’ I couldn’t feel my legs.”

* * * * *

Capt. David Shoemaker

As fire rapidly spread throughout the 180-foot commercial fishing vessel Galaxy, Capt. David Shoemaker raced around, shouting out orders to abandon ship and handing out life jackets.

“Everything was happening really quickly,” says Shoemaker, a 23-year veteran who demonstrated courage and leadership despite burns and broken ribs.

The Galaxy had been steaming toward one of its longline sets in the Bering SeaOct. 20, 2002, when there was a fiery blast in the engine room. Winds were blowing from the north at about 40 knots with freezing spray, and waves were estimated at 30 feet. Water temperature was in the low 40s.

While crewmembers deployed life rafts and donned survival suits, Shoemaker made his way to the wheelhouse, which was engulfed in flames, to send a distress signal. However, the radios and navigation equipment were melting from the intense heat, and thick, dark smoke poured out the windows. Shoemaker was overcome by fumes; he fell to his knees and vomited.

Shoemaker knew his crew’s chances of survival in the cold waters near Alaska’s Pribilof Islands were slim unless rescuers knew the ship was in distress and where. He left the wheelhouse and headed for his stateroom, where he kept two hand-held VHF radios. The room ignited as he opened the door, tossing Shoemaker against the wall. His shirt caught on fire and his shoulder, seared by the flames, stuck to the wall.

“I’m trying desperately to get to those radios,” he said.

Shoemaker fled the stateroom and returned to the wheelhouse. He located two survival VHFs and radioed a brief mayday. He alerted authorities about the explosion, gave the ship’s location, and told them the crew was abandoning ship. Shoemaker then climbed atop the burning wheelhouse to survey his crewmembers, who were split by the fast-moving fire, and tossed down more survival suits.

Another explosion knocked Shoemaker nearly 20 feet to the top foredeck, breaking three of his ribs in the fall. He tried grabbing a rail on the way down, but it was hot and seared his skin. “It was like bacon sizzling,” he said. His pants caught on fire, burning his abdomen.

Trapped on the foredeck, Shoemaker and two others made their way to the bow to escape the encroaching flames.

A Coast Guard cutter and three aircraft, along with three fishing vessels, rushed to the stricken ship. A rescue swimmer was put into the water after it was deemed too risky to lower a rescue basket to the ship’s deck. One by one the trapped Galaxy crewmembers leapt into the water, where the swimmer assisted with the basket. Crews from the fishing vessels Blue Pacific, Glacier Bay and Clipper Express also plucked crewmembers from the sea.

Twenty-three people were rescued — some in life rafts, others clutching life rings and other items. Three died. Shoemaker, the most seriously injured, was the last to be rescued.

The Coast Guard honored Shoemaker and his crew, the crews of the other fishing vessels and rescue swimmer Jason Quinn for their heroism. If not for the quick actions by Shoemaker and crew, as well as the effective rescue efforts, the Coast Guard says the Galaxy fire could have been one of the worst disasters in recent U.S. maritime history.

* * * * *

Richard Van Pham

A 62-year-old sailor survived nearly four months adrift after his sailboat was dismasted in a storm during a routine 22-mile voyage from Long Beach, Calif., to Catalina Island.

Richard Van Pham survived on fish, sea birds and turtle meat, and rainwater caught in a 5-gallon bucket until he was rescued by the Navy frigate USS McClusky 350 miles off Costa Rica.

Van Pham, a Vietnamese refugee who came to this country in 1976, told authorities he had set out in May 2002 aboard his Columbia 26, Sea Breeze. He lost his rig in a storm, and the outboard and radio both failed.

Van Pham caught fish and ate only part of his catch, saving bits to put on the cabin top to attract gulls, which he killed with a club. He also netted a sea turtle, rigged a block-and-tackle to hoist it aboard, and salted the meat to preserve it. He cooked the birds and turtle over a fire fueled by wood scavenged from Sea Breeze.

The crew of an Orion P-3 Customs aircraft on counter-narcotics duty spotted Sea Breeze adrift. The McClusky, on drug patrol 40 miles away, checked out the drifting sailboat.

“It was in pretty bad shape,” said Cdr. Gary Parriott, commanding officer of the McClusky. “It obviously had been at sea awhile.”

The mast had snapped about 10 feet off the deck, the jury-rigged sail was tattered, and the gasoline was laced with water. Van Pham carried neither charts nor a GPS receiver.

Parriott sent a 24-foot RIB and a rescue party to look for survivors. He said Van Pham came out of the cabin and started waving at them.

“He was in unbelievably good shape,” said Parriott. “My corpsmen were amazed. He had no dehydration, no malnutrition. He’d lost 40 pounds, but he caught enough food and collected enough rainwater to stay healthy.”

Reluctant to leave his boat — his home, said Parriott — Van Pham eventually agreed to board the McClusky and allow the Navy to scuttle the battered vessel.

Parriott said Van Pham told them he had cruised alone before to Central and South America. “He was used to spending a lot of time on the boat by himself,” Parriott said. “I think this played a huge factor in his ability to survive.”

* * * * *

David DeBarger

David DeBarger thought to himself, “Is this how it’s going to end?”

Seventeen Virginia scuba divers and three crewmembers drowned in Belize when their dive-charter boat tore loose from its dock and capsized in a Category 4 hurricane in October 2001.

DeBarger, a 57-year-old diver, was one of just eight survivors, including five crewmembers, who managed to swim from the overturned 120-footer.

DeBarger was in Wave Dancer’s main cabin helping tape windows when the boat flipped.

“First thing I knew, we were upside down and the boat was filling with water,” DeBarger said in an interview shortly after the incident. “[Fellow diver] Rick Patterson and I were going after our life jackets in our cabins. Then the bunks were vertical and the mattresses were rolling off them. It was so dark I couldn’t see anything.”

DeBarger’s air space disappeared as the cabin filled with water. “I finally ran out of air space completely, and I was underwater,” he said. “After a couple of kicks, I realized I wasn’t going anywhere.”

Holding his breath, DeBarger swam toward a light and through a sliding door, where a glass window had been kicked out by Patterson. He escaped and climbed into a life raft with other survivors.

The Richmond Dive Club had chartered the aluminum monohull Wave Dancer, along with another boat. With news that Hurricane Iris was heading toward Belize, the boats headed two miles inland and tied up at a dock in a recognized hurricane hole in Big Creek.

* * * * * 

James Kennedy and crew

The hunters nearly became the hunted when four shark fishermen were left floating in a chum slick after their 20-foot center console sank in the Atlantic 17 miles northeast of Fort Pierce, Fla.

The fishermen kept afloat for 2-1/2 hours by holding two coolers, a bait bucket and seat cushion as 4- to 6-foot sharks darted only 10 feet beneath them, feasting on dead bait and the remains of two sharks caught earlier in the day.

“The sharks were the most terrifying thing, seeing them and worrying that one would come up and grab your feet and pull you down,” said James Kennedy, one of the anglers. “A couple of times [they got so close] I almost screamed out, but I didn’t want to freak everyone else out. I just tried to put it out of my mind.”

Kennedy, John McCaffrey, Dennis Anderson and Randy Beal had set out July 13, 2002, from Fort Pierce Inlet in McCaffrey’s 20-foot Dolphin. They anchored with the bow to the wind in 4-to-5-foot seas. They brought two 15-pound blocks of chum — frozen, chopped fish — and put out a slick to draw fish. They caught six sharks in the first hour, keeping two.

The boat was pretty heavily loaded — three of the four men weighed more than 200 pounds — and was taking water over the transom into the self-bailing cockpit. Some of the water was leaking through a hatch and into the bilge, but the men believed the bilge pump, which was new, was operating properly.

At some point, the four men moved to the bow to free-line shrimp for king fish. Three waves in succession broke over the transom, so McCaffrey moved aft to start the engine and try to drain the boat under way. As the 350-pound man reached the stern, the boat upended bow over stern. It sank so fast the anglers had no time to grab the life jackets stowed in a compartment or radio a mayday.

“It went to the bottom like a rock,” said Kennedy. “In less than seven seconds it was gone. You couldn’t even count to three.”

Kennedy believed that while they were forward fishing, water coming over the transom was pouring into the bilge and streaming away from the bilge pump toward the bow. When McCaffrey walked back toward the engine, the stern dipped, the water from the bow poured back to the transom, and beneath the weight of the water, McCaffrey and the 250-hp engine, the bow went up and the boat sank.

Fortunately, Anderson had put his cell phone into a Ziploc bag and stuffed it into a cooler that surfaced. Kennedy grabbed it to float himself. Beal grabbed a bait bucket. McCaffrey found a snack cooler, and Anderson held onto a seat cushion.

With one arm cradling the cushion and the other holding the phone as high as he could, Anderson dialed 911. The chances of a cell phone signal reaching an antenna tower from sea level more than 15 miles offshore are slim. After several dunkings, the cell phone died, but not before the operator reported that the Coast Guard had been alerted.

“It’s a bloody miracle that the phone was picked up from where we were,” Kennedy said. “I believe God Almighty had a role in this.”

A Coast Guard helicopter from Miami spotted the men, who were rescued about 2-1/2 hours after the sinking by a Coast Guard boat from Fort Pierce.

Kennedy said he learned the hard way that a life jacket is useless stowed away in a fast-sinking boat, and a VHF radio can’t help when it goes down with the boat before anyone transmits a mayday.

“If I hadn’t had that cooler to hang onto, I’d be dead,” said Kennedy. “If that cell phone hadn’t been in the cooler, I’d be dead. … If I ever go back out there on that water, I’ll have a life jacket on my body and it will have flares on it.

“This is the scariest thing I’ve ever had happen to me in my life.”

* * * * * 

Terry Watson

His eyes were sunken, his face bearded, his hair long and unkempt. Terry Watson was out of food and was fast running out of time.

The 43-year-old Florida sailor was delirious and emaciated when he was rescued Sept. 26, 2002, off South Carolina after spending two months on the Atlantic in his disabled 23-foot sailboat.

“He looked like he was a walking dead guy,” said Lt. Doug Stark, operations officer at Coast Guard Group Charleston, S.C.

Watson told authorities he had encountered a series of storms sailing to Bermuda, the first leg of a planned trans-Atlantic crossing. Watson said he was attempting to sail to Denmark on a “human rights mission” when he encountered rough weather. He turned south to get out of the storms, then north again only to run into heavier weather.

When his mainsail ripped, Watson attempted to repair it with sail tape and dental floss. He eventually sailed for a time under only a roller jib.

Watson survived at first on rations of canned chicken Alfredo and Beanie Weenies. When the food ran out he caught a fish, which he wrapped in a bomber jacket to keep it fresh. However, the raw fish made him ill, so he stopped eating it.

A charter captain spotted Watson — dismasted and sails tattered — 46 miles off Georgetown, S.C. He hadn’t eaten in a month when the Coast Guard rescued him.

Watson’s boat carried a radio, but he turned it off to conserve battery power for contacting passing ships. He told authorities the solar panels that recharge the boat’s batteries were lost in one of the storms.

* * * * *

Hokget

A 30-pound dog named Hokget captured worldwide attention in 2002 when she survived 24 days alone and adrift on a burned-out ship in the Pacific.

The two-year-old terrier mix was unintentionally left behind by the crew of the 256-foot tanker Insiko when they were rescued by a cruise ship after a fire knocked out power and communications. Hokget had lived aboard with the ship’s captain since she was a puppy.

The March 13 engine room fire killed one crewmember and severely injured another; the crew remained aboard the hulk for three weeks.

An April 7 attempt to rescue Hokget was called off when the Insiko couldn’t be found. The ship was presumed lost at sea, and Hokget was presumed dead. A Coast Guard C-130 later spotted Insiko, with Hokget scampering about on deck, 255 miles east of Johnson Atoll. The crew dropped leftovers from their lunches — pizza, granola bars and oranges — and reported the vessel’s position.

A group of fishermen reached the ship a few days later, but Hokget evaded her rescuers by hiding below. Concerned Insiko would break up and spill its 60,000 gallons of diesel fuel, the Coast Guard sent a salvage tug to move the tanker away from the atoll. The salvage crew used food to coax Hokget into a portable kennel, then transported her to Hawaii for a hero’s welcome.