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Hanging on to hope in the Gulf
Boat capsized, leaving Huntsville foursome stranded for more than 19 hours

HUNTSVILLE (AP) — The four people on the new catamaran saw blood and water sloshing on the deck. They were more worried about the water.

They could account for the blood. It was from the remains of the king mackerel that 8-year-old Sumter Park had just caught.

The water, though, was a mystery. No one could figure why water was filling the back of the catamaran on its first trip to sea.

It was late on the morning of Aug. 6, a day of clear skies and high temperatures. The four people on the boat, all from Huntsville, were on their annual family vacation to the Gulf of Mexico.

For Bruce Park, the owner of the boat, it was the start of a nightmare he’d experienced only once before, when he was in his late teens.

About 20 years earlier, he had helped rescue two fishermen whose boat had capsized almost 30 miles off the shore of Dauphin Island, a barrier island southwest of Mobile.

Those fishermen were stranded for about four hours. Park and the others on his boat were about to spend more than 19 hours in the Gulf.

Their 27-foot fishing boat flipped into the water just before noon. Within minutes, Park began searching for ropes, flares and food, anything that would help them survive.

Then, as darkness fell, he and the others faced what other fishermen know only in their most dreaded thoughts. They were forced to endure a night in the water with little or no hope of being rescued until sunrise.

With no boat or plane in sight, they floated 120 feet above the floor of the Gulf and 29 miles off the coast of Dauphin Island.

In the darkness, they held onto the hope that morning would bring a squadron of helicopters and other rescue planes, ready to lift them to safety.

But when the sun rose around 6 a.m. on Aug. 7, the sky was as empty and lifeless as it had been through most of the night.

In the early morning hours of Aug. 6, Park, 38, vice president of a Honda dealership in Huntsville, waited for a storm to pass before heading into the Gulf.

For the trip, he and the others packed a cooler with water, Mountain Dew and green tea. There was ham for lunch.

It was about 7:30 a.m. when Park’s boat left Fort Morgan, on the eastern side of Mobile Bay. With him were his son, Sumter, soon to enter the third grade at Randolph School; his father, Jimmy, 66, co-owner of Park Supply Co; and his brother-in-law, Brandon Saraceni, an employee of Park Supply.

The waters were still rough from the early morning storms. Waves near the island were about 3 feet, maybe 4, too rugged for fishing.

About 29 miles off the coast, Park stopped his boat near two oil rigs. His father hooked the boat to one of the rigs, and the four of them began to fish.

They caught one red snapper, then another, then Sumter caught the king mackerel. As Sumter reeled in the mackerel, a barracuda leaped out of the water and snagged the mackerel.

The mackerel was almost eaten in half when Park and Sumter pulled it into the boat. With blood from the mackerel dripping into the boat, Park looked for a hose to wash the floor.

Pool of water

Searching for the hose, he noticed a pool of water gathering on the deck. He put the remains of the mackerel in a storage box near the middle of the boat and tried to find the source of the water.

Until then, he had no idea anything was wrong with the boat.

Park’s concern intensified when he looked at the left side of the boat. One of the motors was so low in the water that it had no chance of starting.

Panic crept into Park’s voice as he approached his brother-in-law.

“Get the fishing poles out of the water,” he told Saraceni.

Instead of pulling up to the
oil rig and cutting the hooks, Park instructed his father to untie the knot at the back of the boat.

By now, Park was still confident that he was capable of navigating the boat to safety. But he believed that every second was precious.

His plan boiled down to physics: Start the motor on the right side of the boat and hope that the force of the ride would push the water into the drains.

In essence, he envisioned the boat bailing itself.

After five minutes, maybe 10, the engine skipped once, then twice. Park glanced at the motor on the right side of the boat.

It was sinking, too.

As the motor began to skip, Park grabbed the microphone of the radio.

“Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!”

The radio went dead, then the boat tipped farther to the left. Within 10 seconds, the boat landed on its side, hurling the passengers into the water.

Jimmy Park grabbed his grandson and lifted him onto the side of the boat. Saraceni and Bruce and Jimmy Park stayed in the water and held onto the edge of the boat.

“Dad, I don’t want to be here,” Sumter told his father.

Bruce Park saw tears welling in his son’s eyes.

“I don’t want to be here, either,” he told his son. “But we’ll be fine. The Coast Guard will get us.”

Even just after noon, though, Park knew that the Coast Guard wouldn’t arrive anytime soon, in all likelihood.

Bracing for a long afternoon and night in the water, his goal was to take care of his son and his father.

For the first hour or so, Saraceni and Bruce and Jimmy Park were jostled by the waves — 3 to 5 feet, by Bruce Park’s estimate.

Not only did the salt water burn their eyes, but the waves loosened their grips on the boat, causing them to drift into the channel.

At this rate, Park reasoned, the three people in the water had little chance of hanging onto the boat.

He remembered that a rope was still in the boat. At around 1 p.m., he dived under the boat and retrieved it.

Ultimately, he went under the boat three more times, maybe four. First, he found the rope and tied it to the pontoons that rose from the water.

Then he found the cooler, still full of drinks and the ham. Then he found the flares and the flare gun.

He fired five of the flares when he saw freighters passing near them. In the last hours of daylight, no one acknowledged them.

On his final dive, just before sundown, he grabbed the last of the life jackets, this one for himself.

With only one flare left, he and the others prepared for a night in the water.

In the night, the four of them rarely talked. Every now and then, they mentioned hunting or what they wanted to eat when they were rescued. Sometimes, they prayed aloud.

They were tired, wet and cold. Just before 3 a.m., Park sensed their frustrations rising.

First sign of help

Then, suddenly, they saw a plane or a helicopter, the first sign of help. Back in Gulf Shores, the rest of their family waited in a condominium, anxious for word from the Coast Guard.

It was around 9 p.m. when Susan Park, Bruce’s wife, and Charlotte Park, Jimmy’s wife, made the first call to authorities. Coast Guard officials assured the Parks that the rescue would be successful.

“But it’ll probably be in the morning before we find them,” an official told them.

About 3 a.m., Bruce Park fired the last flare in the direction of the plane. But the plane never returned.

Their spirits, though, remained strong until sunrise. Then, as dawn broke, they scanned the sky for more signs of help. Nothing.

“Why haven’t they found us?” Sumter asked.

“They’re looking for us,” his dad said. “I promise.”

At 7 a.m., a plane swooped over them. The pilot circled once, then twice, then a third time.

On the third try, the pilot saw a reflection from one of the life jackets. Around 7:30, the pilot dropped a parachute toward them, then a 30-gallon barrel. Inside the barrel was a radio that allowed Park to talk with the pilot.

The rescue

Just then, a fishing boat wandered toward them. Park asked the pilot if they should climb into the boat.

The pilot flew south, toward the fishing boat, and instructed the driver to turn on his radio.

“The guy driving the boat thought he was in trouble,” Park said later. “He’d forgotten to get a new license. But he never hesitated to pick us up when he found out what was going on.”

On the ride back to shore, the people on the boat offered food and drink. Most of them were eager for “something wet to drink that wasn’t salt water,” as Jimmy Park put it.

Sumter was suffering from slight hypothermia and dehydration. Bruce Park had lost his cell phone but retrieved his wallet during one of the dives under the boat. The others had some nicks and bruises.

After they returned to Gulf Shores, the family wondered whether to call off the rest of the trip. They still had four more days at the beach.

“But we all said we’d stay,” Park said. “As far as a family vacation, I don’t think we’ve ever had a better one. It made us realize how fortunate we are to have what we have.”

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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