A U.S. Navy rescue team Wednesday pulled six missing San Pedro fishermen from the chilly, storm-tossed Pacific, where their 42-foot vessel was sinking in heavy seas, officials said.
Three others aboard were lost and presumed dead.
"I'd say they were very lucky," Cmdr. Ron Wildermuth, a Navy spokesman, said of the survivors.
The full-body, black wet suits that kept the six alive during a frigid 17-hour ordeal also hindered rescuers as they searched for the crew in the choppy seas, Wildermuth explained.
"They seem to be OK," added Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Charlie Crosby.
The survivors of the sea urchin fishing boat Explorador were airlifted by Navy helicopter to the 80,000-ton aircraft carrier Carl Vinson, which was on maneuvers off Point Mugu.
Headed for Alameda
The carrier was steaming Wednesday night toward its base in Alameda, where it is scheduled to arrive at 4:30 p.m. today, officials said. Once the ship docks, the survivors are to be taken to a hospital for a thorough examination, they added.
A Navy helicopter crew pulled five people from the sea at about 2 p.m., after rescuers spotted the bow of the Explorador riding low in the water, about four miles northwest of Santa Barbara Island and 40 miles southwest of the Palos Verdes Peninsula.
About two hours later, a sixth crew member was rescued after being spotted clinging to a surfboard, authorities said.
The survivors told their rescuers that they had watched their companions die and slip into the icy water, authorities said.
The three presumed dead were said to have been wearing only partial wet suits.
"All nine had been together when the boat went down," said Coast Guard Petty Officer Charles Embleton. "Due to exposure, they (the three) one by one expired and drifted away."
Embleton identified the survivors as Gary Lee Trunpher, 21, of Fort Bragg, Jay Delaney, Bernie Sauls, Edward Lopez, Jim Alford and Jeff Pelton. Ages and hometowns of the five were not immediately available.
Missing and presumed dead were the vessel's owner, Patrick Paul McCuistion, 24, of Hermosa Beach, and McCuistion's longtime girlfriend, Kelli Ann Pace, 27, of Manhattan Beach. The name of the third person presumed dead was not released.
"This was his line of work. It's just like a race car driver," said McCuistion's father, Paul, 53, a former fisherman. "What are you going to say? You work as hard as you can and that's it.
Doing a Job
"I've been out there with my boy, and we were taking 20-footers over the wheelhouse, and you don't really think about drowning or dying . . . anymore than (you do) driving down the Harbor Freeway in the morning. . . . You just do what you have to do."
The senior McCuistion said he would not speculate on what might have gone wrong until he has an opportunity to speak with the surviving crew members. Authorities told him that the survivors had been sedated and put to bed Wednesday night.
All on board the Explorador had at least six years of experience in Southern California coastal waters, according to one fishing industry source.
The search began Tuesday night after the crew radioed at 9:12 p.m. that their boat was taking on water in 55-knot winds and swells of up to 15 feet.
"They said they were sinking halfway between San Nicolas Island and Santa Barbara Island, that they had no life raft aboard and were unable to keep up with the flooding," said Coast Guard Lt. Dennis Fahr.
The crew said they were equipped with surfboards, wet suits and flares.
"The last thing we heard," Embleton said, "was that they were putting on their wet suits and preparing to fire flares."
Navy and Coast Guard crews in a helicopter, airplane and two ships searched the waters off Santa Barbara Island until 3:30 a.m. Wednesday, and resumed the search at 7 a.m.
At 11:30 a.m., searchers spotted a surfboard 11 miles north of Santa Barbara Island, the first sign of the sinking fishing boat.
2,000 Square Miles
The search area encompassed 2,000 square miles of ocean and included the Channel Islands, the Coast Guard said.
The Explorador, a twin-engine diesel capable of speeds of up to 10 knots, left San Pedro Monday on a diving expedition for sea urchins on the ocean floor near San Nicolas Island.
The boat apparently was caught by the building Pacific storm as it tried to return home, said Darrel Wilson, a veteran fisherman who spoke with crew members before their departure.
Wilson said radio reports Tuesday warned anglers of the approaching storm. Unlike some boats that returned to port early, the crew of the Explorador apparently spent the whole day fishing and attempted to leave the island near sundown Tuesday, Wilson said.
"Everybody was trying to come home in front of the storm," Wilson said. "Apparently they didn't get far enough ahead of it."
Wilson said the Explorador was at a popular urchin fishing spot known as Dutch Harbor, a relatively unsheltered area of the island.