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A Father Wonders Why He Survived Shipwreck That Killed His Son

October 01, 1990|ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Barry Holmberg's son died in his arms late last week in the chilly, storm-stirred ocean off British Columbia as the lights of their would-be rescue ship flickered just minutes away.

For several hours, the Studio City man and his 23-year-old son, Rob, had clung to a piece of floating plywood, a pair of life jackets and each other after their tuna seiner capsized in heavy seas around 1 a.m. Friday, about 200 miles offshore in the Queen Charlotte Sound.

Of the five crew members of the 69-foot Quicksilver, on a six-month tuna run out of San Diego, only father and son remained alive--barely--as dawn approached Friday.

"We thought we were dead, it was all over," Barry Holmberg said in a telephone interview from a Vancouver hospital, where he was recovering from hypothermia and trying to figure out why he, alone, survived.

"It was raining and it was storming, and there were 20-foot swells and 50-knot gusts," he recounted. "It was like trying to fight Godzilla with a fly swatter. You couldn't do anything but pray."

For Rob Holmberg, who lived in Huntington Beach and was in his second year on the tuna runs, it wasn't enough.

Hearing an incomplete "May Day" call from the tuna boat, as many as seven vessels combed the area for survivors. As the Holmbergs floated in the 54-degree water, they could spot the ships' taunting lights--close enough to offer hope of a rescue, but uncertain enough, through the dark, pounding rains, to keep them discouraged, Holmberg said. Finally, hours into the ordeal, Rob decided he had waited long enough--he would find the ships.

"I told him, 'don't do it, don't do it. You've got to save your energy.' But he panicked, he wouldn't listen. He was going to save us," the father recalled. "He was a hero."

Scrapping his life jacket to make swimming easier, Rob ventured toward the ships' lights. But, about 10 minutes later, he returned unsuccessfully.

Exhausted, the young man clutched his father, his head hanging heavily. Barry Holmberg said he tried to hold him up, but his son's body was like a heavy weight.

" 'Dad, I don't think I'm going to make it,' " Barry Holmberg heard his son whisper. "Then he just died right there in my arms."

Almost immediately, a large ocean swell rolled through, splitting the two, Holmberg said. He said he tried frantically to find his son's body, but he was beginning to lose consciousness.

According to Canadian Coast Guard officials, another fishing boat found Holmberg--incoherent, but alive--around 6 a.m., probably just a few minutes later.

"It's really remarkable that he survived that long," said Capt. Bob Morris, who directed the search mission from the Victoria Rescue Coordination Center, run jointly by the Canadian Coast Guard and Armed Forces.

The captain said the water temperature--about 10 degrees above seasonal norms--certainly helped keep Holmberg alive. But, he added, the rough storm conditions, along with the man's slight build and light clothing--underwear and a T-shirt--made his survival extraordinary.

Except for his son, Holmberg and the other three crew members were all asleep when the boat began to sink--apparently because of a broken line on a "sea anchor," a water parachute used to maintain position through wind direction.

There was little time to do anything but flee, Holmberg said. A part-time stuntman who said he has worked on films with Burt Reynolds, Holmberg signaled to two men below deck to get out, but they apparently never made it.

The two--identified by Holmberg as Manuel Faldala, in his 50s, originally from Guadalajara, Mex., but who had been living in the Southland, and Bill Taylor, 43, of American Samoa--are presumed drowned, authorities said.

Meanwhile, Holmberg, his son and the ship's captain--Charles LaGamma, 42, of San Diego--tried to reach a life boat on deck. But with the larger vessel about to capsize, they failed and were forced to jump ship, Holmberg said.

In the water, the three grabbed a 4-foot-by-4-foot plywood hatch cover, riding out the waves and praying for help. LaGamma, wearing nothing but a life preserver, was the first to die, apparently the victim of hypothermia, Holmberg said. Then, after another large swell, LaGamma's body and the plywood cover were gone.

A short time later, Holmberg's son would be lost, too.

"God must have wanted me for something," Holmberg said of his survival. "I don't know what, and I don't know why. I just wish He had taken me and not my son."

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