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Charter Boat Capsizes Off Oregon, Killing at Least 9

June 15, 2003|Stephanie Chavez, Cara Mia DiMassa and Tomas Alex Tizon | Times Staff Writers

GARIBALDI, Ore. — A charter boat carrying 19 people for a day of recreational fishing capsized in heavy surf off the northern Oregon coast Saturday, killing at least nine and sending eight to the hospital, while rescuers searched the waters for two missing people.

The 32-foot Taki-Tooo, based in the town of Garibaldi, overturned about 7 a.m. just outside the entrance to Tillamook Bay, about 80 miles west of Portland.

The bay, known for its swirling currents and high waves, is the confluence point for several rivers and streams as they flow into the Pacific, said Coast Guard Cmdr. Patrick Brennan.

Eight survivors -- the daughter of the boat's owner and seven males ages 14 to 50 -- were taken to Tillamook County General Hospital suffering from hypothermia from the 52-degree water and in need of oxygen because of near drowning, said hospital spokesman Walt Larson. All but two were released.

The passengers' identities were not released by the hospital or Coast Guard.

John Ward, a commercial fishing captain who witnessed part of the accident, said there was a very low tide and waters just off one of two jetties were especially ferocious.

Ward said he saw the boat slip safely into a calm spot where water from the bay meets the ocean, but then saw two enormous waves approaching. "I turned to my friend and said, 'I hope [the boat's captain] don't get caught by them,' " Ward said Saturday night. "They were huge, like two buildings rolling in the water."

Ward said the boat, instead of turning into the waves, remained parallel to the beach. The wave caught the boat sideways and tipped it over, he said.

"We all take our chances out here," Ward said. "What happened today was a ... tragedy."

The boat's owner, Mick Buell, was not onboard but rushed to the shore.

He said in a telephone interview that he saw several survivors "who were just walking out of the water, just barely walking, and they were very cold. Most of the people were rescued by boat or were washed ashore -- they weren't very far out."

The accident occurred about 200 yards offshore in waters with 10- to 15-foot waves, heights that the Coast Guard said were larger than usual but not uncommon.

Brennan said the cause of the accident has not been determined and is being investigated by the Coast Guard's Marine Safety office in Portland.

The Coast Guard received a report at 7:18 a.m. that a charter fishing boat had capsized outside the entrance to Tillamook Bay. It responded by sending two motorboats, three helicopters and a dive team.

One witness said he saw a diver jump into the rough waters and yank a passenger into a safety harness that was pulled into a helicopter.

"They were rescuing bodies from the water and working on people on the beach," said Terri Middleton, 58, who arrived on the scene about 15 minutes after the accident. "There were three bodies laying on the beach covered up."

Middleton, who helped recover debris that had spilled from the boat, said he saw "an alarming number of life vests" floating ashore, perhaps between 12 and 15.

The Coast Guard's Brennan did not know whether passengers were wearing life vests or were able to use onboard flotation devices.

"At 52 degrees you can be a really good swimmer and stay afloat maybe 20 minutes" without the aid of flotation equipment, Brennan said.

The morning's rough conditions prompted the Coast Guard to warn boaters with a flashing yellow light beginning at 4:45 a.m. on a jetty near the mouth of the bay. That light, said Brennan, indicates that "a very dangerous area" exists and only vessels that have passed Coast Guard inspections for seaworthiness can enter the waters.

He said the Taki-Tooo had been regularly inspected and carried safety gear, a life raft and an emergency beacon, all of which were working.

The boat, which righted itself about 40 minutes after the accident, had a maximum capacity of 22 people and was within that range Saturday, Brennan said. When the accident occurred, the tide was flowing out of the bay, creating particularly turbulent waters. Although it was overcast at the time, visibility was not restricted.

The vessel's captain, identified by two friends as Douglas Davis, is believed to be among the dead.

"He's a very experienced boatsman; he would never put anybody in jeopardy," said his longtime friend Gerry Bales, who runs a shoreline gift shop. "Everybody knows him. He's a good fisherman and has lived here so long. You can't help but like Doug."

She said he had recently sold his charter business but continued to captain vessels.

"I've got grown men calling me crying," Bales said. "We are a small, tight-knit fishing community."

She and her friends, all connected to the fishing industry, have talked throughout the day about how the accident could have happened.

"We talked about all those fierce waves out there and how you never know when one is going to come and get you," said Bales, whose husband operates a charter company and went out earlier Saturday morning.

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