‘They lost their engine, or perhaps it was not strong enough to overcome the force of the winds and waves’
The distress call came at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday. Two adults and two children were on a disabled vessel adrift in 20-foot waves and extreme winds.
At that point, Hurricane Maria was a dangerous Category 5 storm. The ship had somehow been caught in it.
“We initially got the call — a vessel in distress, a family of four, north of St. Croix, literally in the teeth of a hurricane,” said Rear Adm. Peter Brown, commander of the U. S. Coast Guard 7th District, which includes Puerto Rico. “We were obviously concerned. We didn’t ask their names and didn’t ask why they were out there.”
By the time they were rescued Thursday, one of them, a British man, was dead.
He and the other passengers — a woman from the Dominican Republic and her two 12-year-old children — were aboard a 146-foot former oceanographic research vessel called the Ferrel, and endured a full day on terrifying waters after their distress call. The Coast Guard told the family to keep their radio beacon ready in case they needed to abandon ship, and they soon lost contact.
With such a huge storm roaring across the Atlantic, the Coast Guard had taken cover. Cutters were moved hundreds of miles away and planes secured on air bases, Brown said.
The Ferrel was on its own, tossed by the churning sea and hammered by 150-mph winds.
“They said they were disabled,” the admiral said. “They lost their engine, or perhaps it was not strong enough to overcome the force of the winds and waves.”
“Knowing that we had no assets in the vicinity to be able to respond when they first called,” he added, “it was a sinking feeling.”
When the weather improved, a Coast Guard plane, a cutter, a Navy ship, a Navy helicopter and a Customs and Border Protection plane, as well as a British rescue helicopter, began a search. A radio beacon led them to the boat, which was overturned and beached about 600 feet from the shore of Vieques, an island off the east coast of Puerto Rico.
They were some 50 miles from where they had initially called.
The woman and her two children had climbed out of the boat to safety. The man was inside the capsized vessel and was not accessible to rescue crews, so he could not be brought ashore, the Coast Guard said.
The names of the passengers, who were aboard a British vessel Thursday, were not released. The British Navy declined to comment.
It was not immediately clear why the family was in the water when the storm approached. Their boat, which had been owned by the U. S. government, was decommissioned in 2002 and sold to an oil exploration company in the Houston area. The current owner is unknown.
“There was obvious joy in the command center when the aircraft spotted them and the helicopter hoisted them to safety,” Brown said. “We are happy were able to rescue three and sad we weren’t able to rescue the fourth.”