Alone on the water

SunSpot Staff

Sept. 13th was a beautiful moonlit night on the Potomac, calm and warm. But, off Point Lookout at the river's mouth, dangerous currents were moving beneath the flat surface. A swimmer had been fighting those currents for hours as he tried to muscle his way, stroke by stroke, two miles to shore.

After six hours of swimming, Brian Meagher, 27, was no closer to the beach than when he had begun, diving off a disabled fishing boat into the Potomac that sunny afternoon. But the tide was carrying him out now, past the Point Lookout light and into the broad, dark waters of the Chesapeake Bay.

Through the deepening twilight and now into the darkness, Meagher had fought, his lifejacket keeping him only inches above the water.

And he wasn't the only one out there, trying to make it to shore. His two fishing companions were also lost on the water, each alone and scared. As isolated now as the points of a triangle, the three were fighting for their lives.

Twelve hours earlier, danger couldn't have been further from the minds of the three men as they set out for a day of fishing on a warm September morning. It was to be a celebratory day out on the water for Meagher, Tom Whaite and Chris Bell.

Whaite, 26, and Bell, 25, old friends from a childhood spent together in California, hadn't seen each other in two years.

Leaving the San Diego suburbs behind in 1998, Bell had packed up the car and headed east with his mother, girlfriend and infant son. Road's end was rural St. Mary's County, a place Bell's mother, Jane McHugh, had visited as a child growing up in Virginia.

While thousands of miles separated them, Bell and Whaite stayed close. They often played computer games with each other over the Internet and instant messaged notes back and forth.

It hadn't taken much cajoling for Bell to convince Whaite to take his first plane trip that September and head east for a visit. Bell promised a vacation full of "fun and fishing."

Neither knew much about fishing, except that it was the thing to do in southern Maryland, where suburban development and strip malls have spread but peeling plywood signs still proclaim sleepy towns like Ridge to be the "Sportfishing Capital of the Chesapeake Bay."

Meagher, a second-generation commercial waterman and boyfriend of Bell's sister Connie Trossbach, was tapped to help out the two California boys. The crab catch was down and Meagher found himself with some time on his hands, so he agreed to take Bell and Whaite fishing in Trossbach's 15-foot runabout.

The three set out about 10 a.m. from the public boat ramp at the end of Beachville Road one creek up from Point Lookout at the mouth of the Potomac River. It was a spot Bell knew well from weekend picnics beneath the pines with his girlfriend, Jamie Pizzo and their 3-year-old son, Dylan.

Along with rods, tackle, a fish scanner, flares and life jackets, the three also had a twelve pack of beer on board. But they didn't have time to drink, Whaite says, because they were catching too many fish. "We were having a blast," he said, describing how the three decided to see who could catch the most fish as they drifted with the lazy currents.

Around noon, the men tried to start the engine to head to another fishing spot. There was no response.

It was a beautiful day, calm, warm and clear but the boat was being carried down river with the tide. As the hours passed, the men began to worry.

"I didn't know where the hell I was," Whaite said.

As the afternoon dragged on, the men fired flares and tried to wave down passing boats but "either nobody saw us or they thought we were just goofing off," Whaite remembered.

The boat was drifting toward the seemingly endless blue horizon to the southeast while the Maryland shore just north of them--a crescent shaped strip of sand reaching down to Point Lookout called Cornfield Harbor--looked tantalizingly close.

Bell donned a yellow life jacket and decided to swim for it about 3 o'clock. The boat was two miles offshore and Bell had been swimming for about 10 minutes, Whaite said, when they heard him calling for help. Meagher dove in after him.

The last Whaite saw of the two men was their two yellow lifejackets drifting down river, their calls to passing boaters echoing across the water.

"You can't drown with a life vest on," Whaite said he thought as the slight breeze pushed him farther away from the swimmers and the sun sank toward the horizon.

Whaite figured the two would make it to shore, find help and come back in another boat to tow him in. The shore "sure did look close enough to swim to," he would say later.

"It's a different world out there," said Lisa Gruber, an officer with the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, who participated in the search that night. "The shore might not look that far but once you get in the water you're in trouble."

At Point Lookout, water from as far away as Backbone Mountain on the Maryland-West Virginia border mixes for the first time with the bay's flow that begins in Cooperstown, N.Y., 450 miles to the north. The volume of this flow creates currents that, although relatively mild when compared to faster flowing rivers, can easily trap a swimmer.

Factor into this the full moon that evening and its accompanying stronger tides, and you have a recipe for disaster.

At 9:17 p.m. a radio crackled to life in the cramped, glassed-in booth at Coast Guard small boat station St. Inigoes, just up the creek from the Potomac River's mouth at Point Lookout. Boatswain's Mate Third Class Jeff Hope took the call. A "good Samaritan" boater had just plucked a cold and tired Meagher from the Point Lookout light two miles out into the river.

Radiomen in Curtis Bay, the Coast Guard's headquarters south of Baltimore, were also listening. They relayed the message to search and rescue mission commander, Boatswain's Mate First Class, Henry McCullough.

Meagher's father had called the Coast Guard about half an hour earlier, concerned that his son had not yet returned home from a fishing trip.

As one of the many services the agency provides to the public, the Coast Guard receives thousands of these "overdue" calls from concerned family and friends of late boaters every year. For every call, the Coast Guard watchstander fills out "precoms," calling local marinas to ask if they have seen the late boat. McCullough says that 99 percent of the time, while he is on the phone collecting information, the boater shows up at home.

Tonight's call would be in the one percent. Putting the "overdue" call together with the "good sam's" discovery on the Potomac, McCullough launched a search that would stretch throughout the night and well into the next afternoon, use more than half a dozen helicopters and highlight the ever increasing mission before the Coast Guard as it struggles to cope with more boaters on the water and less funding in its coffers.

First on the scene was a boat from the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, which picked up Meagher from the "good sam" and took him to a command post being set up at Lake Canoy, in Point Lookout State Park.

Once there, state and Coast Guard officials debriefed Meagher. He told them that he had lost sight of Bell in the water at around dusk. Whaite, he said, had stayed with the boat.

The Virginia Marine police search boat raced toward the Virginia shore where, a computer model said, a slight breeze may have pushed Whaite and the small boat.

Around 11 p.m. the marine police struck gold. They found Whaite tied to a sailboat whose skipper had stumbled upon him drifting in the river. The officers took Whaite to the command post at Lake Canoy.

So far the search was batting a thousand and everything seemed to be in the searchers' favor. The full moon lighted the waters while calm seas eased the task before the helicopters and search boats. And, most importantly, they knew Bell was wearing a personal flotation device. "We knew there was someone in the water wearing a lifejacket so our hopes for survival were high," McCullough said.

Two Maryland state police helicopters skimmed the waters in search of Bell, but turned up nothing. Meanwhile, a Coast Guard HH-60 Jayhawk was racing up from its base in Elizabeth City, N.C. The helicopter--the Coast Guard's version of the Army's high-tech Blackhawk—covered the 140-mile distance in about an hour. Its four-man crew was equipped with night vision goggles to spot swimmers in the dark water.

It flew three search patterns over the Potomac waters but came up empty. Three other helicopters—one from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and another two Coast Guard choppers—were equally frustrated.

Coast Guard boats, vessels from Maryland and Virginia state agencies, St. Mary's and Calvert County fire and rescue teams, and even several watermen were all out on the Potomac that night combing the river again and again in search of Bell.

McCullough's computer models took into account tide and wind action to posit a nine-by-five-mile box where Bell should be.

He threw everything at it, but as the hours passed without any sign of Bell, the initially hopeful mood at Curtis Bay became one of frustration.

"We don't lose a lot of people if we have a hope of saving them," McCullough said. But now his hopes were dropping fast.

"It's frustrating knowing you're doing everything right but yet you're not finding them. Then you start to wonder, 'is he alive or isn't he?'"

As the sun rose over the Eastern Shore on Thursday and legions of commuters began to clog the roads north and west out of St. Mary's County, the searchers were still at it. A Naval helicopter from the base at Patuxent River flew low and slow, hugging the coastline in the hope that Bell had made it to shore and camped out overnight.

The search came up with nothing until later that morning when a yellow life jacket turned up near Vir-Mar Beach, eight miles due south of Point Lookout, on the Virginia shore. At 10:45 a.m., Meagher confirmed that it was the vest Bell had been wearing.

"At that point, our hopes for his survivability really went down the tubes," McCullough said.

A sheet of paper pinned beside McCullough's desk charts the rate at which hypothermia will kill a swimmer by water temperature. In the Potomac's 74-degree water that morning, Bell's time had about run out.

At 3:45 p.m., after 17 hours of continuous search operations, covering a 135-square-mile area in the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay, the Coast Guard gave up. The agency suspended the search for Chris Bell and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources began the grim task of dragging the water for a body.

In the early morning hours of Sunday, September 17, a boater discovered Bell's lifeless body near Vir-Mar Beach, the spot where his life jacket had washed up three days before.

After an autopsy, Bell's death was ruled an accidental drowning by the State Medical Examiner. But why did Bell, a man who his family says was only a fair swimmer, remove his lifejacket?

He may have been attempting a last-ditch swim for shore and thought the vest was only holding him back, or, after several hours of swimming, the life preserver may have rubbed Bell's arms raw, Coast Guard officials theorize. But, they admit, there is no way to know.

"We will never truly know what happened that night…we will never know," said Bowman of Coast Guard Activities Baltimore.

For the grieving members of Bell's family, answers are even harder to come by.

"For Chris to get in the water like that, that's not Chris. For him to take his life jacket off, that's not Chris either," said Pizzo, Bell's girlfriend and the mother of his child.

For her there is only one explanation. "God wanted him," she said

"I don't want my kids to be afraid of the water," said Trossbach, Bell's half sister and the owner of the ill-fated runabout. She vowed to not let this tragedy keep her or her three children, ages 13, 10 and 7, away from the water.

"We will be back out there, maybe not this year, but we will get the boat back out there."

After his funeral, Pizzo, Trossbach and other members of Bell's family headed down to the boat launch ramp at the end of Beachville Road, where the fishing trip had begun that bright morning. Tossing wreaths out into the waters of Smith Creek, they watched them drift with the flow, out toward the Potomac.

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