SEARCH & RESCUE
Alone on the water
The exhaustive search for Chris Bell
Starting point: The St. Mary's County public boat launch ramp where the three men began their fishing trip. (SunSpot photo by Jon Goldstein)
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.