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3 Crew Members Perished : Shipwrecked Divers Clung to Life in Sea for 17 Hours

Times Staff Writer

Bobbing in the chilly ocean, huddled against towering whitecaps, cutting winds and spilled fuel from their capsized boat, nine sea-urchin divers spent Tuesday night promising themselves that morning would bring rescue.

When Wednesday dawned and no one came, their spirits crumbled.

One by one, three members of the crew of the San Pedro-based Explorador surrendered to the stormy sea, slipping beneath the waves as their friends, too weak to help, watched.

In desperation, one man on a surfboard paddled toward uninhabited Santa Barbara Island, six miles away, hoping to find a radio there.

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Exhausted, the others--a mere speck of flotsam on the open sea--could only wait for rescue.

Incredible Tale

That was the incredible tale told Thursday evening by the six male survivors of the 42-foot urchin boat, which capsized and sank off the Southern California coast.

The six were rescued Wednesday afternoon--17 hours after their boat sank--by crew members of Navy helicopters from the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson, which was on a training run off the coast.

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Kelley Ann Pace, 27, of Manhattan Beach, and the ship’s owner and captain, Patrick Paul McQuistion, 24, of Hermosa Beach, died in the incident, as did another man whose name was not released pending notification of next of kin. The victims’ bodies have not been found.

The survivors were three men from Fort Bragg, Calif.--James Alford, 28, Gary Trumper, 21, and Jay Delaney, 27--as well as Edward Lopez, 24, and Jeffery Pelton, 22, of Torrance, and Bernie Sauls, 27, of Redondo Beach.

Kelley Ann Pace and Sauls were to be married over the Christmas holidays.

Sauls, fighting back tears, later would explain his loss:

“This is a horror story and a love story together,” he said in a soft voice. “I loved her very much.”

The six survivors returned to Long Beach late Thursday on a Navy cargo plane, but not before sharing their story with reporters on the 95,000-ton carrier after it reached its home port here, across the bay from San Francisco.

They had spent Tuesday harvesting 15,000 pounds of sea urchins from the sea bed in the Santa Barbara Channel and were heading back to their home port, where the catch would fetch $7,500 from companies that sell the creatures’ gonads as uni, a sushi delicacy in Japan.

Load Improperly Stored

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The weather was rugged. Wind gusts up to 30 m.p.h slammed 12-foot waves against the boat, which crew members said was listing because its load was improperly stored.

“The boat reacted wrong for the vessel that it was,” Delaney said. “It rocked and felt . . . squirrelly.”

Crew members said they relayed their fears to McQuistion, but they could not shift the load because a generator had failed and the winch was inoperable.

“Then the load shifted and then the boat twisted and flipped over,” Pelton said. “We didn’t have enough time to fire the flare guns or nothing. It was just every man for himself.”

One man tried throwing gear over the side in a vain bid to keep the boat afloat. Others, awakened by shipmates, quickly flung themselves overboard.

Most of them, fortunately, grabbed wet suits. Four also grabbed surfboards and one cut loose seven beachball-sized buoys called “swordfish balls.”

Navy rescuers said later that these acts saved the six. Without the warmth of the suits and flotation of the boards and buoys, everyone would have died.

Once in the sea, the crew survived by staying together, keeping each other warm and optimistic in the pitch-black, 58-degree ocean.

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“It was hard sometimes, because the waves were breaking and hitting us with white water,” Sauls said. “After a while, people were having trouble just keeping their heads above water.”

Eventually Died

At one point, Trumper gave half of his wet suit to the unidentified victim, who left the boat without his own. The man eventually died anyway.

“It’s kind of hard when you see three of your friends die,” Alford said. “You can’t help but think that you’re going to be next.”

Pelton was the one to strike off for land, the island that they could see in the distance. The currents stopped him short of the beach.

“I was so tired,” he said, “and I thought, ‘Oh, God, it’s over.’ ”

But it wasn’t. At the time, about 2 p.m. Wednesday, the Navy spotted the other survivors; with their help, Pelton was picked up 45 minutes later.

“Thank God for the Navy,” Delaney said.

The men obviously were shaken by the ordeal, but kept their composure.

Petty Officer Joseph Oglesby, one of the Navy divers dropped into the sea to help the victims, said that when he tried to help Pelton into a harness, “He swam up to me on his surfboard and asked if we could bring his board up with him.”

‘I Won’t Quit’

Others insisted that they will not let the sinking deter them from their trade.

“I’ll be working tomorrow,” Delaney said. “I won’t quit. I’m a diver.”

The survivors arrived at Long Beach Municipal Airport aboard a Navy C-12 transport about 8:40 p.m.

Warmly dressed family members, one carrying balloons, ran to the plane’s side to greet them.

They exchanged hugs and kisses with the survivors, who were dressed in blue baseball caps and cream-colored windbreakers that bore the emblem of the Carl Vinson.

The survivors, appearing solemn, toted the thick, black wet suits that had saved their lives a day before.

Pelton added a comment on the ordeal.

“I got the uncomfortable task of holding them (the three who died),” he said. “They (other crew members) said, ‘You’re a lifeguard. Do something.’ They (the three victims) acted almost drunk. I knew they were going to let go quick. I read them their last rites and held their heads above water. I hated to do it, but I had to let them go. We were so far out. If we had kept them they might have attracted sharks.”

Concluded Lopez:

“We did as much as we could to keep them warm, holding them, cuddling them and telling them it would be OK and putting them on our surfboards. They just lost all will. There was nothing we could do for them once they gave up.”

Times staff writer Chris Woodyard in Long Beach contributed to this article.


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