The passengers and crew on many of Tuesday's early morning Balboa Island ferries were weeping over the loss of one of their own. Gerry Rene, the jovial ferry captain who always had a joke and a smile for his passengers, was gone.
Little by little, the news spread, silencing the ferry commuters who looked forward to seeing Gerry each morning.
Rene, 33, of Corona, and his friend, Robert J. Duffield, 71, of San Diego, were killed Monday when Duffield's single-engine plane crashed on a rugged hillside near Escondido. Rene, who was divorced and had no children, leaves his mother and two sisters.
Federal Aviation Administration investigators were examining the site Tuesday to determine the cause of the crash. FAA investigator Larry Lehr said there was a "strong possibility" that the plane broke up in flight. Plans for a memorial service were pending.
'Everyone Was Crying'
"When I got on the ferry to go to work this morning, everyone was crying," said Robert A. Foster, 67, an attorney who knew Rene well after years of commuting daily on the ferry from his Balboa Peninsula home to his office in Irvine.
"The passengers and crew, everyone was crying," Foster said Tuesday. "One of the ladies taking the fares broke the news to me. It's just broken everybody up."
Rene's supervisor at Balboa Island Ferry Co., Bob Snyder, said Rene was a member of the Coast Guard auxiliary, and that he believed Rene and Duffield had been returning from a Coast Guard-affiliated trip to San Diego.
Marcia Swanson, office manager for the ferry company, said Rene had established an exceptional rapport with his passengers since he began making the 1,000-foot run between Balboa Island and the peninsula in 1984.
"He was just a cute, very well-liked fellow," she said. "Everyone who crossed on the ferry, Gerry knew them all by name and thought of them as family and friends. They all felt the same way toward him. Everyone's in shock."
At Christmas, Rene often gave out free ferry passes that he had paid for with his own money, Swanson said. In exchange, he often left his boat at the end of his shift with an armload of home-baked cookies and cakes given to him by his passengers, she added.
His were loyal riders. Swanson said clusters of passengers would wait on the dock, foregoing the other ferries that came and went every few minutes, until they saw Gerry at the helm, she said.
Rene "always had a joke for his passengers and knew all about the details of their lives," recalled Snyder, his supervisor.
Despite his popularity, Rene told The Times in 1984 that he didn't think he deserved the name "captain" because his boat was "nothing more than a glorified barge."
Seafaring became part of Rene's life at 14, when he entered the Sea Scouts, according to co-workers. He later spent four years running boats to oil-drilling platforms off the California coast and piloted tugboats in Long Beach Harbor.
More recently, he taught seafaring skills to boys in the Sea Scouts and coached teen-agers studying for their Coast Guard pilot's licenses, Snyder said.