3 Survive 15 Hours in Frigid Sea off O.C. : Rescue: 'Afraid? Was I afraid? That's putting it mildly,' skipper of the sunken dive boat says.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Three San Diego men had a lot to be thankful for on Thanksgiving Day. They were rescued after spending more than 15 hours in 58-degree ocean water after their boat sank 14 miles southeast of Santa Catalina Island.

"It's a great Thanksgiving," said Ken Gerken, 35, as he and the other two men recuperated at an Avalon hospital. "When we first sank, we saw Dana Point pretty clear. We saw the Orange County lights, and then they all disappeared. . . . I just kept praying to God that I wouldn't give up."

The three men, who had been diving for sea urchins off the Catalina coast, were returning to Dana Point Harbor on Wednesday night when two waves washed over the bow of their 24-foot dive boat. Skipper Matthew Pressly, 30, said he barely had time to make one radio distress call before the boat's bow went up and the boat capsized.

Pressly dove into the boat's cabin and succeeded in grabbing a dry suit for himself and the top half of a wet suit for Gerken. The third survivor, Dennis Dehrens, 31, wore only jeans, a sweat shirt, a jacket and tennis shoes in the chilly ocean water. When the three were admitted at the hospital, Dehrens' body temperature was about 92 degrees--1 1/2 hours after they were rescued.

The three commercial divers survived by lashing together the bumpers that protect the boat's bow, and using them for flotation.

Pressly said they were going to take their 24-foot boat out of the water at Dana Point and haul it on a trailer to San Diego, where they had planned to celebrate the holiday with their families.

Instead they spent a harrowing night waving and shouting at U.S. Coast Guard helicopters and vessels that came close but never heard or saw them.

After the first wave rolled over the bow, Pressly said, "we had a little water in the back hatches. Then, all of a sudden, I looked down and we had 12 inches of standing water. The stern of the boat went upright. I tried to jump in and get a wet suit and life jackets but it was like a bad submarine flick.

"I got into the cabin and this tremendous force of water slammed me against one side of the cabin. I grabbed what I could.

"Afraid? Was I afraid? That's putting it mildly," Pressly said. "I thought about my kids a lot and I thought about giving up."

For about an hour, the three men were able to cling to the bow, which bobbed near the water's surface. Breathing was made difficult because of the cold and because the water around them was covered with gasoline--apparently from a tank aboard the boat that ruptured.

Then the bow slipped below the surface, leaving the three men to tread water as ocean currents pulled them away from the Orange County coastline and toward Catalina.

They then decided to separate. Pressly, who had the full suit, would attempt to swim to Catalina, which at the time appeared to be about seven miles distant. Gerken, a veteran diver, remained with Dehrens.

While the struggle to stay afloat sapped their strength, the lines they used to tie themselves to their makeshift buoys began chaffing, then cutting into their skins. The salt water irritated their cuts, causing them to swell, which limited their mobility.

Pressly, now swimming on his own, had to tell himself not to hyperventilate while he fought the cold and the current.

"The current was pushing me back and I didn't think I could make it," Pressly said. "I saw the Coast Guard helicopter and all these boats going by us. I was cramping up. To be quite honest with you, I cried. I couldn't hold back. I had just about given up."

To bolster his morale, Pressly said, he thought of his children--Lucas, 8, Samantha, 6, and Jamie, 4.

"I would have been eating turkey with them (Thursday)," Pressly said. "I was the one who was going to prepare our Thanksgiving and they were upset with me."

Finally, just before noon, a private vessel, The Webfoot, spotted Gerken and Dehrens, who were still clinging to the bow bumpers in the choppy waters about four miles southeast of Catalina. It turned and plucked them from the water. Twenty minutes later, they found and rescued Pressly. The men were so exhausted that Dehrens said he couldn't lift his legs to make the three steps into the rescue vessel.

"They had to help me in the boat. They grabbed me, poured buckets of coffee in me and had me naked and in a sleeping bag before we picked up Matt," he said.

Dr. William Holvik, the physician who examined and treated the three men, said each survivor suffered mild hypothermia.

"When I heard that paramedics were bringing in three men who had been out 15 hours, I expected them to be in a lot worse condition," Holvik said, adding that they were fortunate "that they hadn't been drinking. If they had, they probably would have been in a lot worse shape."

Holvik said the men were fit, although not lean. He said "their good body mass" had protected them better than if they had been lean.

The men were given hot baths and showers, heat packs and plenty of hot coffee. Holvik said Dehrens, who survived the ordeal without a wet suit, arrived at the hospital with a temperature of less than 93 degrees. It was an hour and a half before Dehrens' body temperature rose to 95.6 degrees, Holvik said.

Hypothermia is a medical term for a fall in body temperature to below 95 degrees. Holvik said there are too many variables, such as body mass and water temperatures, to say with certainty how long a person can remain in cold ocean water and survive.

"If the water was say, 40 degrees, it would make them very ill very fast," Holvik said. "Basically, with hypothermia, their whole system shuts down while the body tries to keep the core temperature up. Muscle tissues which no longer are receiving any oxygen can be damaged, and as a result, the person can develop metabolic acidosis, blood sugar can be lowered, electrolytes will suffer, and in some cases they can go into fatal heart rhythm."

Prolonged survival in frigid waters is possible. In December, 1987, an 11-year-old Minnesota boy was pulled from an icy river 45 minutes after he fell in. His body temperature was 77 degrees. Physicians considered him clinically dead but labored to save him. Two weeks later, he left the hospital.

All three of the survivors praised their rescuers, as well as the paramedics and hospital staff, for taking good care of them.

"I couldn't believe the people here at the hospital," Gerken said. "They all have been so nice to us. The doctors even volunteered to go home and get us Thanksgiving food. In fact, we're eating turkey dinner right now," he said in a telephone interview.

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