Boat crews race to save drowning woman
Published: January 31, 2013
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ST. THOMAS - Private boat crews worked together to attempt to rescue a drowning snorkeler Tuesday morning with results that remained unclear as of Wednesday evening.
Brent Bitterman, the captain of the 63-foot power catamaran Virgin Breeze, which is owned by Topsails, said his boat was in the area of Turtle Cove on the north side of Buck Island on Tuesday morning for a routine snorkeling expedition.
Snorkelers from other boats already were in the water, and some of them began waving their arms and calling for help as the Virgin Breeze approached, Bitterman said.
"By the time I saw what was happening, three of my crew members were already in the water," Bitterman said.
First mate Andrew Hill, second mate Melissa O'Brian and third mate Hanna Ball immediately snapped into "automatic mode," Bitterman said.
Bitterman said all of the passengers on his boat were accounted for, so it was apparent the person in distress was from a different boat.
"We knew immediately is wasn't one of our guests, but that doesn't matter to us," Bitterman said. "We all are out there together. We are all trying to help each other. So it didn't matter to any one of us whose boat she was on. We're not going to just take the woman, dump her off on a boat and say, 'Here.' "
Bitterman said the crew pulled the unconscious woman into the dinghy, and O'Brian and Ball immediately began performing CPR. The woman was wearing a snorkeling life vest, but it did not appear to be inflated, Bitterman said.
The crew determined that the woman was a passenger on the Castaway Cat and drove to that boat to discuss a rescue strategy, Bitterman said. Hill made the decision that the fastest way to get the woman help would be to head toward St. Thomas in the dinghy.
A message left Wednesday for the owner of the Castaway Cat was not returned.
Sea Tow Captain Alan Wentworth said he responded with his own crew between 10 and 10:30 a.m. and met the dinghy about a quarter of the way back from Buck Island to St. Thomas.
Wentworth said the crews brought the woman aboard Sea Tow's 33-foot turbo-engine towboat, which made the three-mile return trip at about 25 knots. He said his crew and O'Brian continued doing CPR on the woman for the 15- to 20-minute ride back into the West Indian Co. Ltd. dock.
"They didn't skip a beat all the way across," Wentworth said.
There, a crew of emergency medical technicians was waiting.
Wentworth described the woman as "looking blue." He said she was unconscious when she boarded his boat, did not respond the whole way back and had no pulse.
Wentworth estimated the woman was in her 40s or 50s.
Topsail owner Martyn Crawford praised the crew's work to save the woman but said he heard the woman "didn't make it."
Attempts to determine the woman's identity and status through Schneider Hospital late Wednesday were unsuccessful.
It was the second snorkeling-related incident involving tourists this year. On Jan. 13, Steve Rock, 60, of Enola, Pa., drowned while snorkeling at Waterlemon Cay on St. John.
- Contact reporter Lou Mattei at 714-9124 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.