HOUSTON (AP) — John Reynolds and the four others aboard the Nite Owl weren’t worried when the thunderstorms made it impossible for the commercial fishing boat to return back to shore. They’d seen this kind of weather before.
They did what they normally would, tying the boat to an oil rig off the Texas Gulf Coast and going to sleep. But early Friday morning, “a rogue wave, a freak wave or something hit the side of the boat,” Reynolds said.
“It just collapsed the cabin … where the captain sleeps,” he said in a telephone interview Sunday as the U.S. Coast Guard announced it was calling off the search for the other four people who were aboard the Nite Owl. “When it hit, it tore the whole top of the boat off.”
The captain was sent overboard, and within two minutes, the 50-foot vessel sunk. One crew member tried to reach the captain, while Reynolds and the two others saw a life raft. Reynolds was the only one who reached it.
He then spent about two hours floating in the Gulf of Mexico before the Coast Guard rescued him.
The Coast Guard scoured a 5,400-square-mile area with planes, helicopters and boats looking for Reynolds’ four crewmates before calling off its search Sunday.
“I’m just sorry they didn’t find anybody. I wish all the guys would have been in the life raft with me,” Reynolds told The Associated Press.
The Coast Guard has identified three of the missing fishermen as Don Windom, Duoc Dan Nguyen and Jamie Esquivel. Larry Moore, the boat’s owner, identified the fourth missing man as Charles Patrick, the vessel’s captain.
What became a harrowing journey for Reynolds and the four other men began Thursday when the Nite Owl left Port Bolivar, located near Galveston, for what was to be an eight to 12 day fishing trip, said Moore, who runs M.L.T. Seafood Inc. in Golden Meadow, La. The Nite Owl is the company’s only fishing boat.
Reynolds, 56, from Gaston, Ala., said that after the boat was hit by the “freak wave,” he and three other crew members who had been sleeping below deck, climbed upstairs, pushing debris out of the way. Realizing Patrick was missing, they began calling out for him. Patrick answered them back once, although they couldn’t see him.
“The first and only thing I heard him say was he told us to get our life jackets on,” Reynolds said.
The life jackets had already been washed away and the men were soon in the water as the boat quickly sank about 115 miles southeast of Galveston.
Reynolds and the three other crew members clung to debris to try to stay afloat.
One of the crew members tried to swim to where they had heard Patrick’s voice coming from, while the others stayed close to Reynolds.
“I spotted the life raft. I told the other two guys that were right there with me, ‘I see the life raft. I’m going to swim for it. You all follow me,’” Reynolds said.
Reynolds said one of his crewmates appeared to be in shock and didn’t seem to want to let go of some debris he was clinging to. The other crewmate, who was not a good swimmer, seemed to follow Reynolds.
“I got in the raft. I heard them call out. There was a little ring inside there with a 60 foot line on it. I threw it in the direction I heard the guy hollering from, hoping he could grab a hold of it and pull himself to the life raft,” he said. “Apparently he couldn’t get a hold of it.”
Reynolds said as he was trying to get his crewmates into the raft, he was also bailing water out of it. The 10 to 12 foot waves soon swept the raft away from his crewmates.
Reynolds spent about two hours floating in the water, firing flares twice into the air, before a Coast Guard jet flew overhead. Reynolds was eventually flown to Houston, having suffered only minor injuries.
Reynolds, who has been a fisherman for 35 years, said he is grateful to the Coast Guard for saving his life but is still dealing with the loss of his crewmates and friends.
Moore said he had worked with Patrick for about eight years and thought of him “like a brother.”
“To all the families of the guys that are gone, if I could trade places with any one of them I would,” Moore said.
Follow Juan A. Lozano at http://www.twitter.com/juanlozano70