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Fishermen Never Gave Up Hope During Pacific Ocean Ordeal

December 18, 1987

ALAMEDA, Calif. (AP) _ Six fishermen pitched into the stormy Pacific Ocean when their boat sank say they survived for 17 hours by clinging to surfboards, while three of their friends weakened and disappeared beneath the waves.

″We all huddled together and kept saying ‘We’ll make it,‴ said James Alford, 28, of Fort Bragg. ″It was hard, when you see your three friends die, but we huddled up and said ’We’re going to make it.‴

The nine fishermen, all deep sea divers, were fishing for sea urchins when their 42-foot boat, Explorador, began taking on water and sank late Tuesday while 30 knot wind whipped the sea into waves estimated at 17 to 25 feet.

They were able to radio a distress call before the boat went down between Catalina and Santa Barbara islands off Los Angeles.

The survivors were rescued Wednesday afternoon by a Navy helicopter squad sent from the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, which had been in the area of the islands en route back to its home port here on San Franciso Bay. They described their ordeal at a news conference Thursday aboard the ship.

Diver Bernie Sauls, 27, of Redondo Beach, lost his fiancee and crewmate, Kelly Ann Pace, who drowned before his eyes when she could no longer hold on in the 59-degree water.

″It’s a horror story and a love story. I loved her and she will live in me forever,″ said Sauls.

Also drowned was Patrick Paul McQuistion, of Hermosa Beach, the boat’s owner and captain, Navy officials said. The name of the third victim was withheld until relatives could be notified.

The crew had taken on several thousand pounds of sea urchins, when the load shifted suddenly and the boat began filling with water, Sauls said.

During the next frantic minutes, they put out a distress signal and jumped overboard.

Capt. George D. O’Brien, commanding officer of the Carl Vinson, said that if the six had not grabbed wetsuits and broken open a bag of surfboards when the boat sank, they could not have survived in the frigid water.

″They were long past the survival time for people not wearing wetsuits,″ said O’Brien. The three who died wore only partial wetsuits, Sauls said.

On Thursday, members of a Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron from the Carl Vinson spotted five of the men amid the debris of their boat. Navy rescue swimmers were lowered on cables and lifted the men to safety on rescue slings.

Not with the group was Jeff Pelton, 22, of Torrance, who had decided to paddle his surfboard to Santa Barbara Island, barely visible several miles away.

″After watching our friends get weaker and go down - Kelly hung on as best she could - I said, ’I’m going to that island,‴ he said.

The rescuers finally spotted Pelton on his surfboard near the island.

″We had searched the area three or four times and we were just about at the end of the search when we saw him waving from his surfboard,″ said Lt. Cmdr. Steve Cox. ″That was the best part of this venture. We got a big charge on the helicopter and we let out quite a yell on the radio, too.″

Also rescued were Edward Lopez, 24, of Torrance; Gary Trumper, of Southern California; and Jay Delaney, 27, of Fort Bragg.

″I’ll be at work tomorrow. I won’t quit. I’m a diver,″ said Delaney, who like the others planned to continue the trade he has worked since boyhood.

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