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'I thought I was going to die:' Boating adventure turns to 'utter chaos' for 13 passengers

By Ashley Williams, AccuWeather staff writer
April 16, 2019, 2:38:41 PM EDT

One minute, the 13 passengers riding on a pontoon boat out in the Gulf of Mexico were enjoying a gorgeous day out on the water. They likely never imagined that they’d soon become grateful survivors of a dramatic rescue mission. In the blink of an eye, their leisurely boating excursion transformed into “utter panic,” in the words of passenger Loryn Decker.

The group of friends was trying to reach Anclote Key off Florida’s west coast on Sunday when all hell broke loose. Their small 20-foot boat, they’d realized, had begun taking on water amid rough seas, WFLA NewsChannel 8 reported -- and their attempts to turn it around were futile.

“As we turned around, a big wave overtook, and it was just within 30 seconds [that] the rest started going down,” Decker told WFLA. “It happened so quickly.” Decker and her 12 friends were suddenly left flailing in a panic, struggling to keep themselves afloat after their boat capsized near Anclote Key, tossing them into the Gulf’s waters.

“I thought I was going to die,” passenger Allona Haynes told WFLA. “As soon as I hit that water, my legs turned to Jell-O. I was sinking.”

The frightening ordeal rapidly intensified, because not a single passenger wore a life vest at the time of the accident, officials said. Even more concerning – not all members of the group were strong swimmers. Those who were able to swim had a difficult time, Decker told WFLA. “I was treading water for 20 minutes.”

The Small Craft Advisory reportedly issued on Sunday meant that conditions were not ideal for inexperienced boaters, according to the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office. The National Weather Service issues a Small Craft Advisory when certain conditions, such as when sustained wind speeds or frequent gusts exceed 28 mph, can be hazardous to small boats, particularly those operated by inexperienced captains.

"It was probably about 25-mph winds, and that specific area was about 3-foot waves,” said Cpl. Russ Meissner, one of the rescuers. Luckily for the distressed boaters, the operators on a nearby local tourist charter vessel were able to toss flotation devices to everyone in the water just minutes before the marine unit arrived, according to Tampa-based WTSP 10 News.

The intense rescue was all captured on body cam footage.

Boater rescued

The Pasco County Sheriff's Office Marine Unit came to the rescue of 13 people after their boat capsized in the Gulf of Mexico on Sunday, April 14. (Photo/Pasco County Sheriff's Office)

“You come to me!,” you hear one of the rescuers say as he motions his arm toward himself, directing a boater clinging to an object in an effort to stay above water. The video then shows a few of the other boaters, now wearing life vests, who are able to stand atop the capsized boat as the marine unit cruises close enough to bring them safely aboard amid strong wind gusts and choppy waters.

“The sheriffs were having trouble getting everybody on the boat because it had to be one by one, because of all the panic and everything,” said passenger Richard Vasta.

Not all of the boaters were able to put the life vests on properly, or at all, officials said. "We had one guy in the water holding onto a life jacket, and we had another person who didn't have the life jacket on correctly," said Cpl. Meissner. Another shot of the intense footage shows a group of the boaters tightly huddled atop debris as a deputy signaled for them to hold tight while they brought another man onto their boat.

“Had these individuals been out there much longer, had the [other boat] not been able to throw them life preservers, had they not been there, we would’ve been talking about a horrific tragedy, because [some of] them were saying, 'I can’t swim. I don’t know how to swim,’” said Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco.

PSO Marine Unit Rescuers

The Pasco County Sheriff's Office Marine Unit saved 13 boaters from the Gulf of Mexico in a dramatic rescue captured on body cam footage on Sunday, April 14. (Twitter photo/@PascoSheriff')

Some were also rescued by a good Samaritan, Martin Smith, deputies said.

“I don’t know what his background is, but to pull three people out of the water in a pontoon boat without a ladder in those sea conditions or something, that’s hard for somebody that trains every day. So, we are really thankful that he actually stopped and helped and was able to get those people aboard,” Deputy Mitch Bollenbacher, who also assisted with the life-saving mission.

"You get one person that goes in the water and you get them out, it's a good day, but to do it 13 times without anyone seriously injured is a miracle," he added.

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All 13 passengers, albeit scraped and bruised from their harrowing ordeal, were successfully rescued. One woman reportedly regained consciousness after crews arrived, according to WFLA.

“I'm just glad we're all okay now,” Vasta said.

Following the incident and especially with summer approaching, officials are urging boaters to wear and bring life vests out on the water, ensuring that there are enough for everyone on board, and to heed all advisories. "If you are the captain, you are responsible for everyone on board," said Sheriff Nocco.

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