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With boat overturned, race begins for survival

A father and son swim for it, hoping to get help in time for the 8-year-old and a family friend left behind in the dark.

Published July 3, 2006

RIVERVIEW — James Hill Sr. thought his first trip in his small fishing boat would be a fun family outing.
By the next day, the Seffner man never wanted to see the 14-foot boat again. In fact, he wanted to shoot it, then sink it.

“I’ll fill it full of holes,” Hill said, rubbing his red, tired eyes.

Hill, two of his children and a family friend spent nearly nine hours in Hillsborough Bay struggling to survive early Monday after a wave capsized the boat around midnight, sending all aboard tumbling into the water, he said.

Hill, 48, and his son, James Hill Jr., 15, swam to shore for help while his daughter Vanessa Hill, 8, and friend Michael Ard, 34, bobbed in their life vests, waiting to be rescued, sheriff’s deputies said.

“As long as I’m living, I’m never going out again,” Hill said.

The trip started about 10 p.m. Sunday at the Williams Park boat ramp along U.S. 41 in Riverview. Hill, who is unemployed and disabled, had bought a used boat a couple of months ago, said his mother, Alma Hill. He fixed it up and thought it was ready to go out on the water.

He put it in on the Alafia River and headed into Hillsborough Bay.

It was the first time Vanessa had been on a boat since she was an infant. She was excited, dolled up in a black dress with a lacy skirt.

A couple of hours later — Hill estimates it was between midnight and 1 a.m. — a large wave swamped the boat, most likely the wake from a ship that passed, he said. The boat capsized, spilling the four into the water near a spoil island.

It happened quickly.

“One, two and it was gone,” he said.

Vanessa nearly got caught under the boat, she said. She swam out from under it, then tied her vest to her brother’s.

Hill grabbed a gas can and tried to hold onto it and keep everyone together. He wanted the four to swim to shore, but it was too much for Vanessa, he said. So Hill and his son headed for shore.

“We’ll die if we don’t swim,” he remembered thinking.

It wasn’t until 9:45 a.m. Monday that the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office got an emergency call, said sheriff’s spokeswoman Debbie Carter.

Hill and his son had finally reached land long after sunrise, Hill said.

“We saw the shore, but every time it seems like we got closer, it was getting farther away,” he said.

The two came ashore at the Mosaic Fertilizer plant near the Williams Park boat ramp, where they told a guard what had happened, Carter said. The guard called deputies, who sent a helicopter and boat to look for Vanessa and Ard.

Half an hour later, the two were rescued and brought back to land, Carter said.

The family reunited at the boat ramp. They sat at picnic tables, recovering from the ordeal.

Hill was clearly shaken by the experience. He watched from a table as deputies pulled in the boat from the bay. He didn’t look happy to see it.

Moments later, his girlfriend, who is Vanessa’s mother, Irene Kibler, arrived.

“When they first left, I had that bad feeling,” she said.

But Kibler, 31, said she didn’t find out what happened until 10 or 11 a.m. She had figured something was wrong, though, because Hill had not returned by daylight.

When she heard about the accident, deputies had not yet rescued Ard and Vanessa.

Kibler was terrified.

“My baby’s in the water,” she recalled thinking. She was hysterical.

She echoed her boyfriend’s thoughts on boating, saying she doesn’t want Vanessa to go out again.

“I guarantee after today she’ll never put her foot in another boat,” Kibler said. She hugged Vanessa, running her hands through the child’s still-wet hair.

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Abbie VanSickle can be reached at (813) 226-3373 or

[Last modified July 3, 2006, 22:35:56]

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