St. Petersburg Times
Special report
Video report
  • For their own good
    Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
  • More video reports
Multimedia report
Print Email this storyEmail story Comment Email editor
Fill out this form to email this article to a friend
Your name Your email
Friend's name Friend's email
Your message

Teen wanted fishing luck and needed it

Published March 15, 2007


CLEARWATER - It's true, he says, from the comfort of a recliner on Wednesday. When you think you're about to die, when the energy empties from your body, your life flashes before your eyes.

Fragments of dreams, memory and song.

"I was really tired out and I got confused. That's when it started happening," said Walter Samuel Piper, 16, recounting his harrowing adventure Tuesday on Lake Tarpon.

The Clearwater teen, who is home-schooled, put his grandpa's 12-foot jon boat on the water about 3:30 p.m., planning to fish alone. He's never caught anything on the lake. But the weekend before, he won a new tackle box at a church-sponsored father-son fishing trip. Perhaps it would bring some luck.

Piper tried one spot. Then another. Then another. He took off his life jacket to get comfortable. But still, nothing was biting.

He decided to fish closer to A.L. Anderson Park, on the west side of the lake. He began motoring south toward the park when he hit another boat's wake, knocking his hand from the tiller. The boat veered hard to the right and Piper was thrown overboard.

The boat, still running, circled back toward Piper, once, twice, three times. There was no way to get back on it, and treading water was getting dangerous. It was the kind of accident that has killed two others on Lake Tarpon since 2000.

Piper panicked. No one was around, he's not a great swimmer, and land was half a mile away.

He kicked off his basketball shoes, stripped off his long-sleeve shirt and turned on his back. He began kicking toward the eastern shore. In the sky above, he saw a seagull. It appeared to look at him, then at the shore, then back. It squawked wildly, as though worried for him.

Piper saw a boat pass nearby. He stopped swimming, waved his hands and tried to yell. He was out of breath and the boat kept going.

Doing the backstroke, Piper couldn't see land and veered off course four or five times. He decided to set his orientation by the position of the sun and finally made some progress.

But his energy was failing. He felt dizzy. I'm going to die, he thought.

Images came in a flood. A picture of himself as a kid, a moment from the day before, a flash of his dream car, a Mitsubishi Eclipse. He then heard two songs from a favorite band, Relient K, a Christian rock group.

It saved him. The distraction, the music, made it easier to swim and before he knew it, Piper reached an old dock.

But he was so tired, he couldn't pull himself up. And he didn't want to walk on shore because he was scared of the alligators that populate the lake.

Instead, he grabbed a bucket from the dock, turned it over, stepped on it and jumped onto the dock.

He laid there for several minutes, unable to walk, then began knocking on people's doors. On the fourth, someone finally answered. Piper called 911, then his mother.

"I know without a doubt that God was watching over him," his mother Carolyn said Wednesday. "The boats, the alligators. He could very easily have drowned, but God was with him."

Piper's boat, however, was still spinning circles when authorities found it.

Jacob H. Fries can be reached at 727 445-4156 or

[Last modified March 15, 2007, 00:10:59]

Share your thoughts on this story

[an error occurred while processing this directive]
Subscribe to the Times
Click here for daily delivery
of the St. Petersburg Times.

Email Newsletters