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It takes a search to thank crew's rescuers
By LAURA HEINAUER
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 25, 2000
The family was two days into a powerboat fishing trip to the Bahamas when the emergency call crackled over the radio.
"Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! My Jo, My Jo, My Jo . . . Taking water just west of Marco Island my coordinates are . . ."
They listened. They waited. But the coordinates never came.
The family of four, had been waiting in the Marco Island harbor for another boat in its small flotilla to catch up, gunned the motor for open water.
Miles away, 76-year-old Jim Carpenter clung to a seat cushion next to a capsized Sea Cat catamaran. A few moments before, he had been captain of the boat, taking two adult children of a friend on a fishing trip.
Things were fuzzy and a bump on his head was throbbing, but Carpenter could still make out the bottle of suntan lotion bobbing on the waves and a line of buildings about 5 miles west at Capri Pass on Marco Island, which is south of Naples.
As a favor to Jo Lozeir, the widow of a longtime fishing buddy, Carpenter had taken her son and daughter-in-law, Ed and Kathy Harris, fishing for king mackerel.
He had been in the boat with Lozeir's husband countless times before, but Carpenter had never operated the 21-foot Sea Cat himself. To be safe, he had checked its radio and the pumps. He had made sure they had plenty of life preservers and enough blue runners to use for bait.
The morning was going well. The fish were biting and a saltwater breeze gave them some relief from the hot sun.
Things went well until the crew decided to change locations. From behind the wheel, Ed Harris noticed the bow tilting. He turned around and realized that a rubber flap covering the access hole in the stern of the boat was letting in water. Moving forward only made things worse as water started pouring over the upper edge of the boat.
"I knew things were not good," Harris said. "Mr. Carpenter got on the radio, and Kathy checked the pumps. I was going for the life preservers when it rolled."
Within a minute, all three were in the water, floating beside the capsized catamaran. The coordinates had gone out too late, and the life preservers were under the boat, stuck behind an ice chest.
"The worst part of the whole thing was when it was sinking," Kathy Harris said. "The only thing I could think of was "Oh my God, I'm sinking my mother-in-law's boat.' "
As the boat tipped, Carpenter hit his head on the hull. Kathy Harris, who works as a nurse, swam to his aid, and using floating seat cushions, she helped keep Carpenter's 6-foot-2 frame afloat.
"It was real touch-and-go," Carpenter said. "I was scared."
Suddenly Kathy Harris let him go. She waved her arms and yelled.
"I saw a flying bridge and a bow, and I jumped out of the water a little bit. It was such a relief," she recalled. "They turned away for a second -- of course that scared me -- then they turned toward us again."
The three watched as the boat drew closer. Finally, Carpenter saw a 14-year-old boy on the boat's bridge. Binoculars pressed against his eyes, the teen was waving.
When the boat closed to within 20 feet, the boy swam out to Carpenter with a floation device tied to a rope, which towed Carpenter to safety.
The three were brought aboard the powerboat. On board, Kathy Harris found that Carpenter's pulse was racing. Their rescuers got blankets, pillows, aspirin and water for them. One checked the injury on Carpenter's head.
Shortly after, the Collier County Sheriff's Office boat patrol arrived. They asked several questions and moved quickly to get Carpenter to the hospital. So quickly that the Harrises and Carpenter almost forgot a key question: Who had saved them?
"Right before I left, I saw the wife give (the authorities) their name and phone number so I asked the sergeant for it, too," Carpenter said. "He told me it would be in the report."
That was June 10. Two weeks later, Carpenter had the marine patrol report, but no name.
The Collier County Sheriff's Marine Patrol office told him the information was given to the Fort Myers Beach Coast Guard and he would have to get it from them. The Coast Guard told him he would have to file a Freedom of Information request to obtain the family's name.
Knowing only that his rescuers came from the St. Petersburg area and that they were part of a seven-boat flotilla headed for the Keys and then to the Bahamas, Carpenter called the Neighborhood Times for help in trying to find the family's name and phone number.
A day later the mystery was solved. Their rescuers are the Cornell family of Largo: husband Paul, wife Jeanie, daughter Mary Beth and son Steven.
They had returned from their two-week vacation just hours before they found out it was now Carpenter who was in search of them. They had been at a fishing tournament in the Bahamas and had traveled down the west coast of Florida as part of a seven-member flotilla, stopping along the way at Venice, Marco Island and Duck Key before going to the Bahamas. They then sailed to Miami and Key West on the way home.
"If I had to pick them out in a lineup, I'm not sure I could," Carpenter said almost two weeks later. "But we're all extremely anxious to convey our appreciation."
Sitting with his family in the living room of their Largo house, Paul Cornell shrugged off questions about his family's actions.
"We just did something any responsible boat owner would do," he said. "It just so happened that we were the first boat there."
Because of a history of heart problems, Carpenter said he felt the Cornell's timeliness was crucial. Upon hearing the news that his rescuers had been found, Carpenter shouted and laughed. He said he hadn't even thought about what he was going to do next.
"Maybe we could nominate them for a Coast Guard award, make sure they are recognized in the boating community," he said. "Whatever I do, it won't be enough."
A sea-tow operation salvaged My Jo, but it will probably be out of commission for the next few months, said Carpenter, adding that he won't be docked for long. Even though he has not been out on the water since his accident, Carpenter said his fishing days are far from over.
"I firmly believe that if the horse throws you, you get back on," he said.
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