The eight rescued crew members from the sunken Pride of Baltimore arrived at a suburban Baltimore airport here today and recalled how "a wall of water" battered their ship and how they survived in a life raft during "days barely tolerable and nights that were hell."
The eight sunburned sailors, some clad in borrowed flight suits and all wearing big grins, stepped off two private jets at the small Glen L. Martin State Airport. There was the clicking of cameras, a brief cheer and then a moment of silence from the crowd of several hundred well-wishers and reporters. A moment later the crew members fell into the arms of anxious friends and family.
It was a bittersweet return for the crew, who watched two colleagues drown and who await word on the fate of two others last seen when the ship went down May 14 in the Atlantic Ocean 240 miles from Puerto Rico.
"It's very hard to explain the grief of losing shipmates and the joy of being alive," said John (Sugar) Flanagan, the 27-year-old first mate from Niantic, Conn., who acted as the crew's spokesman in a news conference.
Flanagan spilled out the harrowing story while maintaining that the Pride, which he called "a race horse, an elite craft," was safe. He pointed to the Pride's "track record, the miles sailed safely and the people who sailed and maintained her."
Then Flanagan, who has sailed professionally for eight years, said of the squall that sunk her: "I don't think any of the boats I've sailed on could have handled a gust like that."
Flanagan, in the first public account of the disaster by one of the crew, said that about 11:30 a.m. on May 14 a storm began to brew, and the crew members, most of them harnessed to the ship to prevent them from being swept overboard in the bad weather, lowered many of the sails. Then Flanagan spotted a line of squalls. But "none appeared unduly threatening," he said.
Minutes later, he added, the ship was "hit by a wall of water and wind" and "in what appeared to be slow motion, the boat started laying over to port. In less than 60 seconds, the boat was on its side."
In the next moments, James Chesney, the 25-year-old cook from New Market, N.H., and the only crew member below deck when the squall hit, fought his way out, and Flanagan could hear Capt. Armin E. Elsaesser III of South Dartmouth, Mass., call for a head count as everyone started moving toward the life rafts.
One raft got tangled and ripped in the rigging and was not usable, and the second blew a valve. "We were left with two deflated life rafts in conditions where you could barely see 50 feet, in blowing sea and rain . . . communication was impossible," Flanagan recounted.
They saw the captain swimming away from them, Flanagan said, speculating that Elsaesser was moving to help another crew member. In a short time, "we spotted Nina [Jeanette F. Schack] and Barry's [Duckworth] bodies floating face down. We never saw Vinnie [Lazzaro] and Armin again."
The eight spent six hours inflating the raft that had blown its valve, taking turns blowing it up with their mouths, remaining afloat as best they could. Second Mate Joseph McGeady, 27, of Severna Park told reporters he used a bucket to stay afloat, while other crew members filled their rubber foul-weather pants with air.
Once in the boat, where they would remain for four days and seven hours, they watched one airplane and five ships go by. They shot up their three flares, waved foul-weather gear and used their flashlight to signal an SOS, according to Flanagan.
"Our spirits would get squashed a bit with the passing of each ship," he said.
They lived with one emergency food packet, a first aid kit and seven cans of water. "Between the eight of us, we lived on two of these a day," said Flanagan, holding up a tiny biscuit. "Brunch was 1000 hours and dinner was at 1800," he said, using military terms for 10 a.m. and 6 p.m.
He said there was never less than six inches of water in the raft, which was about 5 1/2 feet square and meant to hold only six people. The crew was so squeezed together, he said, their bodies were always touching and for one of them to straighten a leg, the others all had to move.
Although he asserted that they never lost hope, he believed that "we would have started losing people in a day and a half . . . . "
Shortly before 2 a.m. on May 19, the eight spotted another vessel and started signaling with a flashlight, he said. "Thank God they saw our signal and realized we were in distress."
The crew of the Norwegian tanker Toro plucked them from the sea. "When we got off the raft and hit the deck, we sank to our knees," said Flanagan. "We hadn't walked in five days."
Even as they came off two private jets provided for their return, the crew members, most wearing thongs on their sunburned feet, still walked hesitantly.
But there was no hesitation in their smiles or in the reply of one crew member, Scott Jeffrey, who was asked, "How do you feel?" The 25-year-old from North Linthicum, Md., yelled back, "We're glad we're alive."
Pride Board Chairman Bill Beasman, who broke into tears when he spoke of the lost crew members, and Mayor William Donald Schaefer gave the official greeting. "We mourn our loss and will never forget," said Schaefer, "but, oh, how happy we are that you came home."
But the emotion expressed by the dignitaries, who included Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes, was muted compared to that of the crew members' families.
"How do you describe ecstasy?" asked Suzanne Huesman of Baltimore, seeing her 24-year-old daughter Susan step off the plane. "A dream walking. I don't think I'll ever let her go."
Families of all eight crew members were on hand to greet them, except for the parents of Leslie McNish, who had flown to Puerto Rico Tuesday to meet her there. The crew members had been flown from the Norwegian tanker by helicopter to Puerto Rico, where they rested, were treated to Cokes and hamburgers by the Coast Guard and were examined by doctors.
Several Pride officials met them in Puerto Rico to get their account of the disaster and to prepare them for an official Coast Guard inquiry into the accident that is scheduled to begin Thursday.
As the crew left Puerto Rico shortly after noon today, six long-range search aircraft and the Coast Guard cutter Bear continued an intensive search for Capt. Elsaesser, 42, and Lazzaro, 27, of West Redding, Conn., officials said. The bodies of Duckworth, 29, who grew up in Northern Virginia but most recently lived in Georgetown, Del., and Schack, a 23-year-old deckhand from Baltimore, have not been found.
Pride officials at the news conference said searchers had spotted debris from the ship, indicating that they were looking in the right place.
"The last time I saw both Vinnie and Armin, they were alive and floating," said Flanagan. "I will not give up hope till I know otherwise."
At the mention of the lost crew members, several of the eight bowed their heads and wiped away tears, while others leaned over to offer comfort. They spoke with admiration of their captain, describing him as a cautious and accomplished sailor, who put his own safety last.
"When I saw him swimming away from us, I believe he saw someone who needed help," said Flanagan.
As the news conference broke up, the crew members headed with relief back to their lives on land. McGeady, clutching a bunch of red roses bought by a friend, said he and his family were going to watch an all-star lacrosse game in which one of his brothers was playing.
McNish, 30, the ship's boatswain, said she was planning to spend a few quiet days at home with her family in Somis, Calif. "It will be nice to sit quietly without having to dwell on what happened." The other returning crew members are Daniel Krachuk, 22, of Springfield, Pa., and Robert Foster, 23, of Alexandria.
As to the Pride, the city of Baltimore's floating public relations emissary, Flanagan said, "I can't picture the Pride gone yet, though I know it is . . . . I would not hesitate to sail on Pride if she came up again."