from Washington Post Wed AM
17 Virginia Divers Feared Dead in Hurricane
By Josh White and Kevin Sullivan
Winds nearing 200 mph and surging seas from Hurricane Iris hurled a chartered boat into the air over a Belize mangrove forest, capsizing the vessel and killing as many as 20 people, including 17 members of a Richmond diving club.
The tourists and crew members had sought refuge at a dock in Big Creek, a sheltered deep-water port in the town of Independence, when they learned that the hurricane was on its way Monday afternoon. Government officials and witnesses said the boat was ripped from its mooring lines when the storm passed about 10 that night, bringing wind gusts of up to 200 mph and ocean swells nearly 20 feet above normal.
The captain of a second boat of divers reported hearing the first boat's mooring lines pop before watching it soar into the air and crash on a dock, coming to rest on its side in about 12 feet of water. Survivors and victims were pulled onto nearby boats as the blinding storm chugged away.
"It was . . . an hour and thirty minutes of all hell breaking loose," said Wayne Hasson, co-owner of the boat docked next to the charter.
The M/V Wave Dancer, operated by Miami-based Peter Hughes Diving Inc., was carrying 20 members of the two-year-old Richmond Dive Club and a crew of eight on what was to have been a seven-day tour filled with stunning dives off the Central American coast.
In Richmond last night, club members gathered solemnly at a restaurant for a regularly scheduled meeting. They said the trip to Belize had been the highlight of the nascent organization's calendar -- the ultimate dive, surpassing past excursions off North Carolina and the Bahamas in the last two years. The trip had been in the works for the better part of a year, and the $2,500 slots on one boat filled up in less than a week. A second boat started filling shortly after.
"If I had enough money, I would have been on that trip," said Steve Glenn, the group's lawyer. "People drool over this trip. It's such a dream to do."
Three American crew members -- including the boat's captain -- and 17 Virginia residents are feared dead. As of late yesterday, 18 bodies had been recovered. Belize officials said the divers and crew members were the only deaths from the hurricane.
U.S. government officials said three members of the dive club and five crew members survived the capsizing. Among those dead was the club's president, Glenn Prillaman, 48, a real estate agent from Richmond.
Members of the group described Prillaman as the rallier, the one who got them excited about diving.
"When he got into something, he gets into it with his heart and soul," said Prillaman's fiancee, Margo Minter. "He was just a great friend to have. I'm going to miss him."
A boat operated by Aggressor Fleet that was carrying 10 additional members of the dive club was moored next to the Wave Dancer when the hurricane hit. "Our crew was working to loosen the lines so we could ride with the tide," Hasson said. He said his boat's captain watched in horror as the Wave Dancer's lines began to pop. "They were riding the storm out," he said.
Government officials and a statement from Peter Hughes indicated that the mooring lines snapped under high pressure. "Despite following all procedures for securing the vessel during a hurricane, an unusually strong surge of water apparently lifted the vessel dramatically right at the pier, snapping all of the stern lines and allowing the wind to rip the vessel from the pier," the statement said.
Dive companies use the small lagoon at Big Creek as an escape from major storms; it is protected from the open sea and has been considered a haven for 20 years. Peter Hughes officials said it was impossible to unload passengers at Belize City before the storm hit because the area had been evacuated.
The National Hurricane Center in Miami said Iris raised seas by 13 to 18 feet above normal and brought rainfall of up to eight inches as it passed Central America. Iris weakened to a tropical depression as it moved into Mexico.
Vaughan Gill, a Belize government spokesman, said the storm caused severe damage to the coastal areas of Stann Creek and Toledo in the south. Gill said the coastal villages of Placencia, population about 600, and Seine Bight lost 80 percent to 90 percent of their structures. Farther south in Monkey River, the only structure left standing was a community center, where those remaining in the evacuated village had taken refuge.
"This is the worst we've had in a long time," Gill said.
Gill said 13,000 to 14,000 people had been left homeless. He said the U.S. government had agreed to supply several Chinook heavy-lift military helicopters to begin transporting tents into the worst-hit areas. The double-rotor Chinooks will be dispatched from a base in Honduras.
The diving tour had chartered a bus to Norfolk because their flight from Richmond was canceled as Continental Airlines scaled back after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The 30 divers pushed off from Belize City on Saturday night.
The Wave Dancer and Aggressor set off together, unusual teamwork between competing agencies that allowed the members of the Richmond club to be together. The group dived Sunday and headed into the bay about lunchtime Monday because the storm reportedly was battering the Caymen Islands.
"We knew there was a storm on the way, and we expected the storm to intensify," said Patricia Rose, a Peter Hughes spokeswoman. "Our crew went into the bay to protect ourselves the best way we knew how. I'm not aware of anything that could have been done differently that was foreseeable."
Dave DeBarger, who was on the trip and is the club's vice president, called Minter yesterday to let her know what had happened. Government officials confirmed that two other members -- Mary Lou Hayden and Richard Patterson -- also survived aboard the Wave Dancer.
Last night, as club members in Richmond met privately to console one another, they talked about the dead and missing, softly mourning while still holding out a little hope.
"It's just devastating," said Jerry Campbell, a club member. "These are people you know. They're friends of yours. It's just a difficult thing."
[This message has been edited by Marty (edited 10-10-2001).]