ST. PETERSBURG BEACH, Fla. — As the sun set for a second night into the search for two boaters who fell into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, hope faded late Thursday for the pair swept out curing a charter cruise along the Pinellas intercostal.
Conditions described as choppy, windy and rough kept the captain from taking his 71-foot Sea Ray out any further than Shell Key, where he anchored Tuesday afternoon.
“That yacht passed me literally 15 minutes before the incident,” said fellow charter boat captain Ryan Harrington, who was out on the water most of the day Tuesday.
“What we have the last 24 hours is a strong northwest wind and on top of that we have some really strong tides,” said Harrington of the conditions. “You get that wind and the tide going against each other, which was the case about 5:00 yesterday, and that’s a worst-case scenario.”
The captain of the yacht told investigators that once anchored some of the passengers, mostly students from Colorado State University, discussed snorkeling but were told not to get off the vessel.
The students, however, say they were never warned about the dangerous conditions. Five of them repeatedly jumped into the water, according to investigators.
On the last jump, 21-year-old Jie Luo began struggling in the current. The charter’s first mate, identified as Andrew Charles Dillman, jumped in to help according, to those on board. But by the time the captain was able to raise the anchor, both men had disappeared.
“(Tuesday) was real murky, the waves were high. It would be tough to find even one or two people off the boat, let alone when all five were off the boat."
Harrington says the captain ultimately is responsible for the safety of everyone on board, and while the investigation into exactly what happened continues he says there’s no doubt the students shouldn’t have been swimming.
“I wouldn’t go in those conditions, so I certainly wouldn’t let a client,” said Harrington. “Even then, we have to be real careful if clients want to get off the boat.”