PASCO COUNTY, Fla. — “You come to me!” Deputy Russ Meissner yells to the people he and his partner, Deputy Mitch Bollenabcher, are rescuing.
In all their years, the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office Marine Unit had never seen anything like the incident that unfolded near Anclote Key on Sunday.
Thirteen people had crowded aboard a pontoon boat, which was swamped by rough seas.
As the deputies approach, a bodycam video shows what they saw: fear and panic in peoples’ eyes.
Four of those aboard the boat were unable to swim, say deputies. One slipped below the water line, but they were able to rescue her too.
“She went under the water and we actually lost sight of her for a little bit. The water was extremely dirty and as soon as she went down we couldn’t see her,” said Meissner.
With so many people in the water and the boat, sinking, decisions had to made fast.
Bollenbacher says they fell back on their training to prioritize who to rescue first.
“People in the water without lifejackets. People in the water with lifejackets,” said Bollenbacher, “People on the boat without lifejackets. People on the boat with lifejackets. Kind of set the precedent of who we need to get when.”
Deputies still aren’t sure whether there were enough life preservers on the boat for everyone.
Fortunately, The Dolphin 2, a local tourist charter vessel, was nearby. Deputies say the crew threw flotation devices to everyone aboard the sinking party boat in the minutes before the marine unit got to the scene.
“Had these of individuals been out there much longer, had the Odyssey 2 not been able to throw them life preservers, had they not been there, we would’ve been talking about a horrific tragedy,” said Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco. “Because numerous of them were saying, 'I can’t swim. I don’t know how to swim.'”
Deputies were also grateful to a good Samaritan named Martin Smith who pulled three people into his own boat.
“I don’t know what his background is, but to pull three people out of the water in a pontoon boat without a ladder in those sea conditions or something, that’s hard for somebody that trains every day. So, we are really thankful that he actually stopped and helped and was able to get those three people aboard,” said Bollenbacher.
FWC and the U.S. Coast Guard also assisted in Sunday’s rescue.
Pasco deputies say it was a record week for the Marine Unit, rescuing 17 people in separate incidents.
“You know, if you’re going out on the water this summer, please be careful,” said Nocco. “Watch the weather forecast. If they say there’s a small vessel warning, take heed and warning on that.”
Nocco said the Marine Unit involved in the rescue had just come from a ceremony a few minutes earlier called the “Blessing of the Ships”. It’s an annual prayer service held this time of year as the weather gets warmer, and the boating season gets underway.
“And, as their boat was getting blessed, the call came out,” Nocco said. “And if they said, "Sorry we gotta run." And so, actually, it was ironic that they got blessed right before they got sent to a rescue. So, everything works out for a reason."
This time, things ended better than deputies could have ever expected.
“Having 13 people in the water? You get one person in the water and you can get them out it’s a good day,” said Bollenbacher. “But to do it 13 times without anyone seriously injured is a miracle. They obviously had somebody watching out for them.”
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