Dipnet disaster averted: Rescuers save 4 men from capsized boat

Posted: Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A close call doesn't begin to describe the experience four men from Anchorage faced Monday morning when their boat capsized while they were dipnetting on the Kenai River.

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Photos By Joseph Robertia
Photos By Joseph Robertia
Kenai Fire Capt. Mark Anderson (in orange) works with two dipnetters to pull Billy Douglas, of Anchorage, into a boat after he and three companions were ejected when their boat capsized while dipnetting on the Kenai River Monday.

"It seemed like forever," said Robert Long, in regard to how long he and his companions were in the 55-degree water before being rescued.

A multitude of responders -- on land and in the river -- took part in the rescue efforts, including the Kenai Fire Department -- who took the initial call at 11:35 a.m., Kenai police, Central Emergency Services, Nikiski Fire Department, Coast Guard and Alaska State Parks rangers, as well as several dipnet fishermen, already on the scene.

Long, owner of a 19-foot-long service vessel named "The Boston Whaler," his son Rodney, nephew Billy Douglas and friend Russel Stigall were ejected from the boat after it incurred motor problems behind Kenai Landing.

"We lost our engine after a Coast Guard safety inspection. We were floating downstream toward the dock hoping to get it restarted. We floated into a mooring buoy and line. With the current and the angle of the boat, we capsized within 20 seconds of hitting it," Long said.

Kenai Fire Chief Mike Tilly said once tangled in the line, the men were unable to move the bow of the boat. The river's current swung the bow down river, and the stern began to fill with water immediately. As the boat began to sink, it capsized.

Stigall, along with Long's son, were thrown clear of the vessel, and popped up a few yards downstream where they quickly found themselves being carried away in the swift-moving current.

"When I went in, I don't know how it happened, but I hit the bottom of the river, but then popped right up," Stigall said.

All four men were wearing life-jackets, and Stigall credited them with returning him to the surface quickly, as well as saving his life. He was wearing breathable waders that immediately filled with water, yet rescuers were able to grab him and his companions by their life-jackets and pull them aboard, before quickly transporting them to the Kenai Landing dock for emergency treatment.

Long said in the end, his life-jacket also likely led to his survival, although initially it worked against him, since unlike his companions, he and Douglas became trapped under the capsized vessel.

"Billy and I were trapped in an air-pocket underneath. It was holding me to the seat initially and complicated getting out from underneath it, but then it kept me afloat," he said.

Rescuers were able to manipulate the hull of the vessel and move it enough to retrieve Long and Douglas, Tilly said.

The last to be rescued at 11:58 a.m., Long and Douglas were in the water for more than 20 minutes before being brought to shore, where -- near hypothermic -- they were quickly stripped of their wet clothes, wrapped in dry towels, and warmed up in a CES ambulance.

"Billy was also transported to Central Peninsula Hospital due to a pre-existing heart condition that was exasperated by the stress of this situation," Long said in regard to his nephew, who wears a pacemaker.

Long said he was grateful so many responded so quickly to the emergency situation.

"I can't say enough thanks to everyone who took part in the rescue," he said.

Long and his two companions who remained on the scene recovered into the afternoon, and as the tide came in they assisted in retrieving their boat after responders tethered it to their own vessel, cut it free of the mooring line, and brought it to shore during the slack water of high tide.

Clarion reporter Mike Nesper contributed to this story.

Joseph Robertia can be reached at joseph.robertia@peninsulaclarion.com.



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