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September 25, 2003
CONTACT: Joy Hill (352) 732-1225

Five people are safe today after spending half the night holding onto a channel marker in the St. Johns River in Volusia County. They were rescued about 7 a.m., by a tug boat operator who picked them up and took them to Highbanks Marina in Debary. There were no injuries.

The five people had been legally hunting alligators north of Lake Monroe when their 18-foot airboat took on water and sank around 2 a.m.  The group had last been heard from at about 10:30 p.m., just before the batteries on their cell phone ran out.  They were expected home around 5 a.m., and when they did not show up, the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office (VCSO) sent Air One on a search mission.

However, shortly after the search began, the U.S. Coast Guard notified VCSO that the operator of the tug boat Sun Gypsy had come upon the five holding onto Channel Marker 87, and everyone was fine.

Among those on the boat were two off-duty Volusia County deputies:  Sgt. Donaldson Taylor and Investigator Sean Gowan. The other three individuals were Peter Smith, 43, of Debary (owner of the airboat); Glen Wilson, 56, of Oviedo (operator of the airboat); and Barry Smith, 70, of Summerfield.

The group had already taken one alligator and were attempting to take another, when the boat, for reasons not yet known, began to take on water. It sank within seconds and completely submerged. Nobody was wearing a life jacket.

One life jacket from the boat floated and they used it and a cooler to help stay afloat until they swam to the channel marker.

“Luckily, that particular channel marker has a ladder that goes down into the water so they were able to climb up the ladder, onto the marker and get out of the water until help arrived,” said Lt. Mark Hodges, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) law enforcement supervisor for that area of Volusia County.

The FWC is investigating the cause of the accident. Salvage efforts to remove the boat from the bottom of the river will begin shortly.





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