03 February 2006

Florida divers, adrift for hours, survive scare

The divers had been floating in the chilling water for hours when they saw the shark fin cut through a wave.

It was just 20 feet away, and that's when Michael Kittle realized the awful truth: He and friend Mark Hines might not make it out of this alive.

"I thought, God, you've got to be kidding me," said Kittle, 31, of Fort Myers. Sharks mainly feed at dusk.

"So you better believe that was going through my mind."

The two men came to Key Largo in the Florida Keys to scuba dive, but they almost didn't make it home to Lee County.

After their boat line snapped while they were underwater, the two men spent eight hours swimming Sunday — first trying to reach their boat, then trying to kick to shore miles away.

Finally, they made it to a small island off Rattlesnake Key. And a U.S. Coast Guard boat found them after a four-hour search.

But until that rescue, the friends would find themselves shivering in the ocean and hearing voices. They even started wishing for a phone to call their families and tell them goodbye.

"We wanted to tell them that we loved them," said Hines, 18, of Cape Coral.

Their ordeal began Sunday afternoon when they rented a 27-foot twin-engine boat and took it out to the Key Largo Dry Rocks — a popular diving area about five miles off the southeast shore of Key Largo.

The friends work as electricians for Cape Coral's D & T Design. Kittle also is a certified scuba instructor.

The pair tied their boat to a nearby anchor buoy and started diving at about 3:30 p.m. in the 25-foot-deep water. They’d been underwater about 30 minutes when Kittle said he got a feeling something was wrong.

He said he can't explain why, but he went to the surface anyway. He turned out to be right.

The boat was gone.

The line had snapped.

At first, they couldn't see the boat at all. Then they bobbed up high on a wave and saw the roof about 700 yards away.

For about two hours, they tried catching up to the boat, but it kept slipping farther away with the waves.

Finally, they gave up and turned to the shoreline.

They still had on their floating vests and wetsuits, and so they locked arms like a man escorting a woman, floated on their backs and kicked toward the shore miles away.

As the hours wore on and they grew weaker from the exertion, they talked to keep awake and focused.

Then it got dark, and the water got colder. By 9 or 10 p.m. the water reached 74 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the National Weather Service. That's cold enough to give people hypothermia, if they're in the water long enough.

On two separate occasions, they got a nasty jolt when they saw the dark gray shark fin.

Eventually, they started hallucinating and hearing things, they said. Helicopters and boats appeared and disappeared, and distant voices would talk to them.

Kittle said he heard his father, a retired Air Force colonel. "He'd say things like, 'Son, you can do this.'"

Occasionally, they'd hug to keep warm. Kittle was worried his friend would get hypothermia. Kittle had on two wetsuits, but Hines had just one, with short sleeves.

"He kept hearing things," Kittle said. "He'd say, 'What was that? What did you say?' And I'd say, 'Nothing. I was just kicking."

Once, about three or four hours into it, they saw a real boat with a search light — perhaps one of the Coast Guard boats that started looking for them at 7:30 p.m. Sunday after they were reported missing by the boat renters.

But the boat left, and the two were alone in the dark water.

Coast Guard spokeswoman Roxanne Jensen said three boats and a helicopter swept the area for about four hours Sunday.

Eventually, the friends reached the uninhabited island and soon saw a nearby Coast Guard boat. They started yelling, blowing their emergency whistle and flashing S-O-S on their flashlight.

Almost an hour later, a fire department boat arrived to navigate through the mangroves and get them. It was about 11:30 p.m.

Luckily, the two didn't have to go to the hospital.

In fact, the first place they went afterward was Waffle House.

They showed up wrapped in towels and wolfed down a meal of waffles, steak and eggs.

"And that hot chocolate was the best thing in the world," Hines said. "It was awesome."

Days later, the two feel lucky to be alive and telling their story.

"I definitely didn't think I was going to make it," Hines said. "But I knew that if I was going to die, I was going to die swimming."

Source: www.news-press.com


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