DAVID RAINER

Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

As tragic as the storm-ravaged 2015 Dauphin Island Race was, it possibly could have been worse if not for a rapid action by a team of emergency responders.

Alabama Marine Resources Director Chris Blankenship was handing out awards for the Dauphin Island Gumbo Cookoff  at the Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo site, where many of the sailors congregate after they’ve finished the sailboat race, when he spotted the ominous clouds and felt the extremely strong winds.

Blankenship took shelter in the concrete-block rodeo building during the height of the storm and called Major Scott Bannon, Marine Resources’ Chief of Enforcement, and told him to alert everyone available to be ready to launch a rescue effort.

“Chris called me and said, ‘Scott, you’d better get some guys together. This is going to be bad. There are only 10 sailboats here, which means there are more than 100 still in the Bay.’” Bannon said. “I called the Coast Guard and it was chaos because they had so

many calls coming in. I told them we were going to get some boats underway, and we would call and find out where they needed them the most.”

Bannon called Glenn Kornegay, the captain in Baldwin County, and Bo Willis, the captain in Mobile County, and got them to round up members of the enforcement staff.

Those available showed up at Dauphin Island to discover a hurdle in the response effort. The power was out on the island and most of the Marine Resources boats were on lifts that couldn’t be lowered without power.

“We had to get creative,” Bannon said. “Conservation Enforcement Officer Steve Humphrey and I used one of our jet-drive boats to rescue the folks who had run aground at the Dauphin Island Bridge. Then we were able to hook a generator up so we could lower some of the smaller boats to start searching. Captain Willis found an overturned sailboat that was adrift and he towed it in. Captain Kornegay and Officer Kyle Clifford left from Point Clear.”

Kornegay and Clifford managed to find and rescue Ron Gaston and first-time sailor Hana Blalack after the pair had spent more than two hours in the water.

With his people in the midst of the search effort on the water, Bannon headed for the Coast Guard station on the island to coordinate assets with the Coast Guard and the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA).

 “We were trying to wrap our minds around how big a picture this was,” he said. “The race was technically over, so some of the boats had headed back to where they launched. Some were headed to Dauphin Island, so they were all over Mobile Bay.”

Organizers brought the race applications to the station and calls were made to determine the status of the 118 vessels that participated in the race, not including the spectator boats. Seven vessels registered for the race pulled out before the start.

“We narrowed it down to 10 vessels that were sunk, submerged or missing,” Bannon said. “While I was at the Coast Guard base, we had good Samaritans picking people up, and I talked to one guy who did not know where his son was.”

The missing son had been on the boat with 71-year-old J.C. Brown and 17-year-old Adam Clark. Clark’s body was recovered. Brown’s body has not been recovered. The bodies of four more sailors – Kris Beall, 27, of Pineville, La., Robert Delaney, 72, of Madison, Miss., William Glenn Massey, 67, of Daphne, and Robert Thomas, 50, of Pickens, Miss. – were recovered after the race, making it likely the worst regatta tragedy on record.

“When I was at the base, a boat brought in two survivors who were wearing inflatable PFDs (Personal Flotation Devices), like we wear,” Bannon said. “They were singing the praises of the PFDs and how well they worked. The guy driving the boat that picked them up said they stood out like a sore thumb.

“That guy (Scott Godbold) knew some of the people missing and he leaves about 9 o’clock that night out of Billy Goat Hole. He turns north and hears a voice in the dark.”

The boat pulls up to 16-year-old Leonard Wooten, who had been in the water for six hours with no life jacket or flotation device of any kind. Godbold had previously been Wooten’s Sea Scout Master.

“I talked to him after they got back in,” Bannon said. “I said, ‘Leonard, you had two options – sink or swim. You chose to swim.’ It was amazing.”

Remarkably, Wooten’s six hours in the water had no lasting effects on his health, other than fatigue.

“The ambulance personnel checked him out and he was fine,” Bannon said of Wooten. “He was walking around. That was his father who was waiting at the Coast Guard station.”

By that time, many family members of the missing sailors were showing up at Dauphin Island, a situation the Coast Guard station was not prepared to handle.

Bannon called Blankenship, who called John Valentine of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab to see if it could accommodate the family members awaiting word on the missing sailors.

“In no time they had opened the Shelby Center and told us to make ourselves at home,” Bannon said. “You don’t know how much that was a benefit to those families. The Red Cross came down to bring cots and food. The community brought food. State Troopers came down.”

Bannon, Lt. Col. Tim Pullin of ALEA and a Coast Guard representative would meet with the families on a regular basis to provide updates on the search efforts.

By Thursday of that week, the responders had recovered an average of three boats a day and were able to determine that no people were trapped in boats.

“We estimate there were more than 40 rescues made between the Coast Guard, state personnel (Marine Resources and ALEA) and good Samaritans,” Bannon said. “Major operations stopped at sunset on Thursday. We still send occasional patrols out to see if we can find Mr. Brown.”

The fury of the storm that turned a traditional fun day on the water into a tragedy caught almost everybody by surprise.

I was not on the water at the time, but I watched the storm hit Baldwin County from my shop door. I sent a text to my wife that the weather was about to get bad. It hit before I had time to go 100 feet from my shop to our house. I watched through the shop door as the 70 mile-per-hour winds toppled six trees onto my driveway.

“People didn’t grasp the severity of it,” Bannon said. “The lessons we can learn from this are – knowing your skillset and experience and matching that with the weather; and wearing that life jacket. The fact is wearing life jackets save lives.”

Bannon said Marine Resources dedicated about 500 man-hours to the search, rescue and recovery after the storm, a task that is high on the Enforcement Section’s list of duties.

“Even though some people call us the fish cops, we always participate in search operations,” Bannon said. “It’s an important aspect of what we do because of the local knowledge and assets we can bring to bear. We understand the need to bring that loved one home to their family.”

PHOTOS: An overturned catamaran in the middle of Mobile Bay is a reminder of the deadly storm that struck south Alabama during the Dauphin Island Race on April 25. A screen capture from a video shot by Marine Resources Director Chris Blankenship at the Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo site shows the ferocity of the storm.

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