GALVESTON, Texas – Four students and a safety officer had less than a minute to escape their sinking ship once it began taking water during a regatta on the Gulf of Mexico, two survivors said Monday.
The survivors praised the boat's other safety officer, 53-year-old Roger Stone, for rushing them off the craft within seconds of realizing it was taking water, putting their lives ahead of his own. Divers pulled his body from the boat Sunday afternoon.
"He's my hero. He saved me," 20-year-old Steven Guy said at a news conference. "I wouldn't be here without him."
Safety officer Steve Conway said the students kept their composure over 26 hours in the choppy water. They used belts and rigging to hook themselves together, with the five men sharing four life vests, Conway said. They kicked their feet and paddled toward an oil rig, about 5 miles away.
"We kept focused on the positive," Conway said.
They kept up their composure — and their optimism — by telling stories and jokes, and dreaming of the first thing they would do back on shore.
Conway envisioned seeing his wife of 33 years, Mary, their four daughters and his unborn grandchild. Guy thought about his parents and brother.
Savana dreamed about going to eat at the family restaurant Golden Corral. Wright savored thoughts of a thick burger.
"We knew we would get picked up," said Guy. "We knew we'd get somewhere."
Three of the students — Guy, Joe Savana and Travis Wright — attend Texas A&M at Galveston. The fourth, Ross James Busby, attends Texas A&M in College Station.
The five spent Sunday visiting with family and nursing minor sunburn and dehydration.
R. Bowen Loftin, CEO of Texas A&M at Galveston, expressed condolences to Stone's family — including his wife and two children — in a message posted on the school's Web site.
"We hope they can take some comfort in knowing all five survivors of this tragic accident credit Mr. Stone with heroic efforts that were instrumental in making possible their survival," Loftin said on the school's Web site. "We now know that Roger Stone died a hero in the classic sense of the word."
Conway is the director of computer information services at Texas A&M at Galveston and assistant coach of the school's Offshore Sailing Team, the school said. Stone was another of the team's assistant coaches, according to the school Web site. He also was a logistics officer at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, according to the UTMB Web site.
The search for the sailors began Saturday morning after the 38-foot sailboat Cynthia Woods missed a radio check. The boat, which lost communication around midnight Friday, was one of 26 vessels competing in the Regata de Amigos. The race from Galveston to Veracruz, Mexico, has occurred every even-number year since 1968, according to the regatta's Web site.
Loftin said Conway used a flashlight to signal Coast Guard searchers. The five stayed afloat in 4- to 6-foot seas, Loftin said.
Coast Guard officials said the keel of the overturned vessel was ripped off, indicating the sailboat may have hit something in the water, according to the school. Race director Kevin Box said the loss of the keel can cause a boat to overturn in seconds.
Conway said he would not speculate about why the keel broke off, saying the Coast Guard was still investigating.
A helicopter crew from Air Station Houston pulled the five men from the water 23 miles south of Freeport about 2 a.m. Sunday, Coast Guard Petty Officer Renee C. Aiello said. They had drifted about five miles northwest of their capsized boat.
In an interview Monday, Lt. Justo Rivera, the helicopter pilot, said his crew searched the Gulf of Mexico for two hours before they had to return to their Galveston base to refuel. The crew resumed their search when Petty Officer Louis Bishop, the flight mechanic, spotted the flashlight's tiny glimmer.
Only after Chief Petty Officer Albert Shannon, the rescue swimmer, dove in did the crew learn there were just five people in the group.
"It hurts not being able to save that one individual," Rivera told reporters.
The regatta, sponsored by the Mexican government, continues into next week.