A deckhand on a charter boat full of schoolchildren choked to death on a bait fish he had put in his mouth as a joke.

Capt. Dan Salas of the 55-foot Gail Force said Tuesday his employee Jeff Twaddle died last week off Long Beach in front of about 20 elementary school students from the Los Angeles area.

Salas called it a "tragic freak accident."

Fire Battalion Chief Battalion Chief Frank Hayes said the 54-year-old longtime fisherman was "trying to be lighthearted and make the students laugh when he put the fish in his mouth."

The fish lodged in his throat, Twaddle quickly lost consciousness and was later pronounced dead at a hospital.

The Los Angeles Unified School District sent a note to parents and was providing grief counselors for traumatized students.