Lost divers had a flash­light, friends

The pair’s craft an­chor line broke while they were 50 feet un­der­wa­ter.

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Bruce Hen­der­son Petty Of­fi­cer 2nd Class Nate Lit, U.S. Coast Guard

CHAR­LOTTE, N.C.» Even 50 feet un­der­wa­ter, a pair of scuba divers ex­plor­ing a wreck eight miles off At­lantic Beach heard the loud pop.

Only later did they find the frayed, bro­ken end of their boat’s an­chor line. Divers Michael Sparks and Sa­muel Rags­dale shot to the ocean’s sur­face to see the 17-foot Seadoo rid­ing a wave 3 miles away.

With the drift­ing boat went the divers’ cell­phones and the boat’s ra­dio bea­con and marine ra­dio.

“At this point the grav­ity of our sit­u­a­tion re­ally hit me,” Sparks said later. “We de­cided to drop our dive weights be­cause they pre­vented us from float­ing prop­erly.”

Sparks and Rags­dale are alive to re­count the July 6 ad­ven­ture for a cou­ple of rea­sons. Both are in the Coast Guard, sta­tioned at Fort Ma­con. And they had told Rags­dale’s room­mate, and other col­leagues, the co­or­di­nates of their dive and their plan to re­turn by dark.

As night fell and swells be­gan to crash over their heads, the divers clung to a 3-foot “safety sausage,” an

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or­ange, tubu­lar de­vice that could help them be spot­ted in the water, the Coast Guard re­ported in an ac­count of the event.

Buoy­ancy com­pen­sators, div­ing equip­ment with in­flat­able air blad­ders, kept them afloat, and wet­suits helped main­tain their body tem­per­a­tures. They also had knives and a high-pow­ered flash­light.

But even in 81-de­gree water, both be­gan to get cold.

“The adrenaline wore off af­ter a while,” said Rags­dale, a Coast Guard fire­man. “We both clung to that safety sausage in or­der to stay to­gether. We tried to fig­ure out where we were and if there was a chance we’d be drift­ing past a buoy we might be able to cling to.”

The divers feared that they would drift south­east, around Cape Look­out and into the At­lantic, where their chances of be­ing found would drop.

On shore, the Coast Guard set out to save two of their own.

Sell­ers’ room­mate con­tacted the Fort Ma­con sta­tion when dark­ness fell and the pair hadn’t re­turned. Of­fi­cials launched a search plan to in­volve mul­ti­ple boats, cut­ters, beach pa­trols and air­craft.

“Around mid­night, we stopped talk­ing and our hopes of get­ting res­cued be­fore dawn grew faint,” said Sparks, a petty of­fi­cer third class. “We were ex­hausted.”

Some­time later he saw the run­ning lights of a Coast Guard boat and pointed his flash­light to­ward it. Soon the boat’s blue light be­gan to flash — they’d been spot­ted from 3 miles away.

“I’d be ly­ing if I said I wasn’t wor­ried,” said Petty Of­fi­cer 2nd Class Tyler McGre­gor, whose crew saw the flash­light beam. “The sea was rough, 8- to 10-foot swells. Search­ing for two peo­ple in the water dur­ing the day is the equiv­a­lent to search­ing for two co­conuts bob­bing in the waves — a near-im­pos­si­ble feat in the light that be­comes un­think­able in the dark.”

Their col­leagues pulled Sparks and Rags­dale from the water af­ter they had drifted more than 4 miles in seven hours. Sparks went be­low decks to find two body bags, pre­pared for bad news.

Sparks said he’s glad the two filed their float plan and had the flash­light. But he’ll use two an­chors in the fu­ture and buy a ra­dio bea­con he can dive with.

“The ocean,” he said, “doesn’t care if you’re in the Coast Guard.”

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