first_img“I felt we weren’t going to make it,” Brown said Wednesday, recounting their harrowing ordeal off the Washington coast Sunday. “Half the time I couldn’t even look at him because of my fear.” Together, the 37-year-old man known as “Big Eddie” and his son, Eddie Brown Jr., survived. They pulled an exhausted fellow crewman out of the water and onto their skiff and watched their fishing boat sink but could do nothing to save their skipper and his girlfriend, who drowned with their dog. The day began with the group traveling from Warrington, Ore., aboard the 70-foot Papa George, fishing for sardines off the Oregon and Washington coast. “We went out, and the weather was rough,” the father said. Rain poured down, and the swells rocked the boat as the crew pulled in 45 tons of fish. Big Eddie took a job with the fishing crew nine months ago when a man offered him a job at Ports O’ Call in San Pedro. His son, a recent graduate of Lancaster High School known as “Little Eddie,” joined the crew a week ago. As Little Eddie worked in the skiff, bouncing on the water, riding the giant swells, skipper David Starbuck, a 61-year-old fisherman with 45 years of experience at sea, laughed with Big Eddie. They watched Little Eddie riding the waves, calling him a greenhorn. But Starbuck told Big Eddie that he was an excellent skiff driver. “It was a little intense,” Little Eddie said. About midafternoon, Starbuck decided enough was enough. The ocean was too rough to stay. He ordered the men to bring the skiff on board. He told them not to take the time to chain it down. He knew it was time to quickly return to shore. “He said, `We gotta get out of here,”‘ the father said. Swells crashed onto the deck. Water poured on board, too fast for engineer Marcus Thomas to pump it away. Saltwater flooded the engine room. The boat began listing, its back side almost completely submerged. The boat was going down and they knew it. “I was terrified,” the son said. Little Eddie yelled at his dad for the skiff. The father pushed on the hydraulics to release the vessel and some slack from the rope that connected it to the boat. The Papa George rolled onto its side, throwing the son back onto the deck. “I was completely vulnerable,” the son said. “I kind of panicked a little bit.” Father and son plunged into the water. “Swim! Swim!” the father screamed to his son. Little Eddie made his way toward the 14-foot skiff. Climbing aboard, Big Eddie cut the rope that connected the skiff to the boat so it wouldn’t get dragged under. The son joined him, taking his place at the driver. “I just was real spooked,” the son said. “It was just us and the water.” From the bobbing skiff, the Browns could see Ethel Zelaya, their skipper’s 37-year-old girlfriend, emerging from the boat’s wheelhouse as the vessel continued to sink. Starbuck had pushed her and his pit bull, Booter, out the window in an effort to save them. Big Eddie yelled at her: “Let the dog go, Ethel!” She wouldn’t. Zelaya and the dog were pulling each other in different directions as she tried to swim toward the skiff. “She’s trying to come to us,” Big Eddie said. “He’s trying to go to the skipper. That dog had never left the skipper’s side.” They kept yelling at her, but she would not let go of the dog. Thomas emerged from the ocean, making his way toward the skiff. The Browns struggled to pull him aboard. The San Pedro resident tumbled into the skiff, exhausted and gasping for air. The Browns turned their attention to Zelaya, who no longer had hold of the dog. The pet was gone. Zelaya instead clutched a survival suit encased in a bag. It kept her afloat. Just as they went to grab her, they saw Starbuck’s face nearby under the water. Believing Zelaya was safe, they went for Starbuck. Big Eddie yelled to Zelaya to hold on. Little Eddie steered toward the skipper. The Brown men reached over the skiff, grabbed him and struggled to pull him aboard. The Browns and Thomas yelled, “Come on Buck. Don’t give up!” But he was already dead. Realizing Starbuck was gone, they turned their attention back to Zelaya. She floated nearby, no longer clinging to the floating life suit. They pulled her lifeless body from the water. As they tried to revive her, they saw the Papa George roll over and sink. Zelaya, meanwhile, was dead. In just five minutes, the Papa George was gone, two people and a dog were dead, and three San Pedro men sat breathless aboard a skiff, rocking on strong swells, 15 miles off the coast. “It happened so fast,” Big Eddie said. “It happened so fast.” Big Eddie hoped that Starbuck had made a mayday call. He hoped that the emergency beacon signaled their need for help. As it turned out, neither had happened. They were alone at sea. “No one knew that we sank,” he said. They made a group decision. No one would be left at sea. They kept the bodies on board, although they knew the weight might hamper their own efforts to get to safety. Little Eddie knew he had filled the 100-gallon fuel tank two days earlier. It had no gauge, but he figured it held about 75 gallons, plenty to go 15 miles. To preserve the fuel, he operated at half-throttle, steering through the swells. Although they were moving, they had no idea if they were making any progress toward land or just staying in one place. The father said he prayed. But Big Eddie never expressed any doubts about making it to the beach. “I knew we were at the mercy of the ocean,” Big Eddie said. His son, however, stayed positive as he drove. “My son said, `Dad, we’re going to be all right.’ He told me, `We are going to make it.”‘ After three hours, the men made it to the beach at Ocean Park in Long Beach, Wash. The three men jumped from the skiff and ran onto the sand. “Me and my son hugged,” the father said. “We cried and hugged. We were so relieved we were on land.” A woman who had seen them from the beach called 911. Police and the U.S. Coast Guard arrived. But by then, the men had made it to safety on their own. Pacific County firefighters took them to their District 1 station, gave the men hot coffee and let them take hot showers. They gave them clean clothes and fed them pizza. None of the men suffered any injuries. Coroner’s officials collected the bodies of Starbuck and Zelaya to return to their families. “They were wonderful people,” Big Eddie said. The men called Starbuck a hero for putting his crew first, sacrificing himself as he was the last to jump for safety. They question if they could have done more for Zelaya – but they believe she saw her fiance and dog die, and they wonder whether she purposely let go of the life suit to join them. When the Brown men talked later Sunday in their hotel room, Little Eddie told his father he always took life for granted. Not anymore. Little Eddie, however, said he doubts he ever will return to fishing. He continues to see the boat going down and the faces of the people who died. Big Eddie said he plans to continue his fishing career, especially when squid season returns to Southern California. “That experience for me and my son was a confirmation from God that we were meant to be alive together,” he said. larry.altman@dailybreeze.com160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! By Larry Altman STAFF WRITER Eddie Brown Sr. spotted the sea bird lying on its back, its webbed feet visible as it floated on the storm-tossed ocean. The San Pedro fisherman didn’t tell his 18-year-old son what he was thinking: If that bird couldn’t survive the 6- to 8-foot swells 15 miles out to sea, how could they? last_img

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