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Seven nearly lost on Lake Michigan
By Jamie Sotonoff | Daily Herald Staff

Captain Jason Lee, whose fishing charter boat sank in Lake Michigan, stands by a nearby church sign reflecting his faith. His boat, Fin Seeker, is shown below in an old photo.

 

Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

Brian LaValliere, left, Gail Burke and Jim Emma are three of the seven survivors of the Fin Seekers Charters boat that sank May 30 during a microburst on Lake Michigan. They work for Nova Communications out of Geneva.

 

Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

Captain Jason Lee poses with the Coast Guard rescuers who saved him and his passengers after his boat sunk in Lake Michigan.

 

Courtesy Photo

Captain Jason Lee's boat.

 

Courtesy Photo

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Published: 6/9/2008 12:04 PM | Updated: 6/10/2008 12:05 AM

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The boat made a sucking sound as it disappeared into Lake Michigan.

Only minutes before, Captain Jason Lee and his six passengers - who were on a company fishing trip - had pulled on life jackets and jumped overboard.

They were in the eye of a freak storm that hit Lake County May 30. Lee's boat took on water and the engine died. He ordered his passengers off because he feared the huge waves might roll the boat over, trapping them beneath it.

Everyone was pulled underwater anyway by the suction of the sinking boat. One by one, each person's head popped to the surface. In rough water, they all swam toward floating pieces of debris and clung to them to stay afloat.

The water temperature was 48 degrees.

The five men and two women drifted up and down the 10-foot swells for roughly 30 minutes, waiting for the U.S. Coast Guard to rescue them. Every once in a while, a big wave slapped their faces, sometimes pulling flotation devices out of their grip.

No one spoke, except for an occasional, "Are you OK?" They floated in silence under an overcast sky in the dark green water 1 miles off the coast of Waukegan Harbor.

The minutes passed slowly. Lee remembers thinking about his wife and mom while struggling to keep his head above water. The other passengers repeated "Hail Mary," or thought about their families and their lives.

After 25 minutes of clinging to the boat's bench cushion, Jim Emma, 56, of Geneva, got hit by a wave so strong that it ripped his life jacket off. He continued to frantically tread water, but soon he was too tired to hang on. He said goodbye to his friends and prepared to let go of the cushion.

"At that juncture, I just didn't have anything left," said Emma, who was being weighed down by his hoodie, jeans and gym shoes. "I thought, 'This must be the way it ends.'"

A three-hour tour

Every year, the employees at Nova Communications in Geneva take an annual company trip. This year, the boss, Jim Emma, hired Jason Lee to take his employees on a half-day fishing excursion. Emma picked Lee's boat, the 39-foot Fin Seeker, because it was the biggest charter fishing boat he could find and figured that meant it was the safest.

Lee, 38, has been a fisherman since he was a kid in Macon, Ill. When he moved to Chicago and worked for Alpha Baking, his co-workers nicknamed him "Se•or Pescado," or "Fish Man," because he talked about fishing so much.

In his free time, Lee drove up to Waukegan Harbor and fished in Lake Michigan with Captain Jerry Nied of Spendthrift Charters. Impressed by Lee's knowledge of fishing and his friendly personality, Nied encouraged him to start his own fishing charter boat operation.

In 1997, Lee purchased the Fin Seeker and started his dream job. Lee lived on the boat, and his one-man business grew steadily. He focused as much on fun as he did on catching fish.

"I'm not a risk taker," Lee said. "I've canceled many trips due to bad weather. I'm not doing this just to make a buck. To me, it's all about having a good time."

The morning of May 30 started out pleasantly enough. As always, Lee checked the marine forecast, Doppler radar and weather reports, which showed storms to the north but only overcast conditions in Waukegan. "Perfect fishing weather," Lee said.

The Nova group came aboard. They motored into the lake and fished for 1 hours. Everyone cheered when Nova office manager Gail Burke, 54, of St. Charles, caught an impressive 8-pound king salmon. Seven other boats were fishing in the vicinity.

"Then we said, 'Wow, look at the wind,'" Burke said. "Soon, waves were coming over the boat."

Lee rushed to the wheel and started heading back toward the harbor. He had no idea he was about to be in the eye of something the National Weather Service called "wake effect low pressure" or a "wake low," which is essentially a mini-tornado packing winds of 65 mph. It was only wind; no rain.

One-foot waves quickly became 10-foot waves. The swells got bigger and closer together. Soon, the Fin Seeker wasn't gliding over waves anymore. Its bow was pointing straight down into and out of them.

Passengers pulled on life jackets and sat in the boat's cabin. Lee took the wheel of the boat he's lived on for the past 11 years, trying to steer.

In a scene right out of the movie "A Perfect Storm," Lee looked out the window and saw nothing but a wall of water heading toward him. The massive wave slammed into his boat's windshield, shattering the glass with a bang. Glass shards flew.

"I had to stay at the helm, driving the boat with glass in my face," Lee said. "When I'd see another wave coming toward the window, I'd take a breath, turn my head and get hit in the face."

Lee reached for the radio and called the U.S. Coast Guard.

"Mayday! Mayday! We are in need of rescue!" he shouted into the speaker, providing the boat's exact coordinates.

Everyone was now knee-deep in water. Minutes later, the engine died.

"We're going to have to go overboard now, guys," Lee told them, sharing all of the survival tips he knew as the boat was being tossed around in the lake like a ping-pong ball.

While the passengers jumped overboard, Lee went back into the cabin and called the coast guard again.

"Mayday! Mayday! We are in the water! There are seven people in the water! The boat is going down now!" Lee yelled, giving the coordinates one last time.

Before he could exit the cabin, the boat sank.

Holding his breath, Lee swam out of the cabin's broken window, but his life jacket got caught on something. He cut his hand on the glass breaking free, and with barely any breath left, he made it to the surface.

"It's just like the movies when you're going down and looking up. I thought I was dead. I looked up and saw the sun glistening on top of the water," Lee said. "Even when I got on top of the water with my life jacket on, the waves were crashing on me so hard that I couldn't swim to the group."

Everyone floated within 200 yards of each other in the stormy, cold waves. Debris from the boat - things like coolers and containers - bobbed around them.

"It was horrific," Emma said. "I kept thinking, 'This is not really happening.'"

Burke was the only one who stayed relatively calm. A certified scuba diver, she kept reminding herself that the coast guard had been called, they weren't far off shore, and there are no sharks in Lake Michigan.

"I knew we were going to be rescued. I just wasn't sure if it was going to be in time before hypothermia set in," she said.

They waited. And when Emma started saying his goodbyes, they heard the sound of a helicopter coming toward them.

Amazing rescue

The four-man U.S. Coast Guard rescue crew had set up shop at Waukegan Airport just seven days earlier, on Memorial Day weekend. During the winter and spring months, they are stationed in Michigan because boating traffic on Lake Michigan is light.

When they received a call of a "vessel taking on water," their helicopter was off the ground in 12 minutes - an unusually quick time given that they have a 30-minute window.

The coordinates Lee gave were bull's-eye accurate.

"We went straight to them," said USCG Pilot Lt. Jim McWilliams. "He made them easy to find. Had they had to be in the water another 10, 15 minutes while we looked for them, it might have been too late."

The helicopter hovered in gusty 55 mph winds while Rescue Swimmer Chris Bemis jumped into the water and strapped three people into the rescue basket, which was lifted shakily into the air toward the helicopter.

Emma was the first one out of the water.

"They said to me, 'We were looking for a boat.' And I said, 'Buddy, there hasn't been a boat for 45 minutes,'" Emma recalled.

A Coast Guard boat pulled up and lifted the four others out of the water, including Lee and Burke.

Everyone's body temperature was between 84 and 94 degrees, and severe hypothermia made it difficult for many of them to move their arms and legs. Had they not had life jackets on, they would have sunk, McWilliams said. A few suffered from various degrees of mild shock, as well as cuts and bruises.

"Some of them couldn't stop shaking," McWilliams recalled. "They couldn't talk they were so cold. But they kept thanking us."

Six of the seven people rescued were treated at the hospital and released later that night. One spent the night for observation but was released the next morning.

"I am blessed to be here today," said Lee, whose face and hands are still covered in lacerations. "Everything I own is on the bottom of Lake Michigan, but I'm alive."

Life-changing

What happened in the lake that day changed everyone's lives - in a positive way. Emma and Burke don't blame Lee for the accident. Rather, they credit him and everyone involved with their rescue for doing the right thing at the right time.

The Coast Guard's hustle, the passengers' calm, the use of life jackets and Lee radioing the exact coordinates all contributed to bringing each of them home safely.

"I don't know what it was that saved us," Emma said. "I'm tellin' ya, it was those 400 'Hail Marys' I said."

"It was just a freak thing," Lee added. "This was not just rough water, it was once-in-a-lifetime weather. I just got caught in the eye of it. It caught everybody off guard."

The group is planning a reunion July 4 weekend at Waukegan Harbor, where it all began.

Five days after the rescue, Emma referred to his life as "+ Day Five" and said things that might have upset him before no longer bother him.

"It's like it never really happened. It's like you had a nightmare and then woke up," he said. "But I don't even want to go near a bottle of Dasani right now."

The small Nova Communications staff has always been tight-knit, but this experience bonded them even closer together.

"We call ourselves the Michigan 7, like 'Lost' has the Oceanic 6," Burke joked. "I am just so blessed and happy that we all came out of this OK."

McWilliams, too, said it took hours for the adrenaline to wear off. It was his first rescue and his first chance to use the years of training he had.

"It's just simply amazing," he said. "I can guarantee you I will never forget this case. Never."

Lee, who not only lost his business but his home and all of his worldly possessions, is now camping out on his dad's couch in North Chicago and re-evaluating his life. While his boat was insured, he thinks this might be a sign from God that it is time for him to move back to Macon and focus on the missionary work he loves so much.

He spends the off-season doing missionary work in the Philippines, where he lives with his wife, Joy, a special-education teacher. She is moving here this fall, and maybe starting out in a small town like Macon might make the transition easier for her.

Lee's scraping by now on donations from friends and the kindness of strangers who've heard about his story.

"Fishing is in my blood, but as you get older, you tend to evaluate what's important in life. And it's not always about me," he said.

Lee's definition of success has never been money, but rather, that he could make a living doing what he loved.

"I'm not afraid to go back in the water," he said, "but I'm a Christian, and I believe everything happens for a reason."