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Grateful survivors of Lake Michigan boat sinking thank rescuers
Coast Guard saved 7 in May'08 shipwreck
By Tony Gordon | Daily Herald Staff

Survivors Brian LaValliere, left, and Jim Emma share a laugh Saturday with Matt Collins, Coxswain, U.S. Coast Guard, at the Kenosha Coast Guard Station.


Kenosha News

Survivors Brian LaValliere, left, and Jason Lee, Capt. of the Finseeker, U.S. Coast Guard Brian Buck, Coxswain Matt Collins, and Shawn Downs, right, view news articles about the May 20008 rescue.


Kenosha News

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Published: 5/31/2009 12:01 AM | Updated: 5/31/2009 12:46 AM

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What a difference a year can make.

On May 30, 2008, seven people from the sunken fishing charter boat "Fin Seekers" were plucked from the chilling waters of Lake Michigan by men and women of the U.S. Coast Guard Station at Kenosha.

On Saturday, members of both groups sat down for lunch.

"Glad you could make it, captain," Jim Emma said to the Fin Seekers' former owner Jason Lee. "You were bleeding pretty good the last time I saw you."

A weather anomaly known as a wake low ambushed the 39-foot pleasure boat in the 45-degree waters of Lake Michigan off Waukegan.

The engine compartment flooded in the 14- to 16-foot waves stirred by 65 mph winds, the cabin's windshield shattered into Lee's face as he valiantly hung on to the helm and all aboard had donned life jackets.

And then the boat stood straight up on its stern in the water.

"Once the window blew out, I was pretty well convinced we were going down," Lee said. "So I told everyone to get into the water as I put out one last mayday with our coordinates, but we were all just washed out as it went vertical."

At the Coast Guard station just a few miles away, Petty Officer Matt Collins of Tampa, Fla., was surprised to hear the distress call from Lee because the weather in Kenosha was "gorgeous."

Collins said he and his crew broke for a 25-foot rescue craft, but once it was learned there were seven people to be rescued he decided to take a 41-foot boat instead.

It was a decision that probably saved the lives of all involved.

"Once we got out into the weather, I knew we never would have made it in the 25-footer," Collins said. "The waves were lifting us 15 or 20 feet, slamming us down, then picking us right back up again."

An HC-65 Dolphin helicopter located the group in the water and lifted five of them out of the clutches of Davy Jones' Locker, while Collins and his crew rescued Lee, another passenger and the Coast Guard rescue swimmer who had jumped from the helicopter to coordinate the operation.

All aboard the Fin Seekers were suffering from hypothermia, and Lee had his cuts from the windshield, but they all survived.

The group was aboard the boat for the annual company trip for Emma's Nova Communications in Geneva, and it was Emma who provided the food for his heroes Saturday.

He also brought bright orange T-shirts emblazoned "Lake Michigan 7" on the front and "Coast Guard #1" on the back for the survivors.

"No question that these guys saved our lives," Emma said. "The least I could do was buy them lunch."

Such a harrowing experience changes lives, and Emma said he has not been on a boat on Lake Michigan since and feels "no need to go back."

Lee quit the charter boat business and now splits his time between managing a care center for senior citizens in Decatur and doing missionary work in the Philippines.

He said he has been back on the lake just once since his boat sunk, on a diving boat to recover whatever they could of the wreckage.

"We got some fishing poles and some other stuff," Lee said. "We were also able to find my Bible, which I never thought I was going to see again."

Lee may have given up the seagoing life, but he still knows a good captain when he sees one.

"You had a look of concern on your face, but you were definitely in control," he told Collins. "You were shouting orders, making sure everybody knew what to do, and I knew just by looking at you that we were going to be all right."