Diver recalls fear

Diver Recalls Fear, Lonliness, Isolation and Hope

by Deborah Wight, Marco  Island Eagle

November 16, 1994

Reprinted by Permission of the Marco  Island Eagle


Twenty-seven-year-old Jeff Wandich thought he was the last to be rescued.

He never imagined he was the lone survivor.

When he saw lights near the site where his boat sank four miles away on Nov. 4, he thought his comrades were picked up and it would be only a matter of time before he was rescued too.

Wandich had battled intense Gulf currents and fierce winds in his attempt to seek refuge at a lighted tower where his friends had headed too.

Parched, hungry and cold, a naked Wandich waved his wet suit and flippers from the Air Force tactical training tower before being rescured by a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter.

It was then that he learned when he got separated from his diving companions 36 hours before while swimming toward the tower four miles away that it would be the last time he would go diving with his companions, one of whom he’d been friends with since they were only 10 years old.

Wandich was one of four young Canadian men who went on a diving trip 53 miles southwest of Marco Island 12 days ago today.

After some fishing, the foursome was attempting to explore the wreck of a boat named the California.

The other three men - Omar Shearer, Dave Madott and Kent Munro, all 25 - have not been found and are presumed dead.

But Wandich and the men’s families refuse to give up hope.

“It’s been raining out there so they haven’t been without water” , said Jeff.  “I still hope they’re found...maybe they made it to land somewhere or...”

He’s also coming to grips with the possibility he’ll never see his friends again.

:Jeff’s been so busy with the intense searching and dealing with the problem at hand they he’s barely had a chance to really think about the tragedy.,  I guess at night when everything calms down...” said his father, Alexander Wandich, who owns a condominium at royal Marco Point.  The family has been coming to Marco for 15 years.

Thursday, Nove. 10, the U.S. Coast Guard called off what Jeff’s father called an “exhaustive, extensive search” that combed 22, 000 squre miles in the Gulf of Mexico.

the families of the missing men have been staying in Fort Myers Beach and continued to search Friday.

As recenlty as Sunday, Jeff searched in a private plane the Dry Tortugas and Marquesas Keys.  Monday he was to go in a helicopter but it was too windy.

Wandich spent the three days prior in the Gulf Aboard Max Steinberg of Cape Coral’s 42-foot “Maxson’t Blue Max.”  The man had heard about the tragedy and offered his help.  On the third day, Wandich’s 25-foot boat, a Seavee called the “Sea Esta,” and its two 225-horsepower Hohnson motors, was pulled from the bottom where it had rested on top of the California.  Wandich then switched boats and went back to shore with Capt. Roger Parcelles, A Marco Islander who he’s dover with before, while Steinberg stayed out searching.

It was Oct. 30 when Wandich arrived on Marco for a vacation after driving here with his girlfriend of two years, Debbie Heaslip, and his uncle, Fred Nayduk.

“The guys were planning on going away, but didn’t know where to go.  They were thinking about the Bahamas,” said Wandich.

That Monday night, Shearer left a message on Wandich’s answering machine saying the three of them would be down Thursday, Nov. 3.

Wandich and Shearer, a foot doctor at Ottawa Civic Hospital, grew up together in Mississauga, a suburb of Toronto.  Madott, who also grew up in the same neighborhood, worked for Magna International, an auto parts manufacturer.  Munro was employed at the Tour and Anderson engineering firm.

Wandich and Shearer dove together before in the Cayman Islands where Shearer’s cousin operates a dive shop.  All four certified divers, they took with them Nov. 4 a jug of water, sandwiches and a six-pack of beer that was “never opened.”

After leaving the dock at 8:30 a.m., problems with one of the tow motors sputtering brought them back to the Marco River Marina where a mechanic attributed the problem to possible debris in the intake.  Having had the problem before, Wandich brought a few new thermostats along with them and they left agin at about 9:30 a.m.

Intending to dive based on Gulf conditions, Wandich said they weren’t going to decide definitely until they saw what it was like.

“If it was a decent day, we were going to dive the California,” he said.

Ideally, they planned a 110-foot dive for 13 minutes.

“It wasn’t a calm day, by any means,” said Wandich, “but I’ve been out there when it was much worse.”

Using the Loran and a depth finder, the troupe located the wreck.  First, they fished for bait at another wreck and it was about 1 p.m. when they got to the California site.

Everyone, according to Wandich was enthusiastic about  the dive, having dove wrecks before.

It was 1:30 p.m. when they anchored the Sea Esta off the bow and the foursome fished for close to an hour.

“We were all losing our bait to barracude,” said Wanidhc.  He and his father talked about an incident several years ago when a barracude “moving like a torpedo” jumped the length of their boat, missing the occupants because they ducked.

Strapping on 50 pounds of diving gear each, the men descended together.

“Everyone says you aren’t supposed to, but they all do,” said Wandich, somewhat defensively.  “We secured the boat and that was what was important.”

The four swam down the anchor line.  About 35 feet down, Munro had trouble equalizing and he was told by Wandich and the others to go up five ffet, then try again.

“It didn’t work so he and Omar went back to the surface,” said Wandich.  “Dave and I continued our descent.”

Adhering to the original plan, they went down 110 feet and stayed 13 minutes.  Thyen, they ascended to 15 feet and stayed four minutes.

“Then we went to the surface and that’s when we saw the boat’s bow sticking only three feet out of the water.  We didn’t see the other two and we called out to thenm.  They were 50 yeards from the boat” said Wandich.

The two having trouble swimming back to the boat, Wandich took off his tanks and retrieved his friends.  The four had on their buoyancy compensator devices (BCDs).

“I asked Omar what had happened.  He said they didn’t know.  They were both in the boat when they noticed water in the back.  The bilge pump was going and when he tried to start the motor, it wouldn’t go,” said Wandich.

the only thing he can think of happening was that  the two stepped on the back of the boat and it weighed it down.

“We knew we were in trouble from the beginning,” recalled Wandich.  It was about 3:15 p.m.

Four hours later, at 7 p.m. and in complete darkness, the boat sank completely.

“We were all composed,  contained.  We just hung on, waiting until someone got us,” he said.

Then, they decided to swim toward the tower.  Wandich had been there dozens of times, said his father.

“It got windier and the waves got bigger,” said Jeff Wandich.

 “Yes, you think about sharks.”When the Sea Esta was brought up, the crew saw a tiger shark.

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