by Peter Worthington, Toronto Sun, Sept. 1995
Copyright 1994 and 1995, The Toronto Sun, a division of Sun Media Corporation
Until I read a pocket book (Vanished in the Gulf) written and published by the Toronto Sun’s all-purpose reporter, Joe Warmington, I’d paid only cursory attention to the disappearance of those four young Toronto area men on a scuba-diving holiday in the Gulf of Mexico last November.
While the media stressed the “mystery” even (especially?) after one of the young men was rescued 36 hours later, I tended to view it as simply another tragedy and one of those things that happen when people go adventuring on salt water.
After reading the book - a vaguely unsatisfying, provocative account of Joe’s coverage of the case - I find unanswered questions more puzzling than the disappearance.
Warmington is one of those reporters whose various enthusiasms drive editors nuts, but who is indispensable when a big story breaks. He’s a self-starter - surprisingly rare in newsrooms - and wrote and published a previous book on country singer Billy Ray Cyrus. In my mind’s eye I see Warmington hustling that book from the back of a station wagon down in Nashville.
Warmington was a natural choice to cover the disappearance in the Gulf of Omar Shearer, David Madott and Kent Munro, all friends, all bright, all capable, all 25. Their guide and pal was Jeff Wandich, whose family owned property in Mississauga and Florida. He arranged the outing on a 25-foot boat powered by two 225-hp outboard motors.
On the afternoon of last Nov. 4, while diving on a sunken ship 60 miles into the Gulf of Mexico southwest of Ft. Myers, their boat sank. The three friends, all wearing wet suits and buoyancy devices, disappeared, while Wandich managed to swim to a light tower four miles away and was rescued 36 hours later.
The largest search in Gulf history turned up only a camera bag floating in the sea. The sunken boat was recovered intact. A shaken Wandich told puzzled Coast Guard and FBI what happened. No one suggests foul play, just mystery. From Warmington’s book, unanswered questions are intriguing:
- Why did the boat sink? It was undamaged, the seacocks were closed, and although two of them were aboard when it was being swamped, batteries powering the bilge pumps were not turned on. Why not? Using bilge pumps is automatic.
- Although all were diving at the same time, contrary to safety rules, why didn’t the two who had returned to the boat and found it sinking, use the radio for a “Mayday” call? This was a much travelled area and rescue would have been assured.
- When it was obvious the boat was sinking, why wouldn’t the pair on board (Omar and Kent), still in wet suits and with buoyancy devices, put on flippers when they abandoned ship? Their flippers were subsequently found in the sunken boat. One would think using flippers would have been automatic.
- When the four were together in the water watching the boat sink, why would one (David) supposedly tie himself to it, which is what Wandich says happened? (Wandich cut him loose). Why wouldn’t the four use the rope to link themselves together?
- When David apparently dived to the sinking boat, why would he bring up a plastic bag of fish bait and scatter it over the water, thus risk attracting sharks? Why would he not have “rescued” flippers for his friends, or the emergency flares?
- Why would the four choose to fish that morning and dive in late afternoon? Apparently, it’s standard to dive early when the light is best. Going out all day, why wouldn’t they have taken sandwiches? Who goes out for a day without snacks?
- When they got separated and Wandich (wearing flippers) made it to the light tower, how come he didn’t climb to the top to be seen? And how come rescue helicopters failed to see him that first night when they circled it with spotlights? Surely, that’s the first place the Coast Guard would have checked?
- All were wearing unsinkable flotation devices, so even if they drowned they’d still float. The weather was reasonable, and if sharks had attacked (an occurrence rarer than is popularly believed), there’d be wreckage. Yet nothing.
As I say, there are no answers. Wandich, the only survivor, has been interrogated and there is no reason to question his story - he even underwent lie detector tests.
Warmington’s book doesn’t speculate, but families of the missing men have offered a $75,000 reward for information leading to their safe return - $25,000 each ($5,000 if dead). Anyway, it’s a provocative mystery and a quick read for $5.99 at Coles or SmithBooks, or from Warmington (plus $2 mailing) at the Sun, 416-947-2392.
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