updated 4/1/2009 3:10:44 PM ET 2009-04-01T19:10:44

A charter boat deckhand trying to make a group of California schoolchildren laugh choked to death on a bait fish he put in his mouth.

Capt. Dan Salas of the 55-foot Gail Force said Tuesday that deckhand Jeff Twaddle died last week off Long Beach in front of about 20 elementary school students from the Los Angeles area. He called it a "tragic freak accident," the Press-Telegram of Long Beach reported Wednesday.

Authorities say the 54-year-old longtime fisherman was trying to "make the students laugh" when he popped the fish in his mouth. It lodged in his throat and Twaddle quickly lost consciousness. He was pronounced dead at a hospital.

School officials sent a note to parents and were providing grief counselors for students.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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