A Maryland man who set out in the dark from a capsized fishing boat and swam for five hours to get help for family members stranded in the Chesapeake Bay said his actions "seemed like the only option."
John Franklin Riggs, 46, of Rock Hall, Maryland, and four members of his family, ranging in age from 3 to 70, were on the boat on Tuesday when it began taking on water in a storm.
The family quickly dressed in life jackets and tried to bail out the water, but could not keep up with the crashing waves.
"The boat finally sank just before sundown and we were hanging there on the sides," Riggs said in a phone interview on Thursday.
"I waited a while and no other boats were out there. Finally, I decided to swim, and that's what I did. I just swam and swam."
Riggs said that at several points during his trek in Chesapeake Bay he stopped at buoys to rest. He kept his bearings by swimming toward the light coming from shore.
"It was hard to tell sometimes, but for the most part I could see the lights off in the distance," he said.
He finally struggled to the shore after 1 a.m. on Wednesday and knocked on the first door he saw to call for help. Rescue boats and one helicopter combed the choppy, black waters to locate his vessel, which, in strong currents and wind, had drifted five miles from where it capsized.
Around 3:30 a.m., the search helicopter finally spotted the boat where Riggs' father, John Riggs, 70, his sister, Contessa Riggs, 43, her son, Conrad Drake, 3, and niece Emily Horn, 9, were still clinging to its sides, according to the family and the Maryland Natural Resources Police.
While Riggs was swimming for help, the stranded family sang songs, watched the stars and "talked to each other so we wouldn't fall asleep," Emily Horn said in a phone interview.
Riggs said the two children were a large part of what spurred him to try and swim for shore. "It seemed like the only option. The kids were getting cold and we were going to be out there all night."
Sergeant Brian Albert of the Maryland Natural Resources Police said the family did the right thing by donning life jackets.
"Usually these kinds of situations turn out to be tragedies for us," Albert said. "They were in that water for close to seven hours. We were just very lucky."
Contessa Riggs said in a phone interview that throughout the ordeal she remained confident her brother would make it to shore, but she worried about the fierce conditions he faced.
"When I finally saw him on the boat, I just said, 'I told you you're my hero,'" she said.
First published July 12 2013, 1:28 AM