Dateline   |  April 14, 2014

Capsized, part 4

Four families await news of their loved ones' fate.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>> reporter: these video images retrieved from the ocean were among the last the four rowers took on board the "james robert hanssen ." in the early morning hours of april 6th , 2013 , day 73 of the expedition, land-based coordinator greg spooner got a call from the san juan , puerto rico , coast guard station. officials had received signals from three emergency beacons about 350 miles off the puerto rican coast.

>> i'm just standing here trying to figure out what's going on and why only three beacons have gone off. where's the fourth?

>> reporter: but that's all the information the coast guard had.

>> greg knew those beacons had to be activated manually and that the crew would only do so in a dire emergency, but no one had any idea exactly what happened out there. what was that feeling like? these are friends of yours.

>> if there are only three beacons going off, why isn't there a snourt who did i lose? i found myself almost trying to make the decision of --

>> reporter: who's it going to be?

>> yeah. run through every single guy on board.

>> reporter: there was jordan, the captain, greg 's best friend and rowing mate on a 2006 expedition. there was adam , the olympic gold -medal winner who had a 2-year-old son and a pregnant wife back home. there was patrick , the rookie, whose mother had worried every moment of the journey. and there was markus, who had just days before written a blog entry saying he had no fear of death. within a few moments the coast guard called back.

>> officer harper informed me they weren't able to raise the guys on the satellite phones and that it was time to make a decision whether or not to deploy an aircraft.

>> reporter: the coast guard dispatched a search plane from florida to look for the crew. that flight would take about four hours. in the meantime, greg began calling the families. patrick 's mother, diana.

>> and the world stopped. every fear i had had come to fruition. i told him not to do it. he wouldn't listen to me. and now my son's dead.

>> reporter: patrick 's mother wasn't the only one to believe the worst. even greg , who'd always been so optimistic about the expedition, even greg 's mind was racing with the possible scenarios.

>> so keep in mind there are three beacons.

>> reporter: doesn't mean there are three people alive either.

>> exactly. there could be one person alive who tripped all those beacons or there could be two people or there could be three people.

>> reporter: finally, greg had to inform adam 's wife, rebecca .

>> he said, okay, i got a call from the u.s. coast guard and, you know, right away you have that moment of panic but then, you know, we talked about, okay, what could this be? so let's not jump to, like, they capsized because that's the worst case and that's not going to happen.

>> reporter: at this point, rebecca was actually among the more optimistic of the family members. but in those hours the search plane was trying to find the crew, there wasn't a shred of new information. the families tried to hang on, but for patrick 's mother it proved impossible.

>> i was losing my son. there was real potential there that my son wasn't coming back to me.

>> reporter: and then, four hours into the search, the coast guard had news, big news. their plane had spotted the rowers and the boat.

>> the aircraft has made visual contact with the overturned ocean rowboat, so i knew it was a capsize officially at that point. the life raft was deployed, and they confirmed visual contact with two people.

>> reporter: two people. the "james robert hanssen " had capsized and the coast guard could only see two survivors, not three, not four.

>> and so i had to call all the families again and say they have visual contact, capsized rowboat, life raft, two people confirmed.

>> so two people had to be dead. and which two was it going to be? and i just -- it just couldn't be my son.

>> reporter: and near their home in british columbia , adam 's wife rebecca got greg 's call on the beach where she'd taken jefferson for a walk waiting out the agony.

>> seven months pregnant, your hormones are all over the map to start out with. i'm so tired, and it was like a train wreck and i just sat on the ground and i just lost it.

>> reporter: here she was, perhaps a widow, and all she had of him just then was video adam recorded just days earlier about a letter rebecca had asked him to write.

>> hey, jefferson, it's your dad here. before i left from senegal your mom asked me to write you a letter, a letter that was pretty serious in case i died on this adventure, and that's a serious -- that's something that's actually a serious consequence of going out into the wild , into the great unknown, is that you do face death.

>> reporter: that video and that letter now seemed eerily prescient as four families waited for word, any word.