CLEARWATER — Oct. 1, 1992: In heavy seas, the Roatan Express, a Honduran freighter, sank 80 miles off Fort Myers. Coast Guard helicopters arrived to find survivors floating amid debris and oil in 8- to 10-foot waves.
Coast Guard rescue swimmer Shawn Whaley was lowered by cable into that hazardous brew, clad in a wetsuit and carrying a full complement of rescue gear, including a heavy harness, an inflation device, radio and flares.
Mr. Whaley swam from one exhausted survivor to the next, dumping them into a basket with the help of a strap he secured under their arms.
"He had to go through the debris to find each person," said Darin Haughie, then an aviation survival supervisor who was watching from another helicopter. "It was a nasty storm, and it was still blowing."
After gathering several survivors, Mr. Whaley returned for another trip. All but two of the 15 people aboard survived.
Mr. Whaley's 13 rescues in one incident is a record since the start of the rescue swimmer program in 1985, Haughie said. But his skill in the water couldn't save his own life. Mr. Whaley, a 22-year Coast Guard veteran, died July 31 after falling from a boat. He was 43.
March 13, 1993: As the fishing boat Erin Moore sank, a Coast Guard helicopter hovered above the survivors 60 miles west of Tampa. Once again, Mr. Whaley was lowered into the tumultuous waters to pull the fishermen to safety. All three suffered from hypothermia but survived — although scores of others died in the "no-name" storm.
The senior chief aviation survival technician shrugged off his lifesaving acts despite receiving two Coast Guard Air Medals a year later for heroic achievement and rigorous training.
"He never, ever bragged about it," said his wife, Lindita. "He said, 'That's my job. If it weren't for things like this, I wouldn't have a job.' "
Being a rescue swimmer is a job only about 300 people have throughout the Coast Guard, with a reputation for difficulty on par with those of the Navy Seals or Army Rangers. Rescue swimmers must undergo continual personal-training tests involving pushups, chinups and timed swimming sprints.
Mr. Whaley's Coast Guard buddies knew him as a joker, one who would rig talcum-powder "bombs" in their lockers or dump live blue crabs into their beds during fishing trips.
But if those friends needed help moving or someone's car broke down, he was there.
After stints in Sacramento, San Diego and Jacksonville, he felt at home in Clearwater since 2005. He was a favorite at the Great American Teach-In, showing up at his daughters' schools with all his rescue gear, showing kids what it takes to do a job he loved.
On July 31, the Whaleys, their two daughters — ages 15 and 9 — and four other people spent the afternoon on Three Rooker Island, part of Anclote Key Preserve State Park near Tarpon Springs. On the way home, Mr. Whaley somehow disappeared from the back of the boat. Those onboard reported hearing a splash, then seeing him in the water.
"We turned around and went to pick him up," his wife said. Mr. Whaley, who was not breathing, was given CPR on the boat and by emergency workers on shore but did not respond. He was pronounced dead at Morton Plant Hospital.
His death appears to be the result of drowning, Clearwater police spokeswomen Elizabeth Watts said. Authorities are awaiting autopsy results from the Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner's Office, she said.
For now, the only known fact is this: The man who rescued so many others in the water could not be saved.
"It is really ironic," his wife said.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or [email protected]