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Eerie parallels in fishing tragedies a half-century apart

Remembering a tragedy Listen to B.J. Woodside reflect on the tragic 1955 fishing trip that was eerily similar to the recent boating accident at links.tampabay.com.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Remembering a tragedy Listen to B.J. Woodside reflect on the tragic 1955 fishing trip that was eerily similar to the recent boating accident at links.tampabay.com.

The four men set out into the Gulf of Mexico in the morning gloom, bound for deep-water fishing far offshore.

About 40 miles off the coast of Pinellas County, their boat capsized, and they wound up clinging to the submerged remnants in the darkness.

Only one survived.

It was sensational news — in 1955.

Ruben Williams, his brother Dalton, Jack Whittington and a captain they knew only as "Kelley" set out on what was supposed to be a pleasant fishing trip that suddenly turned tragic.

The eerie parallels between that old boating tragedy and the one last week involving four football players struck home for B.J. Woodside, an 80-year-old retiree living in Brooksville.

His best friend, Ruben Williams, was the sole survivor. And Woodside might have been with them, he recalls, if he hadn't been working.

News coverage of last week's fishing accident involving NFL players Marquis Cooper and Corey Smith and former USF football players Will Bleakley and Nick Schuyler prompted Williams to rummage for a yellowed copy of the St. Petersburg Times he saved for a half-century.

Only Schuyler came back alive. The rest are missing but presumed dead.

Among the similarities: Both vessels carried four men and capsized about 40 miles out; three succumbed to hypothermia; a volunteer search was launched from John's Pass; a sharp-eyed sailor spotted the survivor clinging to the remnants of his boat.

Williams was 27. Schuyler is 24. Both survivors told of their fellow boaters giving up after hours in the chilly waters. And both gave sometimes conflicting versions of the events.

Woodside "was just heartbroken" over this week's calamity, said his wife, Aleta. Memories remain fresh.

Woodside grew up with Ruben Williams and Jack Whittington in Lealman. They were marbles champions in fifth grade and considered each other best friends.

He would likely have joined his friends on the 43-foot boat Jean for two weeks of grouper fishing if he hadn't been on a long-haul trucking run to Pennsylvania with his wife's stepfather.

The Jean rammed something in the darkness before midnight, according to Williams' account.

As the four clung to their partially submerged boat two days after it took on water, Williams told the Times that Kelley "said he was giving up" and vanished. Dalton Williams said he was going to swim for help — cryptically echoing Schuyler's initial account of what happened to Bleakley.

After initially telling conflicting stories involving a shark, Ruben Williams said Whittington released his float and drifted off.

He would later tell Woodside that when Dalton Williams drifted off, he "said he was just going to swim across the swimming pool and get out of the water."

Clinging to a hatch for hours, Ruben Williams was eventually seen by the first mate of the fishing boat Miss Judy, who at first mistook him for a pelican.

Williams later ran a plumbing business and died in 1988. He didn't talk about the disaster very much, Woodside said.

"It bothered him, I guess, sure, his brother and his best friend dying," Woodside said. "We just didn't talk about it a whole bunch."

Eerie parallels in fishing tragedies a half-century apart 03/06/09 [Last modified: Monday, March 9, 2009 9:03am]
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