Tampa students fear for lives as ship sinks

TAMPA — Kierslyn Kujawa and her friends yearned to jump off the second deck of their catamaran as they headed out from Cancun on a trip celebrating their recent graduation from Wharton High School.

But the ship's crew told them it was a safety hazard, that they would get in trouble if they jumped, so Kujawa, 17, and her friends decided against it.

Until their boat began to sink. Then they had no choice.

Some two-dozen graduates from Wharton and Freedom high schools in north Tampa returned Monday as survivors of a shipwreck — one that left an 18-year-old Texas girl on life support.

"I don't think at first any of us realized what the extent of this was," Kujawa said Tuesday, now safe and sound back home. "It was kind of like, 'Okay, now we all get to jump off the second deck!' "

The teens departed for Cancun on June 2 for a vacation before most of them head off to college at the end of the summer. On Saturday, they boarded a 75-foot catamaran with almost 100 other teenagers for a snorkeling trip.

Everything went well until the first group of snorkelers plunged into the water off the side of the Sea Star, which had dropped anchor between Cancun and Isla Mujeres. Some of the teenagers still on the boat noticed water flooding its lower deck.

They laughed, musing about how they might get to make that second-deck plunge into the water. But they did not think much of it.

Then the boat began to tilt. The teenagers realized something was really wrong.

"Everybody just started panicking," said Josh Powell, 18. "People started yelling and screaming, 'The boat's sinking! The boat's sinking!' "

Powell and his friends grabbed life jackets, but no one seemed to know what to do.

"We were kind of like, 'Should we jump off?' " said Brittney Smith, 18, who went through the ordeal while nursing a broken arm.

Smith and her friends decided to stay put. Some members of the ship's crew did not. Alex Bartholomew, 18, recalled seeing one jump ship: "He was like, 'Save your lives!' — and then jumped into the water and started swimming."

Bartholomew began throwing life rafts overboard and then jumped, his friends from Wharton following.

Smith, with her broken arm, could not swim. So she stayed on the ship, hoping to be rescued. As the boat plunged deeper into the water, she remained, waiting.

"I panicked," she said. "I couldn't swim. I couldn't jump. I had no idea what to do."

Just in time, a water scooter came up to rescue Smith. A passing pleasure craft later picked up some of the others who had bailed from their life raft when a larger boat was about to run them over.

"Everybody just kept saying, 'I can't believe that just happened,' " Kujawa said.

Then they saw a person being pulled ashore. Medics tending to Smith scurried away. The girl, 18-year-old Lissa Thang Chung of Dallas, had suffered heart and lung failure after nearly drowning, Mexican police said. She was later declared brain dead and put on life support.

"At first it didn't really hit any of us," Kujawa said. "You start seeing stuff like that, and you realize this isn't just fun and games anymore."

The teenagers were on a weeklong trip booked through the Massachusetts tour operator GradCity, which bills itself as offering "the ultimate travel experience" for tens of thousands of high school students each year.

The company's director of operations, Jason Chute, said Tuesday that the accident remains under investigation and that the company had suspended all snorkeling excursions until the cause of the sinking could be determined.

A preliminary report by Mexican authorities said the Sea Star was carrying 126 people at the time of the accident, far more than its 80-passenger capacity. But Chute rejected the charge that the boat was overloaded, saying it was authorized to hold 250 passengers.

That did not satisfy some parents. Bartholomew's mother, Randi, said she was nervous enough about her son traveling abroad, let alone being thrust into disaster at sea.

"The scary part is that they were all on their own," she said. "It makes me really mad; they shouldn't have been in that situation. The company, if they're sponsoring the trip, they should have checked it out."

The Tampa-area teenagers arrived home Monday night, but not before having to make a tough decision: whether to proceed as planned with a final boat cruise scheduled for Sunday, the last day of their trip.

They decided to go for it — and ultimately had a good time.

Kujawa said: "Our theory was, we don't have that bad of luck that we're going to sink two days in a row."

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Thomas Kaplan can be reached at tkaplan@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3404.

Tampa students fear for lives as ship sinks 06/10/08 [Last modified: Friday, June 13, 2008 9:39am]

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