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Young boy survives boating accident near Sunshine Skyway, but father perishes

ST. PETERSBURG — It was dark by the time Phong Quoc Ngo, his 6-year-old son Anthony and two friends made their way back to the boat ramp.

After fishing for hours in Ngo's 18-foot skiff, they were ready to head home.

But as they passed beneath the Sunshine Skyway about 9:30 p.m. Friday, something went wrong.

The boat was going fast, Anthony Ngo said. The driver made a sharp turn and the boat lurched, throwing everyone into the water.

Anthony, the only one wearing a life jacket, went under for a moment. His dad pulled him up.

"He saved my life," Anthony said.

Someone else hit their head on the boat, he said.

Gripping his dad's arm, Anthony called for help. He noticed that a lot of water went into his dad's mouth. Anthony paddled his legs to help them both stay afloat.

With the engine running, the boat circled in front of them, making it impossible to get back in.

A passing boater saw the unmanned skiff first, then Anthony and Ngo. The unidentified good Samaritan pulled them out of the water together, with Anthony still holding on to his dad's body.

Ngo, 44, of Tampa, was later pronounced dead. Anthony was taken to a hospital and released uninjured.

The Coast Guard immediately began searching for the other two, said Petty Officer 1st Class Mariana O'Leary.

A small boat from the nearby Coast Guard cutter Crocodile found Hoa Van, 34, of Pinellas Park. Van was taken to a hospital, his condition unknown.

Authorities did not find the fourth boater, Quang Minh Tran, 34, of Pinellas Park. The Coast Guard spent 23 hours searching a 8 square miles and stopped at 8:42 p.m., saying they had "exhausted all reasonable expectations of survivability'' for Tran.

Air Station Clearwater launched an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter for the search. Rescuers from the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Eckerd College Search and Rescue Team joined in, aided by two Coast Guard vessels.

Investigators were unsure what caused the accident, said wildlife commission spokesman Gary Morse.

"We don't know what caused the boat to make a sharp turn, but all four individuals were ejected," he said.

A woman at the address listed on Tran's fishing license declined to comment. Van's family could not be located.

Ngo's wife, Hien Pang, said she last spoke with her husband at 8:30 p.m. Friday. She asked if they were heading home, and he said not yet.

Pang took a nap and was awakened at 1 a.m., when officers knocked on her door with the news.

With Anthony and three other children, ages 2, 13 and 15, Pang said Saturday she was trying to remain strong.

She worries most about Anthony, who often went fishing with his dad. He cried at first, she said, but on Saturday he remained calm. She isn't sure he understands the finality of what happened.

Ngo, who loved fishing, picked Anthony up Friday afternoon at school and headed straight to the boat ramp. He bought the skiff last year so the family could spend more time together, said his stepdaughter, Carolyn Nguyen, 15.

"His family was his biggest priority and he liked to involve us," she said.

Ngo, who moved to the United States from Vietnam when he was a teenager, owned CA Nail Supply in St. Petersburg and was well known in the Vietnamese community, Nguyen said.

The news hit hard for Ngo's friends. Some of them, including Ngo, play tennis together three times a week.

Just Thursday, Ngo discussed plans for a Memorial Day cookout with them, said Thanh Dan, one of the tennis group.

Ngo was to join them again Saturday morning for doubles.

Then someone in the group heard the news of his death.

"Everyone is very, very sad," said Dan, 65. "We were very surprised to hear (what happened)."

Dan said it is common for Vietnamese people to rally around families that have lost loved ones, often contributing money for funeral expenses.

"We will do something for the family, I think," he said.

As Ngo's family gathered at home Saturday, Anthony recounted the story again, without tears. He said he wasn't scared.

"I was just sad," he said, "because my dad died."

Times staff writer Andrew Meacham and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Shelley Rossetter can be reached at srossetter@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2442.

Young boy survives boating accident near Sunshine Skyway, but father perishes 05/28/11 [Last modified: Sunday, May 29, 2011 12:04am]

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