The water in Tampa Bay was choppy late Tuesday night. Seas were about 4 to 6 feet and winds were blowing about 10 to 15 knots. Harbor pilot Capt. Gary Murphy, who had navigated the bay for six years, was climbing a ladder from the pilot boat Tampa to the Marine Duval to guide the sulphur tanker into port.
Somehow, he lost his footing.
Murphy, 51, of Tampa fell from the rope ladder, plunging into Tampa Bay. By late Wednesday, he still had not been found and an extensive Coast Guard search had been called off.
"(He) can only be presumed to have died," said Steve Yerrid, an attorney for the Tampa Bay Pilots Association, a group of 21 harbor pilots. "Unfortunately, it's a dangerous job."
The accident happened about 11:30 p.m.about 15 miles west of Egmont Key. According to Yerrid, Murphy fell between the two boats, which were moving at about 10 knots.
"He was afloat for a very brief period of time, and then they lost sight of him," Yerrid said. Shortly after the fall, he was seen again, partly submerged, and he appeared to be injured. Again workers lost sight of Murphy.
Lt.j.g. Gwyn Patterson said the U.S. Coast Guard responded with a helicopter, a 41-foot cutter and an 82-foot patrol boat. Several pilot boats also took part in the search, which lasted all night.
By midmorning, the helicopter was called off. Other boats, including a private search and rescue company, joined in the effort, but by 7 p.m. it was officially called off, a Coast Guard statement said. No search was planned for today.
Officials said it would have been impossiblefor Murphy to tread water for 19 hours in 62-degree water.
"The survival time in this temperature is 12 hours," the statement said.
The Coast Guard is investigating the accident. Officials weren't certain Wednesday whether Murphy was wearing a life jacket, which is not required. Yerrid said national statistics show that about one harbor pilot a year dies from a ladder fall, and numerous others are disabled.
Harbor pilots are licensed by the state to guide tankers and cruise ships through the bay to a port and back to the Gulf of Mexico. Murphy was to guide the Marine Duval, a 612-foot sulphur tanker, to port.
A fellow harbor pilot and close friend, Capt. Steve Cropper, said the missing pilot has a wife, Kathleen, two daughters in college and a son in high school. He described Murphy as very close to his family and very religious.