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Divers, boat crew rescued after spending night on reef

Nine people were rescued from a shallow reef early Thursday, 12 hours after their dive boat rolled over and sank in stormy seas. Rescuers said their survival was a tribute to cool heads and warm wet suits.

The six passengers and three crew members aboard the 28-foot Diamond Girl were dumped in the water Wednesday when the boat sank suddenly, the Coast Guard said. They were rescued at 5 a.m. Thursday after a night in the Florida Straits.

"The boat rolled at 5 p.m., very unexpectedly," said Chief Petty Officer Charles Kemnitz of the Coast Guard station in Key West. "They didn't have time to get a (distress) call out."

The crew thought the Diamond Girl began taking on water when packing around the propeller shaft came loose, then rolled over when hit by a large wave, said Petty Officer Alex Worden at Coast Guard district headquarters in Miami.

The boat quickly sank in 70 feet of water.

One of the passengers, Dave Kirkham, 29, of Ringwood, N.J., said he and dive master Graham Green, 22, were underwater when the boat sank.

"Then we saw a scuba tank and then there's the boat about 50 to 60 feet away," he said. "We bolted to the boat to see who could be in it."

Kirkham said he and Green grabbed life vests, a first-aid kit and a strobe light before heading for the surface.

The nine pushed a webbed-bottom flotation ring from the Diamond Girl through four miles of six-to eight-foot waves to a shallow reef, Kemnitz said.

A Coast Guard patrol boat found them about 5 a.m., bobbing on the wave-swept reef. None of the people was injured, and all were released after being brought to Key West, the Coast Guard said.

Kemnitz attributed their survival to cool thinking.

"They were all divers, so they were all probably cool-headed people to begin with," he said. "They had a dive master with them, plus an experienced captain."

Seven of them were wearing wet suits, which divers use to retain body heat as well as to help protect them from coral cuts, Kemnitz said.

"I'm sure that helped a lot as far as the exposure factor is concerned," he said. "Two of the people, the only two who didn't have wet suits, were in the raft while the rest were in the water holding on to its side."