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Playing by the rules leaves lives on the line

A wave capsized Bill Werner's 18-foot boat last weekend just as all three of his shipmates were helping him reel in a big fish.

But he didn't worry, because about 15 boats were within 20 yards of his. They were full of fishermen competing last Sunday morning in the Suncoast Kingfish Classic off Tarpon Springs.

Werner, a 28-year-old Hudson machinist, wasn't participating in the contest, and what he didn't know was that any fisherman who helped rescue him and his shipmates would risk disqualification.

None of them chose to help.

"They just sort of ignored it like it wasn't happening and left their lines in the water," Werner said.

Werner's cousin was the first to raise the alarm.

"Thirty seconds after he said we were taking on water, we flipped over," Werner said. "Everybody jumped off. There was no time to get life jackets or anything.

"But there were all these boats around and you wouldn't believe it _ nobody came over to help. It all happened so fast and nobody even came by or said anything to us."

Chuck Vitale, who, like Werner, was not involved in the tournament, did help. Vitale said he left his fishing spot 50 to 60 yards away to haul Werner's party out of the water and try to right their boat.

Werner said the moments before the rescue were scary and bewildering.

"My cousin didn't know how to swim, but he made it across the water on pure adrenaline," he said. "Bill can swim well, but his girlfriend, Tanesha, panicked and was going for the life vests. But it was too late. So I pushed her off the boat and jumped in after her.

"Then my seat cushion floated by and we held onto that."

Did Werner and his friends simply fail to attract enough attention?

"Oh, we yelled, but everybody was catching fish," Werner said. If the fish weren't biting, he said, "I'm sure somebody would have noticed, but nobody wanted to give up their fish. We were just amazed."

Jan Padgett, one of the tournament's organizers, said participants were forbidden to come into contact with another boat between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. or risk disqualification from the tournament.

"Those guys would help anybody," she said of the 99 teams who competed for prizes, including a new boat and a cash purse of about $3,000. "But they can't. They can radio for help but cannot come in contact with another boat or land."

Fishermen pay a $250 or $300 registration fee and half of the money raised goes to the Tarpon Springs Rotary. Padgett said she actually had a report of tournament participants helping a boater in distress _ but the rescue occurred after 5 p.m., when the tournament ended.

Werner said he was still surprised by the fishermen's behavior.

"Oh, it's cutthroat," he said of the tournament. "They just looked and watched these other guys react. You would have thought the other guys would at least have pulled up anchor. I mean, what if somebody was drowning?"

Vitale and his friend, Sam Chelf, managed to save Werner and his shipmates and tow the boat to shore. But since they were unable to right the capsized vessel, it was destroyed by saltwater.

By Tuesday, Werner was already looking for a new boat. He said he was simply glad to be alive and thankful for the efforts of Vitale and Chelf.

"If they didn't come by, it would have been real bad," Werner said. "I just thank God for those guys, otherwise we would have lost a lot more."