At Eckerd College, students see life and death on the waterways

Andrew Kerbs, 23, a senior at Eckerd College and boat captain trainee, steers the search-and-rescue team’s boat during a patrol trip Sept. 14 in Boca Ciega Bay along with fellow student volunteer Aino Pihlava, right, a 20-year-old sophomore.
Andrew Kerbs, 23, a senior at Eckerd College and boat captain trainee, steers the search-and-rescue team’s boat during a patrol trip Sept. 14 in Boca Ciega Bay along with fellow student volunteer Aino Pihlava, right, a 20-year-old sophomore.
Published Sept. 29, 2013


On beautiful, bright days when the sun is sitting in the sky, it is still pitch-black on the bottom of the gulf. There he swam in circles, a 19-year-old college kid tethered by a string to a spike in the sea floor. Small circles, at first. Murray Fournie knew he'd completed them when his compass pointed north. Then wider and wider circles, hands out in front of him. Wider and wider circles until he felt the body in the dark.

This was the 1980s, when Fournie went to Eckerd College, but it could have been the '70s or the '90s or last week. For decades, Eckerd's search-and-rescue program has trained students to respond to emergencies on the water. When the Sunshine Skyway bridge fell down in 1980, Eckerd students were the first responders. They pried open the rear door of the Greyhound bus wheels-up in the water.

The man who built the team, Bill Covert, retired last month. But his legacy is not the boats or the docks or the buildings. It's the students, who keep going, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, volunteers.

They fix engines, bring fuel to stranded boats, put out fires, perform CPR.

They are 18, 19, 20, 21, sometimes younger, sometimes older.

When someone jumps from the Skyway, they find the body.

When someone from the Coast Guard offers them a cigarette, they take it.

After doing this — not just confronting, but owning, death and injury and trauma, things most adults spend their entire lives avoiding — they go on to be lawyers, CEOs, scientists.

Because after doing this, they're not afraid of much else.

• • •

When Covert came to Eckerd as a sailing instructor in 1971, he found a campus that was shaky on what kind of relationship it wanted with the postcard-perfect waters all around it. A student had died while sailing the previous year. The boats were wooden and leaky. One of the two docks collapsed in his first year.

But when Covert formed a sailing club, he had a hundred members within a few weeks. The students wanted this.

One afternoon, they were out around Mullet Key when a storm moved in off the gulf.

The line of boats was heading back to campus when Covert saw the last one capsize. The boat was too damaged to sail. Covert pushed it on to Sister Key, just north of Fort De Soto. It was getting dark and cold. He wrapped the students in sails, told them to wait there. He got in his own small boat and went for help.

Covert eventually reached a resident adviser who came with a van to take him back to the college, where they wrangled up a powerboat to rescue the students from Sister Key.

"I came to the conclusion at that time," Covert says, "that we had done just about everything wrong that could be done."

The next day he gathered a dozen of his best students. "Hey gang," he said. "Let's form our own rescue team."

He began to train them. They would form basic rescue units, patrolling for safety. They could spring into action should trouble arise. And they could provide first aid. At first they only served other Eckerd students. In the spring of 1977 the Coast Guard gave them its blessing to serve the public.

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Most of the rescue missions were routine. A boat runs out of gas. A personal water craft breaks down. But every so often there was a plane crash and the students saw things.

Covert began a training session on dealing with death and injury and trauma. He brought in a counselor. Sometimes, he told them, the only thing you can do for a family is to bring them closure. The body is the closure.

• • •

In the pouring rain Cynthia Zahnow, little and blond and 19, walked from her freshman dorm to the dining hall at Eckerd College. It was May 9, 1980. Zahnow had a presentation due in one of her science classes. She had made a poster.

Zahnow was eating breakfast when her pager went off. She ran for the boathouse.

At the bottom of the bay the divers could see the yellow lines on the road that had free-fallen from the Skyway. A pile of cars were on top. Above it all was the bus, floating by its wheels.

In went the students. Zahnow waited on the boat. Her job was to lift onboard each body the divers found. There were so many broken bones that limbs felt like clumsy rubber in her arms. She had a rule: Don't look at faces. But she looked anyway and saw fear and sorrow and all the other faces people make when they desperately do not wish to die.

She remembers coming back to the docks, to clean the boats after the storm passed. And she remembers looking up into the most spectacular sunset she'd ever seen.

• • •

There is a photo of that rescue team lying on the floor, still in their wet suits, while Covert is standing and talking to them. What he said exactly, he can't remember. "But I'm sure it had something to do with the fact that we were a team," he says. "That we would support each other, and stick by each other."

When they look back, the team remembers solidarity. They remember becoming adults sooner than their classmates did. And not just adults. Leaders.

Murray Fournie says he learned to trust the people he works with by being on those boats. "Small unit integrity," he calls it.

Dominic Campanella, on the team in the '90s, never was stressed when he took tests in law school. Because nobody was going to get hurt if something went wrong, he says.

Cynthia Zahnow is a scientist at Johns Hopkins. She beat breast cancer.

After everything she saw on the water, it was difficult to fear much of anything on land.

• • •

Covert retired at the end of August, figuring 42 years was long enough. He had left the Eckerd waterfront in good hands. There are six docks now, four rescue boats, two buildings, a radio operations center, kayaks, sailboats, paddleboards, a golf cart, Hootie and the Blowfish coming through the sound system.

Weekends are busy in the gulf. On a recent Saturday, minutes after setting off on patrol, an Eckerd boat steered by senior Andrew Krebs, 23, rescued a man stranded on a water scooter. The man had called a commercial towing company, but they told him they wouldn't come get him unless he could provide a credit card number. He didn't keep a credit card in his swim trunks.

After dropping him off at Point Brittany, the Eckerd crew ran drills in the gulf while waiting for distress calls. They practiced putting out fires and pulling each others' limp bodies out of the water.

When it was time to head north back to campus they stopped under the Skyway. The four team members were quiet, trying to remember the last time they were there. Ashley Chambers, a senior, had come to get a jumper. He hadn't survived, the 21-year-old said. They almost never do.

Then Krebs hit the throttle and the boat tore through the water, faster and faster, the motor growling, waves hissing off the sides, the wind lifting caps from heads and life jackets from shirts and pressure-cleaning, really cleaning, the skin, leaving only a film of salt behind. The students looked around, and they saw dolphins.

It was a beautiful, bright day.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Lisa Gartner can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @lisagartner.