Survivors describe their harrowing ordeal after abandoning lift boat

An unthinkable emergency and cascading failures. Bodily breakdown and desperation. The loss of hope. One final grasp at survival.

That's the experience described by mariners who survived the Trinity II disaster in Mexico's Bay of Campeche. While four men died in the hurricane, six were saved after they abandoned ship and spent three days floating in the water.

From left, Craig Myers, Jeremy Parfait, Nicholas Reed and Ted Derise — longtime crewmates and friends — shown together on a vessel in the Gulf of Mexico, about a year before the ill-fated Trinity II evacuation. Myers and Reed were killed in the disaster, along with two others. (Photo courtesy Steve Myers)

The men were aboard the 94-foot lift boat in 83 feet of water when Tropical Storm Nate kicked up on Sept. 7 and 8, 2011. While the captain begged nearby ships to evacuate his crew, a starboard leg failed and the 10 needed to flee immediately. After fully stocked 25-man inflatable rafts blew away, they entered the water with one 12-man life float.

They had no idea that they'd be lost for almost 76 hours, with no food or drinking water. The storm — by then Hurricane Nate — carried them 100 miles. Aircraft, ships and rigs appeared on the horizon, only to disappear with no one noticing.

The survivors made fateful decisions in hopes of saving their lives. In an interview with Professional Mariner, Capt. Jeremy Parfait and Able Seaman Ted Derise described their nightmarish experience clinging to the life float, wondering if help would ever arrive.

The hasty evacuation took place Sept. 8. After two exhausting days, the men were dehydrated, hallucinating and in pain.

"The seawater ate away at our lips and tongues and our faces were burning," said Derise, 32. "Then the six of us just went ahead and drank our own urine. I don't know if that's why we're alive today."

The crew were employees of Trinity Liftboat Services, of New Iberia, La. Two mariners — Nicholas Reed, 31, and Craig Myers, 32 — died. The other two deceased were Kham Nadimuzzaman of Bangladesh and Aaron Houweling of Australia, both hired by Houston-based Geokinetics Inc.

Much of the dead men's fate was sealed while the group was still aboard Trinity II. As the storm developed, a starboard leg began sinking into the seabed. Parfait asked the standby vessel, the cable-laying ship Mermaid Vigilance, to evacuate his men quickly, before the weather intensified, but the Singapore-flagged vessel never approached.

The companies talked about sending a crew boat or helicopter out to Trinity II, and one tugboat was nearby, but nobody committed. Twenty- to 30-foot waves were forming, the captain said.

"When that leg snapped, all hell broke loose," said Parfait, 39. "Those seas started pounding us. The bow was pointed up towards the heavens. It seemed like she was going to turn right up on top of us."

The crew struggled mightily in their preparations to flee. One life raft blew away immediately after its capsule opened. With everyone grasping lines, they were able to get the second raft into the water, but it too flew like a kite. The cook amazed everyone by climbing to the top of the bridge to fetch the 12-man life float. Parfait tried to reach the vessel's EPIRB, but a crane was in the way.

"The crane was slamming around," Parfait said. "I thought the crane would snatch me, so I couldn't get to it."

The 10 men, wearing life vests, entered the water, grabbed hold of the float and tried to stick together. The lift boat did not carry survival suits, which are not a requirement in the warm waters off Mexico. Both Parfait and Derise said they wish survival suits had been available.

"The first night was just horrible," Parfait said. "It was just blistering rain nonstop, and we were in the 25-to-40-foot range of waves. Every six seconds you were in the water and everybody was vomiting."

The first man lost was Houweling, whose mental faculties slipped away. "He kept untying himself," the captain said. "He had the shivers. His lips were purple."

Everyone experienced severe sunburn and some organ failure or chest pains. Reed became disoriented and drowned. Nadimuzzaman got sick after eating seeds from floating lilies.

Three times over the next three days, there was reason for optimism. A helicopter appeared to be pointing straight at them, only to turn away. After Myers died Sept. 10, the ever-more-desperate men swam close enough to a platform that they could hear the motors and smell the diesel, but seas shifted and carried them away again.

On the afternoon of Sept. 11, almost out of hope, Derise spotted what he figured was one last lifeline for averting death.

"Out of the corner of my eye, when a wave pushed me up, I saw it in the distance. I told Jeremy, "I see a boat!" and he said, "Get to it, man!" The boat would go left, I'd go left. The boat would go right, I'd go right. I just tried to stay in front of it, so it would be a better chance that they'd see me. I was yelling and I was screaming. I thought, "This is it! We're going to be rescued!"

"Then it turned, and I was looking at the stern, and that's when I thought, "I'm going to die.'"

Alone now and contemplating his death, Derise noticed an airplane circling. Ten minutes later, he saw that same boat, navigating straight toward him. "I climbed up on it like a cat!" he said. Aboard the anchor handler Bourbon Artabaze, Myers' body was on a stretcher and survivors were receiving medical treatment and water. Derise realized the vessel crew had found the float first.

Recovering two and a half months after the disaster, Parfait was adamant that Gulf operators must prepare evacuation plans beforehand.

"The only thing you can do is get your crew out of there before the storm hits," Parfait said. "We shouldn't have been left out there."

He said non-mariners at sea need water survival training similar to what mariners receive.

"These Geokinetics guys and the cleaning crew, they weren't prepared to go in the water," he said. "Give everybody a chance."

Myers' father, Steve Myers, told Professional Mariner that personal EPIRBs should be mandatory. "That way, if they go in the water, you can find them," he said. 'My son would be alive today."

By Professional Mariner Staff