Reunited With Her Rescuers
Reader's Digest UK|December 2021
Thirty-five years after two fishermen plucked a young girl from the Pacific Ocean, a podcast leads to a remarkable reunion
Faith E Pinho

She had been drifting in the cold Pacific water for a night and most of a day.

Kept afloat by her orange life jacket, nine-year-old Desireé Rodriguez had watched helplessly as one family member after another let go of life. Just as she, too, began to give up, the skipper of a fishing boat spotted her bobbing in the water. Within minutes, the boat’s first officer leaped in and grabbed Desireé, pulling her back toward the boat—and toward life.

That was 35 years ago, and the last time the rescuers and the girl saw one another. Until this year.

May 18, 1986, was the kind of beautiful, sunny day that regularly brought the Rodriguez family to California’s Catalina Island for some fishing on their 28-foot pleasure boat, the DC Too.

Desireé’s father, a 30-year-old construction worker named Thomas Rodriguez, loved the sport, especially catching bass. A strong, slender man, he had instilled in his oldest daughter a love of the outdoors, teaching her how to bait a hook and cast a line.

As was their custom at least once a month, the family boarded their boat that morning for a carefree day trip. For the first time, Thomas’s sister, Corinne Wheeler, 33, and her husband, Allen Wheeler, 34, had decided to join them, leaving their three children at home in the Riverside, California neighbourhood where both families lived. They spent the day fishing in the Pacific Ocean, then left the island in the early evening. Soon dense fog rolled in.

Desireé fell into a light sleep beside her five-year-old sister, Trisha, at a table on the boat’s lower deck. Their father’s sharp orders startled her awake: “Get out of the boat. The boat’s sinking!”

Desireé pushed her sister into the cold, dark water. Both girls wore life jackets. The adults did not. The girls were followed by their mother, Petra Rodriguez, a petite, quiet 29-year-old who was pregnant.

Within seconds, the boat capsized, leaving just the tip of its bow in the air—and the six family members stranded. Looking into the faces of her father, mother, aunt, uncle, and sister, Desireé wasn’t frightened.

“It was like what you would see in a movie,” she recalls. “You could see nothing around you. It was just dark. But it was peaceful, quiet.”

After some time, her father told them he would swim for help. “I’ll be back,” he said before disappearing into the darkness.

“My dad was like the superhero to me. I actually thought he would get help,” Desireé says.

After some time, her mother began foaming at the mouth, and then she went still. Desireé wrapped a rope around her mother’s chest and tied her to the boat so she wouldn’t float away. Then her sister died too.

“I remember it was just pretty much quiet after that,” Desireé says. “I think we were all just kind of in disbelief and just waiting.”

Paul Strasser and Mark Pisano, then two strapping 23-year-olds, were still new to captaining ships when they pushed off from San Pedro at six in the morning of May 19. They had 35 passengers aboard the First String, a boat they’d helped build, for a fishing expedition.

The best friends had met as 14-year-olds. Soon after, Strasser had quit his job delivering newspapers to join Pisano working on fishing boats, where they scrubbed decks, cleaned fish, and earned the title of “pinheads”—eager young fishermen learning the ropes.

They graduated to deckhands and eventually to full-fledged fishermen. They spent their free time learning their trade. Before long, they became two of the youngest captains at San Pedro’s 22nd Street Landing.

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