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.
Continue reading your story on the app
Continue reading your story in the magazine
Dogs Alone At Home
How to reduce or prevent separation issues
READER'S DIGEST RECOMMENDED READ: An Olympian Read
The history of exercise is a surprisingly complex one, as chronicled in this month’s recommended read
A tale of intrigue and deception is our pick for February’s page-turner
A WORLD OF WORRY
Compounding crises have made everyone anxious, but how do you know if you’ve slipped into a more serious disorder— and what do you do about it?
I REMEMBER…Richard Carpenter
As the Carpenters, Richard Carpenter and his sister Karen were one of the most successful pop duos of all time. Now 75, he looks back on their career, celebrity fans and the devastating loss of his sibling
A Voice In The Dark
A seemingly unresponsive patient creates some career-changing questions for Dr Max
All About Appliqué
Give your old clothes and accessories a new lease of life
My Britain: Ribble Valley
Known as the "food capital of the North", Lancashire's Ribble Valley also boasts outstanding natural beauty, stunning countryside and quaint historic villages.
HE CURED HIS OWN DISEASE
A medical student battling a deadly disorder finally got a lifeline—from his own research
Ricky Gervais: “The Point Of Art Is To Make A Connection”
As the final series of After Life, the show he has written, directed, produced and starred in, launches, Ricky Gervais explains why it’s still all about the work
A DIFFERENT KIND OF AUSTRIAN PERFECTION
Strasser’s RS14 Straight-Pull Renews Our Enthusiasm for All Things Ballistic
VIRTUAL SCHOOL: TEACHERS WANT TO IMPROVE BUT TRAINING VARIES
After a rocky transition to distance learning last spring, Georgia teacher Aimee Rodriguez Webb is determined to do better this fall. She bought a dry-erase board and a special camera to display worksheets, and she set up her dining room to broadcast school lessons.
How to finance and save for senior care.
CREATIVITY, BEAUTY, PEACE
ROSANNA OCAMPO knows that maintaining healthy relationships is crucial to what she does. “We treat each other like family. That's important in any workplace because you need the peace to create beautiful things,” she says.
A-Rod & J.Lo: WHAT REALLY HAPPENED?
WHY THE SCANDAL-PLAGUED POWER COUPLE OFFICIALLY CALLED IT QUITS
LOUIS PISANO: CUANDO LO INTELECTUAL,LO CREATIVO YLO PRO VOCADOR SEJUNTAN.
Una charla con el activista que ha elegido la moda como su campo de batalla para combatir la discriminación racial y exponer las fallas de la industria de la moda.
STRAWBERRIES GROW IN A CAVITE RESIDENCE
WHEN WE TALK ABOUT STRAWBERRIES, the first thing that comes to mind is the cold temperatures that are usually present in elevated areas such as Baguio and the Mountain Province, which are famous for this crop. This is because strawberries grow ideally in locations that have a temperature of 15 to 26 degrees Celsius.