FWC News Release
Contact: Karen Parker, 386-758-0525

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) rescued three missing boaters and their dog around 3 p.m. Wednesday.

The vessel, a 19-foot boat named “Snowbird,” had been reported missing when the occupants did not return after setting out for a fishing trip Sunday evening.

William J. Wetherington, 42, of Atlanta; his mother, Vannie Wetherington, 70, of Valdosta; and Kelly Trezek, 41, of Marietta, along with “Pugsley,” were located and rescued. The search for the boaters began Tuesday evening, when they were reported overdue, according to FWC officials.

The FWC, U.S. Coast Guard and the Taylor County Sheriff’s Office searched the area until midnight Tuesday. The weather had deteriorated in the Gulf and the seas were rough. The search resumed at first light Wednesday.

According to Lt. Ken Mazzeo, captain of the FWC’s “Guardian,” a 45-foot offshore patrol vessel stationed at Crystal River, “I plotted a search starting point at about 35 miles offshore. While we were en route to the area, FWC pilot Frank Utermohlen located the vessel 32 miles offshore from Steinhatchee.”

The “Guardian” was 12 miles from that location and continued on to the vessel.

“We approached the vessel and saw three people and a dog on board. The two women appeared to be okay, however, the man needed medical attention,” Mazzeo said. “We rescued everyone and secured them inside the ‘Guardian.’ I requested a Coast Guard airlift to get Mr. Wetherington to medical help.”

The USCG helicopter's estimated time of arrival wasn’t known, so the “Guardian” continued on to Keaton Beach. Mazzeo knew he couldn’t get the large FWC boat into the channel there, so he also requested emergency medical personnel be loaded on a smaller vessel to meet the “Guardian” once they got closer to shore.

“By the time the helicopter got there, we were only 2 miles from shore, so we decided not to transfer Mr. Wetherington to the aircraft at that time. We met up with the EMS personnel and they were able to stabilize the patient while he was still aboard the ‘Guardian,’” Mazzeo said.

Wetherington was then put aboard a smaller FWC patrol vessel and taken to a waiting ambulance. Trezek, Mrs. Wetherington and Pugsley were put aboard another FWC 25-foot patrol vessel.

“Everyone on board was ecstatic to see us. After spending three nights out on the Gulf, I can certainly understand why,” Mazzeo said. “And Pugsley was cool too. He didn’t seem to be suffering any ill effects whatsoever. Best of all, he was ‘boat-broken.’”

According to FWC Lt. Bruce Cooper, incident commander during the search, “When Pugsley was transferred to my boat with the two women, he buried his head in my chest and wouldn’t look up. He was glad it was over. I carried him the rest of the way back to shore.”

FWC officials state it appears the vessel’s engine failed and had an improper anchor for the prevailing conditions. The boaters had drifted for several days. In addition, their flares did not work, their handheld VHF had dead batteries, and their cell phone wasn’t receiving a signal.

“The best safety tip I can give is to make sure you have all the proper, functioning equipment aboard, even if you’re only going out for a short time. These folks were just going out fishing for a few hours and fully intended on coming back to shore Sunday evening. But they ended up spending three nights out there,” Mazzeo said. “This story has a very happy ending and I’m glad we found everyone when we did.”

Cooper said, “Mrs. Wetherington told me during the ride back that their boat had started taking on water 30 minutes prior to our aircraft locating them. She said they wouldn’t have made it if the boat had gone down.”

The teamwork among FWC, Taylor County Sheriff’s Office and the U.S. Coast Guard made this a successful rescue, Cooper said.

“Sea and weather conditions were extremely rough and hampered our local FWC assets’ search abilities from going too far offshore,” Cooper said. “With the addition of the aircraft, the Guardian and the FWC’s intermediate class 32-foot Fincat, our capabilities were greatly improved.”