Tioga grads survive boat accident in Mexico

By David Dinsmore • ddinsmore@thetowntalk.com • June 14, 2008
Buckeye High School graduate Katie Garcia snapped a quick photo of her friends giving her the thumbs-up from inside some lifeboats. It was funny, she thought, seeing as they wouldn't need the small boats on a snorkeling excursion.

More than 200 high school graduates and their chaperones joined Garcia and friends that afternoon, June 7, on a catamaran-style boat known as the "Sea Star," eager to explore the waters just beyond the beaches of Cancun, Mexico.
Rose Smith joined her son and 10 fellow graduates of Tioga High School on the top deck as everyone tried to find a place to sit. As the seats quickly filled, people began sitting on the floor or in each other's laps.
First signs of trouble

Penny Adkins ­-- a chaperone with the Buckeye grads ­-- looked around at the crowd on the boat with a critical eye.
"How many people will this boat hold?" she had asked the crew before boarding.
They said at least 200. Mexican navigation officials later determined the boat's rating to be 240 people.
The captain came over the loudspeaker, but Rose Smith and her children -- Tioga graduate Alex Smith and daughter Amanda Yoiste -- could see neither him nor any of the crew.
Snorkelers would enter the water from the bottom level in groups of 10, the captain announced before getting off the mic, putting on some music and pulling away from the dock.
Several sets of snorkelers splashed into the crystal water, which had started to cover the unloading steps at the back of the boat even before the Sea Star left the docks, Buckeye chaperone Diane Woodson said.
Buckeye graduate Brittany Mitchell was standing on the bottom deck waiting for her turn to snorkel when she heard a noise beneath the boat.
Officials later would determine the captain -- who had never before operated a boat like the "Sea Star" -- had hit the reef, damaging the vessel's hull.
Those on the boat began to notice the snorkelers weren't the only things floating away from the boat. Trash cans had made their way out as the water began to take over a little more of the lower deck, Woodson said.
Mitchell began to notice the water was coming onto the deck in waves, and it eventually stopped receding. Submerged to their knees on the lower deck, Garcia and Mitchell decided it was time to go up top.
That's when Adkins heard the screaming, and she went to find her son, Buckeye graduate Corey Adkins, to make sure everything was OK.
Rose Smith thought the first few warnings were a joke.
"The boat is sinking!" those on the lower deck yelled as they scrambled up top. "Get to the front of the boat!"
Underneath the screaming, Diane Woodson heard the eerie creaking noises the boat began to make as each new wave claimed a little more of the boat for its own, breaking tables and pulling more equipment into the water. She looked to the crew for some guidance. Not one member was in sight.
Buckeye graduate Clint Smith saw them, however, as they were working to save the alcohol. Cancun tends to be picky about litter floating in its waters, Smith said.
Buckeye graduates Cote Ryland, Colt Steiner, Clint Smith and others began loosening the lifeboats and tossing them into the water.
Rose Smith and others began searching for lifejackets underneath seats and inside the boats so they could bail from the Sea Star. She dug through six or seven before she found one with enough straps to tie together to wear.
Garcia and many others were worried about the personal items they had brought with them, such as the wallets, cameras and sunglasses, making their way to the sea floor.
"Forget about your camera," Ryland told Garcia. "You have to get off the boat."
Seconds from tragedy

Meanwhile, several Buckeye graduates and parents came to help Woodson ­-- who was not a strong swimmer --­ untangle a large clump of lifejackets to find one that would help her keep afloat when it came time to bail.
Though the boat was going down, about half of the group still treated the situation lightheartedly as they performed back flips off of the boat into the water, which was slowly filling with a mixture of passengers and recreational watercraft coming to the rescue of the floating graduates and their parents.
The situation, however, soon turned deadly.
Rose Smith looked around to make sure her kids --­ Alex Smith, Yoiste and the other Tioga graduates --­ had lifejackets and were preparing to abandon ship.
Her son stood ready to jump with three other students, including Lisa Chung, 18, of the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
Chung jumped into the water and is believed to have ended up trapped under a rescue boat. Alex Smith jumped in seconds later.
The rescue craft ­-- including about 40 personal watercraft and 20 boats --­ began taking a few people to shore at a time.
When Rose Smith made it to the beach, she couldn't find her two children. Daughter Yoiste was helping a girl with a broken arm reach the shore by getting the attention of a watercraft driver. Yoiste also caught a ride with another craft.
Once the mother and daughter reunited on the beach, Yoiste burst into tears.
Rose Smith heard someone was receiving CPR after most of the 211 passengers -- originally reported by the captain to be 126, allegedly to avoid a per-head tax -- had landed on the beach. Alex Smith was still missing.
"That was terrifying," Rose Smith said later while telling the story.
Alex Smith was one of the last to be pulled out of the water.
Chung had been the person receiving emergency resuscitation. She later died from her injuries, which included lung and heart failure. She was a 2008 graduate of South Grand Prairie High School.
For the rest of the trip, the incident weighed heavily on the minds of Penny Adkins and her Buckeye group. Rose Smith and the Tioga group couldn't even talk about it.
"I won't ever think 'something like that won't happen to me' ever again," Corey Adkins said Thursday after returning safely home.

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Corey Adkins, a 2008 Buckeye High School graduate, looks at a Mexican newspaper that has a story about the sinking boat he and other classmates were on while on a senior trip in Cancun, Mexico. Adkins, along with Brittany Mitchell (center) and Ashley Blackman, were among 126 passengers aboard the Sea Star when it began to sink. One passenger, an 18-year-old woman from Texas, suffered severe injuries and later died. (Melinda Martinez/The Town Talk)

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Brittany Mitchell (right), a 2008 Buckeye High School graduate, talks about an 18-year-old Texas woman who suffered severe injuries and later died after an accident on a boat they all were on in Cancun, Mexico. Mitchell, along with Katie Garcia (left) and Cote Rylan, were on a sinking boat, the Sea Star, while on a senior trip. (Melinda Martinez/The Town Talk)

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Colt Steiner (right), a 2008 Buckeye High School graduate, talks about seeing the body of an 18-year-old woman being pulled from the sea after a sea excursion turned into a nightmare off the coast of Cancun, Mexico. Steiner and several others, including Ashley Blackman (left) of Pineville, were on the boat when it began to sink. The 18-year-old woman, who was from Texas, died later in a Texas hospital. (Melinda Martinez/The Town Talk)

Lissa Thang Chung, 18, of Dallas, is placed on a medical evacuation aircraft at the airport in Cancun, Mexico, late Monday. Chung was left brain dead after her tourist boat sank over the weekend. She died later at a hospital. (The Associated Press)

Men are seen inspecting the Sea Star tourist boat at a beach in Cancun, Mexico, on Monday. Police are investigating last Saturday’s accident that resulted in the death of a Texas woman. The captain of the boat was cited in the incident. Some students from Central Louisiana were on the boat as part of a senior trip. (The Associated Press)