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La Pine couple (and cats) survive explosion, sinking

Published On: Dec 24 2013 02:02:59 AM CST
Updated On: Aug 14 2013 03:22:34 PM CDT

NewsChannel 21's Alicia Inns talked with a La Pine couple who were 80 miles at sea off Oregon coast when something went terribly wrong -- and their fishing boat blew up and sank.

La PINE, Ore. -

Mark and Cynthia Schneider have been married for 32 years and call La Pine home, but for the past 27 years, they've spent their summers at sea.

"A lot of guys say, 'How do you even let your wife on the boat?' But Cynthia's been the captain an the skipper ever wince we got started," Mark said Tuesday.

The casting couple catches thousands of pounds of albacore tuna and sells it to New Seasons Market in Portland under their brand "Catch of the Sea."

"When we're fishing, it's long hours. When we're working on the boat, it's long hours," Mark said.

Seven days into their season, on Aug. 5th -- 80 miles off the Oregon coast, disaster struck.

"The engine backfired once, so Cynthia went and looked and it's billowing black smoke," he recalled Tuesday, back home in La Pine. "Then it backfired again, and this was all happening pretty rapidly."

"It backfired again, and it actually rocked the boat and it was pretty loud. It wasn't very long, and then we had the explosion -- and it literally blew the entire side of the boat off," Mark said.

The "Sea Princess" started taking on water.

"The side planks, the whole section of the wall was gone. It was blown off the boat -- gone," pointing to a "before" photo of his beloved fishing boat on his computer.

Cynthia said, "The flames went up through the floor and blew the walls out and the fire ball hit me on the side, burnt all my face through here and down here."

In a rush, the Schneiders threw on their survival suits, grabbed whatever they could and abandoned ship.

"She was shouting, 'Get off the boat! We've got to get off this boat!' Finally it was enough -- she was yelling at me," Mark said. "And then we just sat there and watched 27 years go away."

In the water, watching their boat sink -- and all they could think about were two things.

"I just thought, 'We can't leave my kitties! Can't leave my kitties! We cannot leave my kitties!" he said.

Their companions at sea, Jasper and Topaz were lost in the chaos.

Until...

"Topaz come out past swimming those totes, and we saw her and screamed at her and she started swimming towards us," Mark said.

Topaz was rescued first. Jasper nearly went down with the ship, riding on the bow as it slowly sank.

"Slowly it started sinking and it went right out from underneath him, and it just disappeared and then he started swimming," he said.

Reunited, the family was rescued by a nearby ship minutes later. The Coast Guard wasn't needed in this instance, since their fishing-boat friends rescued them.

The Schneiders are, of course, happy to be alive, but they say not only did they lose their boat and all their possessions, they lost their livelihood.

"We had about a little over 8  1/2 tons of fish on the boat that we'd caught in the last seven days. That's a value of about $40,000, and just to have that snatched away is rough," Mark said.

While the boat hull was insured, that won't cover the loss of their fishing gear, catch and personal belongings.

Still, Mark and Cynthia are counting their blessings -- and already thinking of their next fishing trip.

"We've got to get another boat," Mark said. "That's all there is to it -- gotta get another boat and go fishing."

Here's more on their dramatic sea story, as written by Mark's sister, Debra:
 
Their work is a bit unconventional.  Married for 32 years, the couple has fished together commercially for 25 years.  They sold the boat they had owned for 17 years “Princess” just a couple of summers ago in order to buy a bigger boat with greater holding capacity and more stability in rough seas.  They put in uncountable hours, overcoming numerous challenges with the 60 ft. “Sea Princess,” remodeling, sanding, painting, troubleshooting, sweating, repairing, reconditioning, testing, and installing new systems where needed.
 
Their fishing season in 2012 was a trying one, with many mechanical problems to work through.  They limped in from sea more than once.  More repairs needed, more money invested.  After a long frugal winter, spring came and it was back to work on the boat.
 
After three very full months working 12-14 hours every day, they finally felt everything was ready to go. They went out to sea July 30th and, according to an e-mail from Mark that day, “The boat is all painted up pretty and everything is in working order.”
 
Theirs is grueling work …. up to 16 hour days, catching each and every tuna individually on a line, carefully handling each fish so as not to bruise it and immediately chilling it down to preserve maximum freshness. 

They catch and handle upwards of 200 fish on a good day.  They sell their catch under their own brand, “Catch of the Sea” as pouched tuna to New Seasons Market, a grocery store chain in the greater Portland area dedicated to supporting local sustainable agriculture and small businesses, as well as selling retail on the web site catchofthesea.com.
 
All their hard work was paying off, things were running efficiently and the tuna were biting.  Mark made a routine check in the engine room Monday evening, August 5th. 

Nothing was out of order. 

He went back up to the cabin area,  and about half an hour later, he heard the main backfire a couple times and then, “ BOOM!” 

Suddenly, there was a huge explosion.

Cynthia was thrown backwards 5 or 6 feet.  Both Mark and Cynthia suffered flash burns on their faces. 

Luckily, they had their ear plugs in and rain gear on which protected them.
 
Mark related, “My first thought when I looked at the damage to the port side of the boat was, ‘How am I going to fix this?’” 

He jumped down the ladder into the engine room to assess the damage there, thinking that the explosion must have blown out the caulking between the planks and he would get pumps running. 

He saw ocean and sky where there should have been boat hull.  Water was starting to rush in that no pump would keep up with.
 
Cynthia got into her survival suit and gathered her purse and a few personal items strewn in the chaos left in the living area in the wake of the blast. 

Mark, meanwhile, frantically searched for their two kitties they had rescued from animal shelters. Topaz and Jasper were hiding, terrified. 

Cynthia pleaded with Mark to get into his survival suit and trust the kitties to follow their instincts and swim.  Mark finally gave in, got into his survival suit and went overboard after radioing the Coast Guard they were abandoning ship. Cynthia had already called their fishing partners, who were a couple miles away.
 
They waited, floating in the cold, dark Pacific Ocean, watching with despair as all their hard work and their livelihood slowly sank, grateful that they had both survived without major injury and they had each other, not knowing what the future would hold, but knowing they would face it together. 

Their friends’ boat, Peso II, arrived and they were pulled out of the water, dried off, put in clothing many sizes too big, but dry and warm.
 
They began pulling odd pieces of floating debris out of the water and continued to watch “Sea Princess” sink. 

Wait, there was Topaz swimming!  They were able to rescue her, and it was a happy reunion. 

Did Jasper survive?

Then they saw Jasper on the bow of the sinking boat.  Jasper waited until the bow completely disappeared under water and was forced to swim.  When he got a safe distance from the sinking bulk, they were able to rescue him as well. 

The family was complete. Aboard the Peso II, it was a 16-hour run back into port at Coos Bay.
 
“It took about 45 minutes for the boat to completely go under,” recalled Mark, still in shock after the ordeal.  “I don’t even know what happened, exactly, but whatever it was, it happened fast. 

"I don’t know if something cracked or a pinhole leak opened up.  Fuel vaporized and ignited.  It was like a bomb going off.  The outcome would have been very different if I had been in the engine room when it happened.  I wouldn’t be here telling you the story.  I keep feeling like it has all been a bad dream.”
 
Now they are home in La Pine, trying to pick up the pieces and make a plan for the future as best they can.

This is a huge emotional loss for them.  Fishing and boats are their life, not just their livelihood. The financial loss for them is huge as well, 25 years of working up to a boat in this class, all gone in moments. 

Many personal items are gone, as they lived on the boat and it was their home in the summer.  All the accumulated fishing gear and related items are gone, some of which are not manufactured anymore and can’t be replaced. 

They invested everything they had getting this boat up to Marks’ standards of safety and maintenance, which according to his buddies is much higher than most.

Comments were made by others in the fishing community just after “Sea Princess” sank, “If this could happen to Mark and Cynthia, it could happen to any of us out here.”
 
 “I’m thankful for all the thought and preparation for potential disaster aboard a boat at sea that we put in,” Mark said.  “You never think it will happen to you, but we were always aware it does happen and we needed to be prepared.” 

He had just taken a refresher Coast Guard training course this spring to make sure he had the latest information about survival at sea.

Schneider said Tuesday, "(I) hope good things can come from a bad situation for us. If we can help others think about being prepared for whatever life throws at us, we can survive."

The tight-knit fishing community on the Oregon coast is stepping up to help the couple recover. At the Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/NewportFishermensWives, this note is posted:

"If you haven't heard, F/V Sea Princess sank after an engine area explosion while albacore fishing. During the summer, the owner and his wife live aboard the vessel. With nearly three decades of experience, he credits his training with the Coast Guard that saved their lives. The boat was recently re-outfitted for this season so you can imagine the loss is nothing short of devastating. We are grateful for their safety and have set up donations on their behalf. If you would like to make a donation to the Schneider Family, please visit www.newportfishermenswives.com. When making a donation, please notate that you would like the funds to go to the Schneider Family. Thank you for helping us come together in helping a fellow fishing family in need."

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