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Hurricane decimates Virginia dive club
October 10, 2001 Posted: 5:11 AM EDT (0911 GMT)

The wreckage of the Wave Dancer, which was capsized by Hurricane Iris.
The Wave Dancer
The wreckage of the Wave Dancer, which was capsized by Hurricane Iris. RICHMOND, Virginia -- It was supposed to be the kind of trip that scuba divers dream about: warm Caribbean water and reefs teeming with parrotfish, eels and octopus.

Instead, a weeklong trip to Belize turned into a nightmare for 30 members of Virginia's Richmond Dive Club. At least 18 were killed when Hurricane Iris capsized one of their two chartered boats.

"I'm not able to cry yet," said Russell Garrison, whose son, Jim, and Jim's wife, Kimberly, died. "I lost a son and a wonderful daughter-in-law, but I can't cry. I want to."

Seeking refuge from the hurricane Monday night, both boats went up the Monkey River outside Belize City and moored in a small creek. Jim Garrison called his father and told him all was well.

Search began as eye moved over Boat operators had docked the Wave Dancer alongside two other boats, hoping to shield it from the 140 mph (225 kph) winds, said Lynn McNeal, co-owner of The Dive Shop in Richmond, who said she had been in touch with boat operators.

"I understand they were tied to some submerged type of dock. They had a very, very huge swell come through that snapped all the lines. When the ship came back down, I'm assuming it hit part of the dock," she said.

According to the dive company hired for the trip, the strong surge helped "rip the vessel from the pier and capsize it in the middle of the creek."

Rescue efforts by neighboring boats began immediately during the eye of the hurricane, the dive company noted on its website.

According to the dive club website, 15 club members were confirmed dead and another two members -- identified by the club as Phyllis and William Cox -- were missing. Ten club members aboard a second boat, Belize Aggressor III, were unharmed.

According to details on the website of Peter Hughes Diving, the bodies of 18 victims have been recovered. The company said no hotel rooms were available in Belize City to offload passengers because of evacuations in advance of the storm.

'Our friends are gone'
On Tuesday, the Wave Dancer lay on its side in about 12 feet (four meters) of water just a few steps from land. Stunned passengers wandered about the second boat, watching as the bodies of friends were pulled from the water.

Shock still had not yet yielded to grief as scores of relatives and friends of the dead and missing gathered in Virginia to mourn members of a tight-knit group.

"Ninety-five percent of our friends are gone now," said Milly DeSoi, who with her husband, Darren, had made the diving club the focus of their social life. "You go down the list and you just can't comprehend that they're not here any more."

Several of those now confirmed dead had been in the DeSoi's wedding or had tagged along on the honeymoon three years ago -- a diving trip to the Caribbean.

Death is always a possibility for people who frolic 100 feet (30 meters) below the sea, exploring shipwrecks or gliding over breathtaking vistas of coral and marine life. But nobody was prepared to lose so many divers at once.

"This was a freak accident," said club member Larry Gill. Even tougher to consider, he said, was that four couples are among those known dead and one couple left behind two teen-age sons.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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