- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 17, 2001

RICHMOND (AP) A tornado might have spun off Hurricane Iris and ripped a chartered dive boat from a pier and rolled it underwater in Belize, killing 17 scuba divers and three crew members.
That is the conclusion of investigators from Lloyd's of London, the Wave Dancer's insurance carrier, said Peter A. McLauchlan, a partner in the law firm representing the owners of the 120-foot boat.
"Knowing what I know now, it's amazing anyone made it out alive," Mr. McLauchlan told the Richmond Times-Dispatch after spending several days in Big Creek, where the disaster occurred. Fifteen of the 20 victims were from the Richmond area.
An official government investigation has not been completed.
Mr. McLauchlan said eyewitness accounts, physical evidence and twisting damage in nearby wreckage led to the tornado conclusion.
Wave Dancer videographer Thomas Baechtold of Sweden, who was found alive in the mangroves about 300 feet away, told investigators it felt like he was plucked out of the water by 20 pairs of hands and flung far away.
Ropes holding the boat snapped, and cleats were torn off the boat and the large concrete pier.
Angelo Mouzouropoulos, director-general of the International Merchant Marine Registry of Belize, said although the tornado theory has merit, his agency has not finished investigating.
Among the loose ends are comments made by one of the survivors aboard the Wave Dancer broadcast by Belize television.
Angela Luk, the boat's assistant cook for five months, told Channel 5 News in Belize she was told by the Wave Dancer's captain she would be fired if she left the Wave Dancer to find shelter shortly before the hurricane hit.
"He said, 'If you go, you're not coming back.' I said, 'That's fine, I'm still going. I'm not going to be stupid and stay on the boat and risk my life,'" Miss Luk recalled.
Miss Luk told the television station she tried to convince other crew members to come with her. "They was really worried, there was crying and they was confused. They don't know if they should go home. They wonder if they could go back to Corozal or if they should stay on the boat. But they decided to stay."
Three of those crew members died. The Wave Dancer's captain declined to discuss what happened.
The Wave Dancer was properly registered and inspected, and "it would appear at the moment all precautions had been taken to properly and correctly secure the vessel at the dock," Mr. Mouzouropoulos said.
It will take more research before investigators reach their conclusions, he said.
Bart Stanley, dive master aboard the Wave Dancer, said the boat's owners and lawyers asked him not to discuss the incident.
But the Belize City resident said the storm defied human comprehension. He said he survived "by the will of God."
The bodies of the Richmond victims were flown from Belize on Sunday and have been taken to area funeral homes.

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