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Dread turns to joy

Published June 6, 2004

NEWPORT NEWS -- Firefighters cheered, policeman applauded and a TV reporter wept.

It was almost too good to be true. After being missing for nearly 21/2 hours in the 78-degree James River, a 6-year-old boy was pulled alive and conscious from an overturned powerboat.

The drama played out Saturday evening on both sides of the James River bridge, with a Coast Guard search helicopter circling overhead and emergency-vehicle lights flashing at Huntington Beach and Leeward Municipal Marina in Newport News.

Four adults were fishing about a mile off the beach in a 24-foot Wellcraft when the wind came up and drove water into the boat, said Battalion Chief Scott Liebold of the Newport News Fire Department. When they tried to pull up the anchor, more water came over the stern.

"The child was asleep in the cabin when the boat turned over," Liebold said.

The emergency call came in at 5:26 p.m.

The adults - boat owners Joseph Harris and his wife, Eloise Harris of Suffolk and her two cousins from New York - were rescued by other boaters.

Two lifeguards went out by kayak to look for the child, and two went in an inflatable craft. Another ran to the end of the fishing pier to search from there.

The first Fire Department divers went into the water at 6:05 p.m.

But the water on the beach side of the bridge was too deep, too rough and had too many potential entanglements for them to enter the overturned boat safely to see if the boy was inside, Liebold said.

Under dark clouds and in a chilly wind - as the mood on shore became increasingly solemn and a stretcher stood empty at the top of Dock B at the marina - the upside-down boat was towed to shallower water on the marina side of the bridge. A Coast Guard buoy tender happened to be working nearby and came to help, Liebold said.

The boat was nestled against the buoy tender and lifted by its crane so divers could get inside. At about 7:45 p.m., the good news was announced on shore: The child was alive. Not only that, he was waving to his uncle, who had stayed near the search the whole time on a private boat, refusing to come ashore.

"He cried," Roanoke boater Patty Childress said of Harris. She was in the boat that rescued him and two others. "I'll never forget that little boy coming up and waving."

The child was wearing a life jacket when he went into the cuddy cabin for a nap, Liebold said. When divers found him, he was holding the jacket in his hand.

One diver said the first thing the boy said was "I'm thirsty."

Eloise Harris and the boy were in the hospital Saturday night, Liebold said.

"Make sure you thank all the civilians who were out here and helped us out," he said.
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