June 09--NEWPORT NEWS -- Tony Pierce was fishing off the King-Lincoln Park pier when he saw five people -- two women and three men -- and a dog in the water and the tail end of a boat that had just capsized Sunday afternoon around 4:23 p.m.
Pierce said he ran to the end of the pier with a rope which he threw to one of the men.
"He had the strength at first," Pierce said.
But after about 10 minutes the man could no longer hold on.
"That man was looking at me dead in the eyes," Pierce said. "I wanted to jump in so bad. The current was so bad."
Two of the five died. Two others were transported to Riverside Regional Medical Center by advanced life support ambulances, according to Newport News Fire Department and Virginia Marine Resources Commission officials. The fifth, a man, received basic medical treatment at the scene, police said.
The dog was also recovered. It swam to shore and ran back up the pier in search of its owners. It was taken by Animal Services.
Onlookers said the boat's engine had stalled about 25 yards off the pier. While one man tried to get it started again, the wind and waves had picked up, splashing water into the boat.
"It was white capping out here," said Billy Whitson, of Hampton, who was fishing on the pier at the time of accident.
Dominque Ruffin, also of Hampton, said the group was bailing water with coolers, but the boat went under.
"Everything happened so fast," he said.
Ruffin, along with Whitson and Pierce, attempted to pull two of the men to safety but couldn't pull them over the rail of the narrow pier. So they dragged them along the side to a ladder about halfway down the long pier. One man couldn't keep hold on and drifted away.
The current had swept the others around the corner of pier, which sits at the mouth of the James River where it meets the Chesapeake Bay.
According to the National Weather Service, the wind was blowing at about 15 mph around the time of the accident. A small craft advisory is typically issued at around 20 mph, meteorologist Larry Brown said -- one was issued later Sunday evening.
"It was probably pretty choppy," he said. "You don't want to be out there in a small boat."
When Newport News Fire and Rescue crews arrived, a diver jumped in to recover the victims. Two others were picked up by the fire department's boat and civilian boaters.
Whitson, who works nearby a commercial dock, said it is common to see boats in the area, but the current and conditions could change quickly.
"It was real, real, real rough out there," he said about three hours after the accident. "If they came out now, they wouldn't have no problem."
The boat floated about 200 yards past the pier, where it caught on some rocks. A Marine police boat towed it out around 7:30 p.m.
Police officials said they found life jackets at the scene, but could not confirm that the people in the water were wearing them.
Ruffin said none of the five looked like strong swimmers.
"They were just panicking," he said.
Many of those on the pier were stricken by the accident.
"It was terrible," Larissa Nichols, of Newport News said.
Rockett can be reached by phone at 757-247-4942.
Copyright 2014 - Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)