Rescuers pull struggling mom, daughter from harbor

Austin Fitzhenry is at the helm as the Fitzhenry family sails on Charleston Harbor. The others are (from left) Shannon, Katelyn and Mark.

Wendy Fitzhenry would like to thank the unknown Good Samaritans who rescued her and her daughter as they drifted in a stormy Charleston Harbor.

They were on a family outing when strong winds blew their sailboat over at a 90-degree angle, tossing all but one of six passengers into the water.

The sailboat was righted and the others were able to climb back aboard, but Fitzhenry and Katelyn, 8, were pulled away by the tide. The mother fought to stay afloat because her daughter, who is autistic and has Down syndrome, clung tightly to her.

“She was panicking. It was really a struggle with the wind and waves. I was having a hard time keeping my head above water at that point,” Fitzhenry said.

Katelyn wore a life jacket. Her mother had not had time to don one when the sudden winds hit. Minutes overboard seemed like an eternity. When strangers in power boats arrived, Fitzhenry told them that she would be OK if they took the child.

Conditions made the Fitzhenry’s rescue tricky. As a boat pulled alongside, she ducked underwater to keep from getting slammed against the hull. One of the ropes that rescuers tossed reached her but she let go. In her dazed state, she thought it wasn’t attached to anything because it felt slack, she said. Finally, three men angled a boat close enough to grab her, she said.

After being pulled from the water, she was shaking, confused and having trouble recalling names and phone numbers.

“I think I was in shock,” she said.

She and Katelyn wound up in the water when a stormy blast of wind hit in advance of a strong line of thunderstorms on Friday afternoon.

Fitzhenry, 55, said her immediate concern was to pull Katelyn from beneath the sail that had fallen over. She swam underwater to safety with her daughter in tow. Surfacing, she saw the boat at a distance of 20 yards and drifting further away because of the tide.

The weather had been sunny on the family harbor outing.

“It just happened that we were hit by this gust of wind. It was definitely a scary situation,” said son Austin Fitzhenry, 24. He estimated the gust was 60 mph.

Many boats struggled because of the sudden storm.

The U.S. Coast Guard assisted two capsized vessels, one off Morris Island and one in Child’s Cove, and said a number of boats had run aground.

It was the family’s final time together before daughter Shannon Fitzhenry, 20, left for five weeks in Italy.

Austin Fitzhenry, who was at the helm, said the weather hit others on the harbor, as well. “A number of sailboats were laid over pretty good,” he said.

His father, Mark Fitzhenry, 60, and a woman who is Katelyn’s therapist were also on the boat.

Austin Fitzhenry said that he tried tossing a life jacket to his mother. He then hailed nearby power boaters who came to the rescue.

“I was very happy that the boats were able to pick her up,” he said.

He was aware of the possibility of bad weather but said it blew up quicker than forecast. The biggest lesson he learned was to brief passengers before the trip on the safety features of the boat.

“Mom was convinced that the boat was going to capsize on her,” he said.