Lone survivor’s account of sinking as search goes on for 2 boaters

Written By BY MITCH DUDEK Staff Reporter Posted: 07/17/2014, 11:08am

As police boats continue their daily search for two bodies in Lake Michigan, details have emerged from the lone survivor of a boat that sank last month several miles off the coast of Chicago.

It’s not clear what went horribly wrong — but as the 33-foot motorboat began taking on water, its four occupants began scrambling to bail it out, according to a source with knowledge of the account the survivor gave to authorities.

The boat’s ship-to-shore radio was not working, and there were no cellphone signals to call for help — the boat was too far from shore.

Flares were fired into the air, but no one saw them, the source said.

The engine began to smoke and caught fire, power was lost and the bilge pump failed, according to police. An alarm panel sounded and the engine shut down, according to Coast Guard spokesman Lt. Brian Dykens.

The boat sank about 8 p.m. on Saturday, May 31, and all four people on board went into the water.

The lone survivor, a 29-year-old man, told authorities he distributed life preservers before the boat went down. Everyone on the boat could swim.

Early the next morning, after he had been floating in Lake Michigan for about 12 hours, a fisherman spotted the man who survived.

He was wrapped in five life preservers and had a floating boat bumper tucked under his legs, allowing part of this body to remain above the waterline. He was suffering from hypothermia and, according to the fisherman, was “totally delirious.”

Two hours later, the body of Ashley Haws, a 26-year-old attorney, was found floating several miles away. She was wearing a life preserver. The cause of death was hypothermia, according to the Cook County medical examiner’s office.

The boat’s owner, Orest Sopka, 30, and a fourth passenger — a woman in her mid-20s — are still missing.

Authorities estimate the boat was several miles offshore when it sank, but they do not have an exact distance.

The man who survived had more body fat than the other three boaters, a factor that helped him survive in water temperatures colder than 60 degrees, the source said.

The man has since recovered enough to leave the hospital. Parts of his story have changed several times, but hypothermia likely muddled his memories and left the him in a confused state, the source said.

“It seems like he’s not really clear on what happened,” the source said, adding that foul play is not suspected.

“It’s amazing he survived,” said the source, who added that the man doesn’t remember seeing anyone else in the water.

Sopka, when not using his boat — a newer-model Rinker — would rent it out on a short-term basis through a company that manages the transactions, the source said.

Several months before the fatal trip, Sopka’s boat had been badly damaged during one of the rentals and underwent about $48,000 worth of repairs, the source said. The boat, which was kept in Burnham Harbor, was not right after that and experienced regular electrical problems and other issues, the source said.

Hours before the boat sank, Sopka, who worked as a trader in Chicago, was on the boat cruising around Lake Michigan with six people on board. Sopka decided to take a pleasure cruise from Chicago to New Buffalo, Michigan, but before doing so, he dropped off two passengers in Chicago because they didn’t want to make the trip. The boat made it to New Buffalo, but shortly after embarking on the return trip to Chicago, Sopka experienced some sort of problem with the boat, prompting him to turn back to the harbor in New Buffalo. Repairs were made, and Sopka again set out for Chicago, but the boat never made it, the source said.

Searchers found some debris — seats from the boat, at least one used flare and multiple life preservers — that they are assuming came from the sunken boat. Police have been using the location where they found the debris to calculate the best area to search.

Chicago Police Marine Unit officers have been dedicating much of their time to finding the boat, and hopefully the bodies nearby. They have been using sonar equipment to scan the lake floor. If anything remotely resembles the boat, divers will descend into water depths reaching over 100 feet to investigate. They have so far come up empty, a police spokesman said.

The Coast Guard and the Chicago Fire Department quit searching the evening after the boat sank. Their search covered about 1,600 square miles.

Sopka’s father, Myron Sopka, who lives in Ohio, spent over a week in Chicago after his son disappeared, hoping he would be found.

“I’m not doing that great,” Sopka said last week. “It’s a hell of loss for me. . . . He was an excellent son, couldn’t be better. He was such a great kid.”

He returned to Ohio last week but plans to come back to Chicago this month.

“I’m hoping that they are going to find him. . . . I wish he was, but how could he be alive? . . . The water is just too cold,” said Sopka, who has called police daily for updates. “They said they’re not going to stop until they find him.”

Investigators from the Illinois Conservation Police, which is part of the state Department of Natural Resources, are investigating the accident. A spokesman for the DNR could not provide details of the investigation. Chicago police detectives also are investigating the incident as a missing persons case.

Email: mdudek@suntimes.com

Twitter: @mitchdudek

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