Emily Horn, 9, was among those saved from a capsized boat. / Image courtesy of Chris Horn
Deal Island, MD -- John Franklin Riggs left family members clinging to a capsized boat and for their lives in a sea of stinging jellyfish, swimming miles and climbing rocks at the shoreline in pitch blackness to reach help at the first house he saw.
Thank goodness somebody answered the door.
"He came to the right house," said Angela Byrd, whose dog's barking awakened her quiet house in Chance at about 1 a.m. Wednesday morning. There stood Riggs, soaking wet and barefoot.
"He said, 'I've been swimming since sundown; I need help,' " she said.
The 46-year-old Riggs was a member of a fishing party in the Sharksfin Shoal Light, a popular fishing area by a lighthouse in Tangier Sound. A storm brewed and their boat took on too much water and toppled at about 7 p.m. Tuesday, said Byrd, recalling the conversation with the stranger at the door.
Byrd called Deal Island Fire Chief Donald Ford and 911. Soon after, Riggs was rested, dried off and on a rescue boat with area firefighting volunteers.
"There were a few storms in the area, and the boat turned upside down," said Sgt. Brian Albert at the Maryland Natural Resources Police. "Mr. Riggs swam to shore. These people are very lucky. No one was injured."
A Maryland State Police helicopter hovered above the 16-foot Carolina Skiff as firefighters from Deal Island, Mount Vernon and Fairmount in Somerset County and Westside in Wicomico County pulled alongside. The U.S. Coast Guard also was on the scene, Albert said.
"The bay lit up," Byrd said. "It was beautiful, as scary as it was."
Riggs' father, whose name also is John Riggs, is a 70-year-old retired commercial waterman of Salisbury who organized the fishing trip. Also aboard the vessel were the waterman's daughter, Contessa Riggs, and her 3-year-old son, Conrad Drake, both of Washington; and his granddaughter, 9-year-old Emily Horn, a fourth-grader visiting from the San Francisco Bay area.
Neither the elder John Riggs of Salisbury nor his son, the swimmer, were available Wednesday to comment for this article.
Contessa Riggs said the boat capsized about two miles from shore, and drifted about five miles in a parallel direction when the tide turned.
"I've never been so happy to see search boats in my life," she said Wednesday by telephone. "It took him five hours to swim ashore. He had to stop and grab a crab pot buoy and rest, then swim.
"We clinged to the side of the boat and got stung by sea nettles in the dark," she said.
Perhaps someone would have located the fishing party, eventually, even if Riggs had not swam for help. What is certain is that wearing life jackets saved their lives, Albert said.
"It is lucky they put life jackets on," the sergeant said. "The life jackets are what saved their lives."
Byrd and Carol Wood, who shares the house in Chance where the knock came to their door, call Riggs a hero.
"In my opinion, he is a hero," said Byrd, director of membership at Delmarva Public Radio in Salisbury.
Riggs' 9-year-old niece, Emily, agrees. "He's a real hero," she said Wednesday, and added that the next time the family goes fishing, "I'll go if the water is really shallow."
Written By: Deborah Gates, The Salisbury Daily Times