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Eckerd College Students Honored for Jonchuck Recovery; Seek Public Help

Mar 13, 2015

When something bad happens on the waters near south Saint Petersburg - say a boat breaks down or someone jumps from the Sunshine Skyway Bridge - odds are pretty good that the Eckerd College Search and Rescue Team (EC-SAR) will be the first ones on scene.

The St. Petersburg-based school has the only all-volunteer student marine search and rescue team anywhere in the country.

At Thursday's St. Petersburg City Council meeting, members of the Eckerd College Search and Rescue Team were recognized for recovering the body of five-year-old Phoebe Jonchuck.

Police say the little girl was thrown from the approach to the Sunshine Skyway Bridge by her father, John Jonchuck. Sophomore Kate Seader was one of the members of the team who answered the emergency call early that cold January morning.

"We did not learn what the details of the case was until we were already on the water and that was really shocking, it was like a drop on a roller coaster and we all were immediately attentive and on our game, getting the spotlights out, running our search patterns," Seader said.

The marine biology major said it's like that on many of the riskier calls.

"It's very quiet and everybody's very attentive and thinking ahead, thinking about what we have to do, thinking about what we have to prepare," she told WUSF News shortly after EC-SAR received the honor Thursday. "We have such a variety of responses that we are supposed to know that it's very much a make-or-break kind of moment where you figure out what you're doing."

The team had to battle winds and choppy waves, but they had some assistance.

"Someone ended up throwing a marker down from the bridge to help us track where she would have gone from there, and that was very helpful cause the winds were causing the currents to go different ways," Seader said.

The students eventually located Phoebe Jonchuck's body and were able to hand her off to law enforcement.

"After Phoebe, I actually am looking at becoming a search responder," Seader said.

The team handled over 600 calls last year, the majority stranded boaters or similar marine mishaps. But since recoveries like the Jonchuck case are hard enough for seasoned first responders, Eckerd makes sure the students are given all the assistance possible to handle these tough situations. Junior Melody Chaplin says students undergo rigorous training long before they ever face a rescue or recovery situation.

"When you come in as a freshman on the team, you kind of start with getting the basics of being on a boat, doing knots, being able to function as a basic crew member. As you go through the year, you'll be allowed to be exposed to more and more case situations and more on-water time as a functioning member of the team," Chaplin said.

"And once you have your medical lecture, then you're allowed to go out and help with those higher risk cases."

EC-SAR coordinator Ryan Dilkey talks to the team, which is made up entirely of student volunteers.
Credit Eckerd College

And after high risk cases, like the Jonchuck recovery, students receive assistance, beginning with debriefing sessions.

"And these are just to check in with all the students, make sure that they understand what went on on the case, they're comfortable with everything that happened, we can get them any other help or resources that they may need, whether it's internally within the program or with external resources through the college," Chaplin said. "So we do try to set up a good support system for everyone to kind of get them what they to need and to support them through anything they might be going through with some of those tougher situations."

But EC-SAR doesn't always deal with life and death situations, Seader said, and it's those kinds of calls that she truly enjoys.

"You remember them more if there's things you train to do, but you don't really get to do them that often, and then all of a sudden, you're out and they're like 'Okay, flip a capsized boat back over,'" she said. "I got to do that a few weeks ago for the first time and that was a lot of fun - it was really scary but it was still a lot of fun in the end."

And if there's one good thing that came out of the Jonchuck case, it's that it opened Seader's eyes to the possibility of making search and rescue a career.

"I think I'm really interested in working on boats because I know I've always enjoyed it, but after Phoebe, I actually am looking at becoming a search responder, and so I'm going to be getting my EMT certification over the summer," Seader said.

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As an all-volunteer organization, the Eckerd College Search and Rescue Team receives no state funding and mainly relies on donations, including funds raised at their annual yard sale.

"We have everything for sale from large motorboats, sailboats, engines to household items, refrigerators, washing machines, stuff like that. We also have smaller items, some of it marine related and some of it not," Chaplin said.

"This funding helps with our everyday function - anything from fuel so that we can respond to cases to replacing and maintaining our equipment on our boats," she added.

This year's event takes place Saturday from 9 in the morning until noon on the waterfront at Eckerd College, 4200 54th Avenue S in St. Petersburg.