In 1986, Desireé Rodriguez and her family went on a day trip on their family boat — a monthly tradition for the Riverside family.
But, what started as a carefree day trip soon turned into tragedy.
LA Times staff writer Faith Pinho wrote about Rodriguez, the sole survivor of a terrifying boat accident and her emotional reunion with her rescuers 35 years later. Pinho joined Spectrum News 1 anchor Lisa McRee on LA Times Today with the story.
At the time, Rodriguez, who was 9-years-old, had fallen asleep next to her little sister at a table on the boat's lower deck. She was awakened by her father's orders to get out of the ship because it was sinking.
"She and her little sister were both wearing orange lifejackets and pushed themselves into the water. They were joined by their dad, mom, uncle, and aunt, who had joined them on the trip for the first time. All six family members were basically stranded in the water. It was very cold in May; it was 60-degree weather, and they were just floating in the water as their boat completely capsized with just the tip in the air," Pinho said.
The family was stranded for hours, and Rodriguez estimates it was through the night and well into the next day.
"One by one, her family members just let go of life. First, her dad said he would swim away for help because he could not stand being around there anymore. So he left and swam, and she never saw him again. Then her mom started foaming at the mouth, and once she realized that her mom died, she took some rope from the boat and wrapped it around her mom's chest so she would not sink. Desireé does not remember when exactly her little sister died, but she was next to go. And then, hours later, well into the next day, her uncle started swimming away because he gave up. Desireé tried to go after him and hold him up, but he was too big, so she let go of him, and he slipped beneath the water. Then her aunt dies. So, over the course of a day, this little girl had just gone on this normal family excursion—which was supposed to be fun—turned into a tragedy that left her stranded in the water overnight," Pinho added.
All hope seemed lost, but then a group of fishermen spotted her.
"Paul Strasser and Mark Pisano are two long-time fishermen based out of San Pedro. They started in the fishing industry at 14-years-old. They started as pinheads, which is essentially a word used for little boys who run around on fishing boats, pick up the trash, collect passenger tickets, and do different chores to get involved in the fishing industry. So they rose to the ranks from pinheads to deckhands, to fishers. And, at 23-years-old, they became captains. They were taking out their fishing boats for the First String with 35 passengers on the morning of May 19. Then Paul Strasser spotted a little smudge in the water, and he looked through his binoculars, and he noticed the bow of a boat and a woman tangled up in ropes, which was Desireé's mom. Through all the commotion, they saw a little orange smudge and realized it was Desireé in her life jacket. So, one of them hopped out of the boat, grabbed her, and pulled her back onto the boat."
Rodriguez ended up getting adopted by an aunt and uncle. But, she recently reunited with the rescuers who saved her life.
"There is another fisherman from those docks named Phil Friedman who started a podcast back in December and interviewed one of the fishermen, Mark Pisano. Mark told him about this crazy rescue he had done in 1986, and someone listening to the podcast named Pablo Peña heard it, and it sounded familiar to his old co-worker's story. So, he reached out to Phil, and they all reconnected with Desireé. Phil brought Desireé on to the podcast to meet with her two rescuers to surprise them as the girl they had rescued 35 years ago."
At first, Rodriguez pretended to be a translator before revealing who she really was to her rescuers.
"Phil had conducted this plan to surprise them on video; he thought it would be more dramatic. So, it is pretty amusing knowing who Desireé is as she is sitting in this room and these two fishermen tell her about the girl they rescued. Then Phil tells them that the woman sitting next to them is not a translator, and you can see this instance of recognition in their face as they realize who they are speaking to. And everybody in the room crumples into tears, and it is a complete tear-jerker," Pinho said.