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Navy captain: 'This is the worst day in the ship's life'

Capt. Russell Tjepkema says ending the search after nine hours was a difficult decision, but the right one.
Capt. Russell Tjepkema says ending the search after nine hours was a difficult decision, but the right one.

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ABOARD THE USS NASSAU (CNN) -- The USS Nassau lost one if its crew on the home stretch. A sailor fell overboard in what the ship's captain says was a "freak accident." It happened near Bermuda about 900 miles [1,440 kilometers] off the Virginia coast. CNN anchor Martin Savidge takes you aboard the ship, where correspondent Frank Buckley spoke with Capt. Russell Tjepkema.

BUCKLEY: This homecoming has been darkened by the loss of a young man, 23-year-old Dwayne Williams, who is a sailor who just on Friday was playing football, playing catch on the flight deck, attempted to chase a ball off the end of the flight deck, tripped, and we're told that he went over the side. "Man overboard" procedures were instituted, but he could not be recovered. Capt. Russell Tjepkema, I know this has been a difficult thing for you personally. You were saying this has shaken the ship's company to its core.

TJEPKEMA: It absolutely has. This is the worst day in the ship's life. We'd steamed 52,000 miles, been deployed for nine months, now, launched aircraft in support of [Operation] Iraqi Freedom. Dwayne Williams pumped the gas, he took care of the fuel stations, and he had aircraft flying over him all the time, and then on a non-fly day -- a day he should have been resting -- someone tossed him a football, he walked out, tripped and fell in.

BUCKLEY: And you were telling us -- you saw him in the water?

TJEPKEMA: I came to the bridge, as the ship was maneuvering. I saw him in the water. We spotted where he was so we could get [search-and-rescue helicopters] on top of him. We had a boat in the water, and then when I looked back after getting the helos up, the lookout and I both lost him, you know. We marked the spot; in about 40 minutes we had five SAR helos up. We searched for nine hours; we couldn't find him.

BUCKLEY: I know you've been asking yourself this question; you've been up at night late thinking about it. You told us this [question] of [whether] you searched long enough -- nine hours -- [and when] it was dark, was that time to call off the search?

TJEPKEMA: It certainly was. The survival -- his ability to survive in that temperature water was about three hours. We searched for nine hours. I knew exactly where he was, and we looked at what the drift was, with relation to the life rings and the smoke float, and he -- we could not find him. We know he couldn't have drifted far from that datum. And that coupled with the survivability time in that temperature water, he was gone.

BUCKLEY: One more thing, and that is I know you'll send [his family] a personal letter, but is there anything that you want them to know as you approach this homecoming?

TJEPKEMA: Dwayne Williams was an absolutely fine sailor. Everybody knew him on the ship. I knew him personally. He was cheerful, good humored, and he talked about his wife and mom and grandma a lot.

BUCKLEY: Thank you very much, captain, on a very difficult day for the men and women of this ship.


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