Reunited with her rescuers

Faith E. Pinho 14 December 2021

Thirty-five years after two fishermen plucked a young girl from the Pacific Ocean, a podcast leads to a remarkable reunion

She had been drifting in the cold Pacific water for a night and most of a day.

Kept afloat by her orange life jacket, nine-year-old Desireé Rod­riguez had watched helplessly as one family member after another let go of life. Just as she, too, began to give up, the skipper of a fishing boat spotted her bobbing in the water.

Within minutes, the boat’s first officer leaped in and grabbed Desireé, pulling her back toward the boat—and toward life. That was 35 years ago, and the last time the rescuers and the girl saw one another. Until this year.

May 18, 1986, was the kind of beautiful, sunny day that regularly brought the Rodriguez family to California’s Catalina Island for some fishing on their 28-foot pleasure boat, the DC Too.

Desireé’s father, a 30-year-old construction worker named Thomas Rodriguez, loved the sport, especially catching bass. A strong, slender man, he had instilled in his oldest daughter a love of the outdoors, teaching her how to bait a hook and cast a line.

As was their custom at least once a month, the family boarded their boat that morning for a carefree day trip. For the first time, ­Thomas’s sister, Corinne Wheeler, 33, and her husband, Allen Wheeler, 34, had decided to join them, leaving their three children at home in the Riverside, California, neighborhood where both families lived.

They spent the day fishing in the Pacific Ocean, then left the island in the early evening. Soon dense fog rolled in.

Desireé fell into a light sleep beside her five-year-old sister, Trisha, at a table on the boat’s lower deck. Their father’s sharp orders startled her awake: “Get out of the boat. The boat’s sinking!”

Desireé pushed her sister into the cold, dark water. Both girls wore life jackets. The adults did not. The girls were followed by their mother, Petra Rodriguez, a petite, quiet 29-year-old who was pregnant. Within seconds, the boat capsized, leaving just the tip of its bow in the air—and the six family members stranded. Looking into the faces of her father, mother, aunt, uncle, and sister, Desireé wasn’t frightened.

Desireé Rodriguez, then nine years old, floated in her life jacket until help arrived.

“It was like what you would see in a movie,” she recalls. “You could see nothing around you. It was just dark. But it was peaceful, quiet.” After some time, her father told them he would swim for help. “I’ll be back,” he said before disappearing into the darkness.

"After some time, her father told them he would swim for help. “I’ll be back,” he said before disappearing into the darkness"

“My dad was like the superhero to me. I actually thought he would get help,” Desireé says. After some time, her mother began foaming at the mouth, and then she went still. Desireé wrapped a rope around her mother’s chest and tied her to the boat so she wouldn’t float away. Then her sister died too. “I remember it was just pretty much quiet after that,” Desireé says. “I think we were all just kind of in disbelief and just waiting.”

Paul Strasser and Mark Pisano, two strapping 23-year-olds, were still new to captaining ships when they pushed off from San Pedro at six on the morning of May 19. They had 35 passengers aboard the First String, a boat they’d helped build, for a fishing expedition. The best friends had met as 14-year-olds.

Soon after, Strasser had quit his job delivering newspapers to join Pisano working on fishing boats, where they scrubbed decks, cleaned fish, and earned the title of “pinheads”—eager young fishermen learning the ropes.

Strasser (left) with Pisano (right) in the 80's

They graduated to deckhands and eventually to full-fledged fishermen. They spent their free time learning their trade. Before long, they became two of the youngest captains at San Pedro’s 22nd Street Landing. Their fishing trip that day began uneventfully. Pisano remembers the weather was “pea soup fog”—so thick you couldn’t see the stern of the boat—and the fish weren’t biting all morning.

“We were going to try one more spot and then go home,” Pisano says. But then some yellowtail, a prized game fish, started biting. The fishermen hung around for another couple of hours, pulling in fish after fish. As they worked, the fog cleared and the sun started shining.

As night turned into the next day, Desireé and her aunt and uncle were slipping in and out of consciousness. To keep themselves awake, Desireé and her aunt daydreamed about what they would do after they were rescued. They would stay in a hotel, order room service, and burrow under the blankets in bed, cozy and warm.

“We still had hope,” Desireé says. “Like, we’re going to be OK. We’re going to come out of this.”

Her uncle evidently didn’t share their hope. With the afternoon sun now high overhead, she recalls, he swam away from the boat. “He just kind of gave up,” she recalls. She swam after him, propelled by her aunt’s plea: “Don’t let him drown.”

Desireé caught up with him quickly but struggled to keep her tall, stocky uncle above water. She finally had to let go, and he slipped beneath the surface. Desireé doesn’t remember how or when her aunt died. But soon, the nine-year-old became aware that she was alone in the ocean.

"As night turned into the next day, Desireé and her aunt and uncle were slipping in and out of consciousness"

“At that point, I just made the decision that I need to get away from this boat,” Desireé remembers. “I need to swim away, somewhere else … Where? I don’t know.” Late that afternoon, Strasser and Pisano set off on the return voyage to San Pedro with their haul of fresh-caught yellowtail.

About seven miles away from Catalina Island, Strasser noticed something white flashing in the water. He steered the First String toward it and peered through his binoculars, thinking it might be a boat bumper.

“We’ve got something going on here; this is weird,” Strasser recalls saying. “When I pulled up to it, I saw a dead body face down,” he says. “It was tangled up in all this rope.” Strasser radioed the Coast Guard. Passengers were yelling on the deck below. In the commotion, he noticed two other people in the water: One was floating facedown. The other, wearing an orange life jacket, was bobbing with the swells, her head and brown hair visible just above the water.

“I knew if there was a life jacket, we have a chance,” Strasser says. He steered the boat closer, and Pisano jumped into the water. Pumping with adrenaline, he swam toward the figure and grabbed the life jacket. From her near-unconscious state, Desireé flinched.

Pisano swam her back to the boat, where Coast Guard medics covered her in warm water bottles that felt prickly on her cold skin. If the boat hadn’t come right then, says Desireé, now 45, “I don’t think I would have lived, I’ll be honest with you. I think at that point, I was just kind of done.”

A Coast Guard spokeswoman said at the time that Desireé had “a strong, resilient constitution.” The little girl walked out of the hospital the next day after being treated for exhaustion and hypothermia.

When officials pulled the family’s boat out of the water, they didn’t find any sign of collision, concluding that a large swell, perhaps from the wake of a passing ship, may have capsized the DC Too. The two bodies they had found were Desireé’s mother and aunt. The search for Desireé’s father, sister, and uncle was abandoned two days after her rescue.

“I had even hoped that my dad did make it somewhere,” Desireé says. “Maybe he is living on an island and just got amnesia and didn’t know that he has a family. You know, you always have hope. But you get older, and reality sets in, and you’re like, OK. He didn’t make it.”

A cut out from the Los Angeles Times in 1986, reporting on the story. If the boat hadn’t come right then, says Desireé, “I don’t think I would have lived.”

Desireé Rodriguez, now Desireé Campuzano, was adopted by another aunt and uncle. No one asked about her experience in the water. They didn’t want to traumatize her, she says. She attended therapy for a while, but mostly she coped by herself and tried to be a good person, guided constantly by the question, What would my parents expect of me?

Desireé attended junior college while building a career in criminal justice. She married in 2013 and had a son six years ago.

In her late 20s, Desireé began to wonder about her rescuers. She sent Oprah Winfrey a message to try to get help finding them, but nothing came of it. Strasser and Pisano sometimes thought of her, too, especially whenever anyone asked, What’s your craziest story at sea? But neither Desireé nor the men who saved her knew where to start looking.

“Desireé was a ghost,” Strasser says. “We saved her, she’s out in the world. And that’s all we knew.” When the Covid-19 pandemic derailed Philip Friedman’s plans to return to his teaching job near Shanghai, China, the 63-year-old fishing aficionado decided to stick around Southern California with his family and make a podcast about his hobby.

“Friedman Adventures” launched in December 2020, featuring stories from fishermen around the wharf talking about boats, catches, and fishing tips. On one episode Pisano talked about the 1986 rescue. That day, 41-year-old Pablo Peña listened to the show on his 20-­minute commute to work as a railroad engineer.

The incredible story he heard on the air triggered a memory. Peña remembered a conversation he’d had years earlier with a former coworker. She’d once told him she'd lost her parents in a boating accident and was the only survivor.

"In her late 20s, Desireé began to wonder about her rescuers"

“I was like, well, it could be her,” Peña says. “But he would have to say her name was Desireé Rodriguez to make this solid.” Then Pisano said on the podcast, “Her name was Desireé Rodriguez, the girl we rescued,” adding that there were many Desireé Rod­riguezes in Los Angeles. Peña says “I thought, ‘Wow, this is just surreal.’” He had met the podcaster a decade earlier on a fishing excursion, so he sent a message to Friedman.

“I was like, ‘You gotta be kidding me, dude,’ ” Friedman says. He knew he wanted to locate her. "We’ve got to finish this story!” Friedman concocted a plan to surprise the two fishing captains with the woman they’d rescued years earlier. First, he reached out to Desireé to ensure she wanted to meet her rescuers.

“I thought, this is weird. Not a bad weird, but it’s just kind of eerie,” says Desireé, now a sergeant in the Los Angeles county sheriff’s department. “After all these years, for this to come up—what are the chances? Very slim.” Desireé agreed to show up at the studio a few days later. The plan was that she would pose as Raquel, a translator who was going to retell the captains’ rescue tale on Spanish television.

“I was nervous at first,” Desireé says, “just seeing the guys and putting a finalization to ‘what happened.’ ” All smiles, she listened to her rescuers recount their side of the story. They were clueless to her true identity.

After almost ten minutes, Friedman ended the ruse. “Boys, I want to tell you something,” he said. “This is not a translator. I’m going to let her introduce herself to you.”

“I’m Desireé,” she said, her voice wavering. Pisano slapped the table in an instant of recognition. Amid hugs, tears, and exclamations, the story that decades earlier had united the strangers came tumbling out. “I feel like she’s sort of our daughter, in a way, because we brought her back to life,” Strasser says.

Strasser with Pisano (left and right, respectively) with a grown-up Desireé

For years, Desireé had wondered about the men who rescued her. Now that she’s met them, she says she hopes to stay connected forever. On May 18, 2021, the 35th anniversary of the accident, Strasser and Pisano took Desireé and her family on their fishing boat to Catalina Island, following the same course they took all those years ago.

“It looked just the same as it did the day we found her,” says Strasser. They stopped the boat, and the family said some prayers. Then the men handed them bunches of flowers—carnations, roses, and lilies—to toss into the water in remembrance. It was an almost uncannily perfect gesture. The men had no way of knowing, so a teary Desireé explained: Her mother had loved lilies, her favorite flowers. 

Los Angeles Times (March 10, 2021), Copyright © 2021 by Los Angeles Times, latimes.com.

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