Coast Guard Investigating Tourist's Death

ST. THOMAS -- The U.S. Coast Guard is now investigating the death of a 60-year-old tourist who drowned earlier this month during an excursion on Blackbeard's Revenge.

John Joseph Russo of Tennessee, who was traveling on the Norwegian Getaway cruise ship with his girlfriend, Jill Pires, died Sept. 15 after diving from the boat anchored in Frenchman Bay, according to the V.I. Police Department.

According to Pires, 59, an autopsy report showed Russo died of a broken neck. Pires said Russo dove in headfirst before she did, but because she did not have her glasses on, she did not realize the person swimming in front of her was not Russo until reaching the shore.

"Once I got there, I was asking everyone, 'Where's John, where's John?'" said Pires, who was concerned that crew members did not seem to have a way of keeping track of the guests.

"I had to pass around his driver's license to the crew and fellow guests so they could see what he looked like. I was like ... I didn't make it up, he was there."

Guests on the excursion had been given the option to swim to the shore or to take a dinghy, according to Becky Batts, 51, of Snow Camp, N.C., who was also aboard Blackbeard's Revenge with her family: husband Craig Batts, 50; daughter Courtney Phillippie, 29; and son-in-law Brandon Phillippie, 35, also of Snow Camp, N.C. Four people, including Russo and Pires, elected to swim, Batts said.

One guest asked whether those who chose to swim were required to wear life vests, and it was only at that point the crew told them where the vests were located, according to Batts.

However, guests were not explicitly advised to wear them, she said.

The bartender at Abi Beach Bar left the bar to scan the area in her kayak, and another crew member swam out wearing snorkeling equipment to see whether he could find Russo, Batts said. According to Batts, crew and fellow guests searched for nearly 45 minutes before Russo's body resurfaced.

Batts said that contrary to the police report, Russo's body was not brought in by boat, but by several people who rushed into the water to help.

"The crew never gave up," she said. "They just kept going, even when it was evident that Mr. Russo was gone. One young man in particular just kept trying."

The crew attempted chest compressions and resuscitations, Pires said, although she said no first aid kits, defibrillators, or other emergency equipment was brought out.

"But by the time he was brought to shore, it was clear he was gone," she said, calling the incident a "freak accident."

According to the police report, Russo was found about 12:40 p.m.

According to the VITEMA emergency blotter, a log of calls to 911, a call reporting a drowning came in at 1 p.m.

Batts said that before the excursion began, everyone on the boat signed a waiver excusing the company from liability.

"It was a traumatic experience," said Batts, who had been traveling to celebrate her and her daughter and son-in-law's wedding anniversaries. "We were just hoping for a wonderful day at the beach with our daughter and son-in-law. It will be a day we will always remember -- a trip that ended in devastation," she said.

While Pires says she does not think the accident was anyone's fault, she said the company had not followed up with her.

"The passengers were kinder than the crew was," she said. "Although I'm sure they were in shock, and I can't fault anybody for this horrible accident."

The boat, Blackbeard's Revenge, is associated with Cool Boats USVI and Virgin Excursions, and it is certified by the Coast Guard, according to Ricardo Castrodad, Coast Guard spokesman for Sector San Juan.

The Daily News contacted Albert Reynolds, owner of Topsail Inc., which operates Cool Boats USVI, for comment, and he said he would call back.

However, Reynolds had not responded by press time.

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