In Gratitude

On June 9th, 2006, we were heading north in the Adriatic, en route to Venice, still a 3 day sail away. We anchored for the night at one of the uninhabited islands of the Kornati National Park in Croatia. We received an email from Ty’s daughter, Elisabeth, via our sailmail address on our HF radio to contact home as soon as possible. The nearest phone was sixty miles away -- a full day’s sail. The phone call to our son-in-law, Warren, delivered the news that no parent ever wants to hear: that Ty’s daughter Susan was gone. A sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corp, stationed at MCAS Cherry Point, she had been crossing the flight line, walking toward her squadron building, when she was struck by lightning.  She and her unborn child, Liam Tyler, never regained consciousness, in spite of the tremendous efforts of the Marine Corps, Navy, and civilian personnel at the squadron and several hospitals to whom we give our thanks.  The lightning came at the beginning of a storm, in advance of any rain.  The sky was cloudy, but not threatening.  Witnesses say that no one would have hesitated to have walked where Susan was walking when she was struck.  It was an act of nature that defies understanding.

As an awful irony, we later found that the June issue of Reader’s Digest included an article about lightning safety. It states that 24 THOUSAND people are killed world-wide each year by lightning. It further says that just because it’s not raining doesn’t mean there’s no danger (a fact which we now know too clearly). “Lightning can strike as far as 10 miles away from the rainy area of a storm... if you can hear thunder, even if there’s no rain or clouds, you’re within striking distance and should seek shelter immediately.  Experts advise waiting at least 30 minutes after the last clap of thunder before going outside”  (Readers Digest, June, 2006, page 152.)

When we got the news, we had just anchored the boat before going ashore to make the phone call.  We knew there was a marina nearby, so we immediately weighed anchor and headed there.  We arrived just after sunset on a Saturday night. The night watchman helped us secure the boat.  A phone call to our friend Jim Wohlleber, a retired airline pilot, helped our frazzled minds as he worked out a flight for us from Venice to North Carolina.  The Croatian language barrier made it difficult for us to figure out how to get to Venice from the island of Losinj where we were. We determined our only course of action was to take the sole ferry leaving the island early the next morning.  Having no choice, we simply left the boat at the marina without checking in, as the marina was still closed.

There was no way we were leaving our pup Rudy in Croatia, so he went with us, thanks to Delta Airlines’ policy of allowing small pets to travel in the cabin on international flights. Rudy was our little therapy dog, giving us love when we needed it most and licking our tears when we cried. 

The trip took two days... a four hour ferry ride to the city of Rijeka on the Croatian coast, a two hour bus ride through Croatia and Slovenia to Trieste, Italy, and a two hour train ride to Venice. We spent the night at a hotel by the train station, then caught a flight the next day to JFK. From there we flew to Raleigh-Durham, where we were met by the Executive Officer of Susan’s squadron, Major Jim Snellgrove, and Gunnery Sergeant Rasmussen, who kindly drove us the three hours to Cherry Point -- a trip we were in no shape to make by ourselves.

The heartache and pain of the following days was eased greatly by the love of family and friends, as well as by the assistance, compassion, and generosity of so many Marines who helped us get through such a difficult time. The Havelock Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post provided a beautiful reception in Susan’s honor, and taught us that they “honor the dead by taking care of the living.”  Days after the funeral, we were still being helped by members of Susan’s squadron, in particular, her Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Pete Buck, Major Wade Reinthaler, and Sergeant Major Chris Rice. These men will remain forever in our hearts.

We thank the many people involved in trying to contact us. We later learned that the US Coast Guard Rescue Coordination Center, with the help of the Croatian Coast Guard, had tracked us down to the last place we used our credit card (a marina where we stayed the day before we got the news). The two Coast Guard agencies later helped us to communicate with the marina where we’d left the boat to explain that it hadn’t been abandoned.

The trip back to the boat was another two day journey. Because of the circumstances, we no longer had the desire to continue sailing to Venice.  Because Ty had only been to Venice once, many years ago, and Suzanne had never been there, we decided to stay in a hotel there on our way back to the boat.  We used the time to decompress and regain some emotional equilibrium before getting on with our life.  There we were shown incredible generosity and kindness by Mr. Alberto “Vegas” Polese, the former Honorary Commander of the 555 Fighter Squadron of Aviano Air Force Base.  Signore Polese, we are eternally grateful to you for what you did for us. Grazie molto.

Because of a train strike in Italy and a holiday in Croatia, our return trip from Venice to Losinj took a different route. A train took us from Venice to Monfalcone, followed by a bus to Trieste. Because the bus would have entailed another overnight in a Rijeka hotel, we paid a taxi to take us through Slovenia to a coastal town in Croatia.  A short ferry hop got us to the island of Cres, where we once again benefited from the kindness of strangers.  Because there was no bus, a tow truck driver who spoke not a word of English squeezed us into the cab of his truck for the 96 kilometer ride to Losinj (connected to Cres by a bridge). He and Suzanne were able to communicate by speaking in Italian.  He was quiet at first, until Rudy popped his head out of the Samsonite carrier on Suzanne’s lap, bringing a big smile and rush of conversation.

It was difficult to leave family behind, but we look forward to being with them again in September and throughout the winter when we’ll put the boat on the hard in Turkey and head back to the States.

This time has caused us to reevaluate our lives and beliefs. We cannot imagine that Susan’s vibrant spirit does not live on, and have to wonder who sent us that little butterfly that followed us the first two days after we sailed south from Losinj..  While in Venice, we were resting and reading in our hotel room, on the balcony.  Ty was reading a novel and Suzanne was reading a book by the noted medium, George Anderson, entitled, “Walking in the Garden of Souls.” She was reviewing the Frequently Asked Questions about life in the hereafter, when suddenly the television in our room turned on.  George Anderson states that “the most common manifestation of souls to their loved ones, besides visitation in dreams, is the manipulation of anything electrical.” We must ask you, when’s the last time your TV went on by itself? If we’ve learned anything, it’s the fragility of life, and -- as Susan showed us every day of her life -- how important it is to understand and love each other.

Thanks to all of you for your thoughts and prayers.  Thanks for listening to us as we talk about Susan.  Thanks for your generosity and your kindness and your love. 

Please remember Susan with us by visiting the page in her honor...