Cell phones lose service and run out of battery on top of mountains, at the bottom of canyons, out at sea. But if there is one thing that almost always kills a phone, it's water.
In the early hours of Friday, May 13, a group of five beleaguered boaters emerged from the chilly James River, scrambled up an embankment and banged on the door of the first house they saw. It was after 3 a.m., and wet, cold and exhausted, they arrived in a neighborhood in Smithfield, Virginia, near a small airfield. They were desperately searching one thing: a phone with which to call 9-1-1. They had been swimming for hours, ever since their 22-foot sailboat carrying a total of 10 twenty-somethings capsized in the James River, about three miles off shore. The group had sailed from a party in Hampton; when the boat tipped, all 10 plunged into the 57-degree water. Clinging to boat debris and an empty gas can, the five hoped the current would carry them to shore.
Meanwhile, four others, including my friend Tyler Lorenzi, 23, treaded water while the river swept them downstream. Around the same time their fellow sailors were pleading at the door of a strange residence, a tugboat found their overturned vessel and called authorities. Near a ship graveyard known as the Ghost Fleet, Tyler was eventually pulled unconscious from the James; he passed away in the hospital. Another sailor, Alexander Brown, 24, drowned. Tyler, a graduate of Northwestern University, worked as a research engineer for the National Institute of Aerospace, a division of NASA; Alex was earning a doctorate in engineering there.