Best buddies since age 7, Erik Burgess and John Fuchs grew up together in Centreville's Rock Hill community, off Braddock Road. So Erik, now 32, was looking forward to attending John's May 10 wedding in Bluemont.
But first Erik, a 1988 Chantilly High grad, decided to go fishing for tuna with Joey Shields, 32, of Hatteras, N.C. Shields owned a 30-foot fishing trawler called "The Assassin" and had 10 years' commercial-fishing experience. It was Erik's first time.
"I knew it was dangerous — I didn't like it," said his father, Gordon Burgess, by phone Monday from his home in Reedville, on Virginia's Northern Neck. "But you don't tell somebody not to try something."
The pair left Wanchese, N.C., on April 16 and were seen seven days later in Morehead City, N.C., before heading south. And except for a few conversations with some local fishermen, around April 24, they haven't been seen or heard from since.
Both they and the boat disappeared and — having run out of leads and holding out little hope that the men are still alive — even the Coast Guard has called off its search.
Petty Officer 3rd Class Donnie Brzuska, with the Fifth Coast Guard District Command in Portsmouth, Va., has handled this case from the start, and sadness filled his voice Tuesday as he said he doesn't know, for sure, if they're dead. But, he added, "There comes a time when we have to say that we can't do anymore."
Gordon Burgess describes his son as a nice kid who enjoyed riding bicycles and fishing. Erik also made his mark as an athlete. He played on an SYA select soccer team from age 6 until high school. Then, on Chantilly High's varsity football team, he kicked the field goals and extra points.
LATER, HE AND ANOTHER Chantilly grad started their own business laying patios. Erik is the youngest of four children; brother Kris still lives in Centreville. But after more than 30 years here, their parents Judy and Gordon retired to Reedville, on the Chesapeake Bay, about a year ago.
Erik spent this winter with them, helping his dad build a house. A close-knit family, the Burgesses are devastated by his disappearance, and Gordon says the whole ordeal has been "terrible" for both him and his wife. Still, said Kris Burgess, "We're all holding out a little bit of hope."
The Coast Guard became involved April 24. "The Burgess family was concerned because Erik called them every week, but they hadn't heard from him in over a week," said Brzuska. "So we issued an Urgent Marine Information Broadcast."
Every hour on channel 16 — reserved for emergencies only — the Coast Guard transmitted a radio broadcast to boaters, asking if they'd seen the missing fishing vessel. And in case the plea reached Erik and Shields, they were asked to contact their families.
"We got a reply back on April 24 from some fishermen in Morehead City," said Brzuska. "They said Burgess and Shields were at the Town Point Marina in Morehead City on April 23. They'd pulled in and traded some tuna for fuel and filled up a 55-gallon drum of extra fuel to keep on board. Then they went back out."
Since the fishermen "described both men to a T," said Brzuska — and one even knew Shields, the Coast Guard notified the Burgess family and discontinued the broadcasts. But nine days later, May 3, Robert Shields called and reported his son "possibly overdue."
The Coast Guard again issued emergency broadcasts. Coast Guard units in southern North Carolina called boaters to ask if they'd seen the missing men, and small boats searched local marinas between Hampton Roads, Va., and Wrightsville Beach, N.C., but to no avail.
The two worried fathers tried to figure out where their sons could be. "Mr. Shields said his son always fished in the Gulf Stream, so [he believed] they were there — and that, if they'd wrecked, there might be debris," explained Gordon Burgess.
"BUT THE COAST GUARD SAID that area was fished so much that, if they were there, someone would have seen them," he continued. "So they searched around the Carolinas." He said Erik and Joey had just repacked their lifeboat and had survival suits on board. "But if something happened, they might not have had time to get into them."
And although there were a couple storms around that time, said Burgess, "The boat should have weathered it." Both fathers planned to confer again Tuesday with the Coast Guard "to see what they're doing and what they're going to do."
Meanwhile, back in Reedville, Burgess thinks about his son and the projects they'd planned to complete together. "Right now, I see him everywhere I look, around here," he said. "We're still hoping they'll find them adrift — but everybody says they've been out there too long, so their chances are slim to none. But until there's no hope, we'll hope."
The Coast Guard did get a tip from a fisherman who knew Joey Shields and was fishing off the coast of North Carolina. "He said that, sometime after April 24, he and Joey had talked via radio and made tentative plans to trade bait off the coast of Wrightsville Beach," said Brzuska. "So we figured Shields and Burgess were maybe heading south."
On May 6, the Coast Guard performed an "extended-communications search," said Brzuska. A Coast Guard C-130 aircraft flew from Elizabeth City, N.C., to Charleston, S.C., carrying the emergency broadcast about 100 miles further out and to a larger area.
Personnel in the plane also queried boaters they saw in the water. "Between Cape Fear and Cape Lookout, they got a response from a fisherman saying he'd directed Shields and Burgess to a good, tuna-fishing spot in that area," said Brzuska. "From that, we distinguished a good, solid search area — over 14,000 square miles."
On May 10 — the day Erik was to have been at his friend John's wedding — the C-130 and a Coast Guard cutter scoured the area, but found nothing. The emergency broadcast also yielded no response. Then, last Wednesday morning, May 14, "The Assassin's" emergency position-indicating radio beacon (EPIRB) was discovered embedded in some sea grass in waters 23 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras.
"It was 100 miles northeast of the area we originally searched between Cape Fear and Cape Lookout," said Brzuska. "It was in an eddy current off the Gulf Stream. A fishing boat found it and reported it to the Coast Guard. We immediately launched a helicopter to the site and searched."
MADE OF HARD PLASTIC, the EPIRB stands as tall as a man's waist and is as wide as his leg. Although some automatically emit emergency signals when separated from their boats, this one was manually operated and had not been activated. "You have to flip a switch to make it transmit a signal to a satellite, which will relay a signal to the nearest rescue-coordination center," explained Brzuska.
Coast Guard personnel retrieved and examined the EPIRB. When they turned it on, they learned it was working and was registered to Shields' fishing boat. Brzuska said the rescue-coordination center in Portsmouth received its signal within minutes.
"We don't know where it came off the boat or how," he said. The EPIRB could have left Shields' boat and floated to that spot, but nothing is certain. "They're removable, in case you have to abandon ship," said Brzuska. "Anything could have jarred it loose — it's no indication that the boat sank."
This EPIRB was covered with a significant amount of marine growth — mollusks and barnacles which had attached themselves to the device. From the amount of growth, a marine biologist determined it had been in the water for 14-28 days — anytime from April 16-30 — within the time frame Burgess and Shields vanished. The Coast Guard then suspended its search.
"Figuring where the EPIRB was found in relation to where we searched, and — given weather, wind and current conditions — [we realized] the search area would be as large as the Continental U.S., east of the Mississippi, which is too large an area for us to search," said Brzuska. "We also take into account survivability."
He said water temperature there was in the low 60s, and body temperature drops quicker in water. Using a computer program into which Burgess' and Shields' height, weight, age and health were entered — plus whether they wore survival suits, said Brzuska, "It was concluded that, if they were in the water for this length of time, the probability of their survival is slim."
John Fuchs' mother, Nancy, said her son's "pretty upset," because he and Erik were so close. Centreville's Trudy Harsh, another longtime friend of the Burgesses, said Erik and John were like brothers. "It's so sad," she said. "What could have happened?"