Six people clinging to the hull of a capsized motorboat were minutes away from death when help arrived on the churning waters of Lake Tahoe, authorities said Wednesday.
The dramatic rescue of nine boaters on Saturday afternoon came as gusts around 30 mph whipped up 3-foot-tall waves, and the water temperature measured a teeth-chattering 49 degrees, officials said.
"I was very happy to be in that spot," said El Dorado County Sheriff's Deputy Damian Frisby, who got into the cold water in shorts and a polo shirt to pull the tourists into boats. "The people were so thankful."
Weather was already ugly on the lake when one of the nine boaters called to report the vessel was taking on water. But the caller had trouble describing the location of the distressed boat, which was more than two miles from shore in about 1,000 feet of deep blue water, Frisby said.
The boat was partially sunken by the time a civilian sailboat named Compromise arrived. The crew of Compromise rescued three people, and helped guide US Coast Guard and sheriff's boats to the scene.
Frisby said rescuers tried to pull the victims from the dangerous water with a rope, but the victims were unable to follow directions, likely because hypothermia was setting in. The condition could have rendered them unconscious.
Frisby jumped into the water and swam to the people, passing them to Coast Guard personnel. Some of the victims were in the lake for about 45 minutes — a dangerously long time in such frigid temperatures.
"I have a newfound respect for them," Frisby said. "I can't imagine, even in my experience, trying to survive out there for that length of time."
The shivering boaters showed obvious signs of hypothermia as they were taken to a cabin and an awaiting ambulance. Some were vomiting and shaking, and they had difficulty communicating.
Their conditions weren't available Wednesday, but Frisby said all were conscious after the rescue and appear likely to make a full recovery.