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Posted by on June 04, 2008 at 09:31:45:

Stranded diver recounts 22-hour offshore ordeal

Palm City man spends night in ocean after becoming separated from his boat
PALM CITY Miles off shore and surrounded by a darkness that swallowed him whole in the breaking surf, Patrick Scartozzi fought exhaustion, bitter cold and the urge to peek at his watch.

Back home, his wife lay awake in bed listening to the birds and frogs outside as she waited for dawn and feared facing their children once more.

"I knew I was alive and floating, and I knew they didn't know," Scartozzi said Tuesday, four days after he disappeared off the St. Lucie Inlet during a commercial fishing dive. "I would have rather been in my position than to have been in their position, not knowing if I was stuck under a rock, dead."

The 43-year-old Palm City resident and Fort Lauderdale firefighter spent 22 hours in the ocean, steadily kicking toward land with a bleeding, shattered hand before a Coast Guard helicopter found him almost a mile off shore Saturday. A licensed commercial diver, Scartozzi became separated from his boat during a trip to spear snapper and grouper.

Scartozzi said he emerged early from a 95-foot deep reef dive to find himself about 75 yards away from his boat. A swarm of fishing boats had suddenly emerged on the reef and Scartozzi's friend and business partner, Clay Brandt, was trying to shoo them away so Scartozzi wouldn't get hurt.

Scartozzi's head disappeared from sight in the rough waves, and he drifted away with the current. Before long, he began shedding his expensive dive gear, including a weight belt and a speargun. He kept his small dive scooter and steered it toward shore until the batteries died and then used it as a float.

Hours passed and he watched the Coast Guard helicopter and planes buzz overhead.

"I guess the desperation started when it started to get dark, about 8 o'clock at night," Scartozzi said. "I realized I would be spending a considerable amount of time out there."

And then he shot himself.

As a last-ditch effort to attract the Coast Guard helicopter, Scartozzi fired the .357 Magnum attachment from his speargun into the scooter and hoped someone would see the muzzle flash. Instead, the steel powerhead recoiled and pierced his right hand between two fingers.

The noise was deafening but still not loud enough to hear above the helicopter's whirling propeller.

Scartozzi yanked the powerhead from his knuckles, marveled at the hole it left behind and the blood that ran down his arm. And then he swam on.

As the condominiums on Hutchinson Island grew larger, Scartozzi met curious dolphins and clouds of glowing plankton but never any sharks. He watched the sun rise on a cloudless, clear day. About 10 a.m., he saw the Coast Guard helicopter fly north up the beach, and this time, it stopped.

A trip to the hospital and one hand surgery later, Scartozzi is recovering at home with his wife, Chris, and their three children, Patrick Jr., 16, Marisa, 12, and Julia, 7, by his side. He returns to firefighting on June 21, and despite his recent ordeal, diving is sure to follow.

"He's never going to stop diving I know that," Chris Scartozzi said. "He's not done."

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