late summer and early fall fishing season was beset with rough seas and
high winds. Frustrated watermen were all too often confined to
Then Hurricane Irene created even more difficulties and Day at Docks
and the Blessing of the Fleet had to be cancelled. The
blessing was rescheduled for Sept. 30 on what was the prettiest evening
we've ever had for the event. At least 30 professional watermen
had boats in the solemn ceremony.
This year four preachers offered prayers for the safety of the men and
women who ply the ocean and the sound and for profitable harvests.
The scaled-down blessing was more solemn than usual, as we also offered
prayers for our island friends and neighbors who were suffering
unspeakable losses after the hurricane.
There were few visitors here, so it was also very intimate. Everyone in attendance knew a waterman.
Only one hymn was sung, “The Navy Hymn,” that beseeches God to "hear us when we call to thee for those in peril on the sea."
The usual collection of family and friends rode on the boats and the
Coast Guard contingent was especially large. In accordance with
the tradition of the Blessing of the Fleet, the Coast Guard Motor
Lifeboat followed the fleet into the harbor representing their role to
see our watermen safely home.
Among the workboats was, as always, the fishing vessel Net Results
under the command of “Tall Bill” Van Druten, a fisherman with 27 years
of experience working the waters off Hatteras, both in the charter and
(mainly) in the commercial sectors.
Following the ceremony, there was unusual silence in the harbor as Todd
Ballance slowly steered the shad boat carrying the preachers and the
memorial wreath out to the open waters of the sound where it was placed
to commemorate those watermen who have "crossed the bar" for the final
The next morning dawned clear and fairly mild with a northwest
wind. It was an okay day for fishing, and most of the watermen
looked forward to getting to work, finally.
Tall Bill set three nets in the ocean, and at 8:20 a.m. began to fish
the first one back in. He was about a mile and a half from shore.
When he engaged his hydraulic net reel to retrieve his first set, he
suddenly realized his coat was caught in the net. He was not
close enough to the switch to turn it off and quickly found himself
being wound around his net reel, trapped by the net that was coming
back into the boat.
All he could think was, "I am going to die."
He had the presence of mind to try to stop the spinning net reel by
pressing his foot on the frame. But it was a difficult and tiring
action, and he couldn't do it for very long.
He was aware, he thinks, at all times of the turns his body was making
around the reel and of the pressure of the lines cutting into his body
and by a constant drip from a jellyfish that was also in the net.
However, he had no sense of time, and it was only later that he
realized he had been assaulted by his own gear for about an hour and a
It is normal for watermen to chatter all day or night - on the radio or
by cell phone. There is a lot of information exchanged, a lot of
griping and, yes, gossip. Someone noted that Tall Bill hadn't
weighed in and people tried to reach him.
He was unable to reach his radio or his phone, and his lack of response set off alarms among the other boat captains.
In the distance was the fishing vessel Miss Megan and its captain,
Jeremy O'Neal, decided to head over to Net Results. He soon
realized that there was no sign of "The Tall One" and no evidence of
activity on the boat.
Now, really concerned, O'Neal left his net and raced toward Tall Bill,
still trying to raise him on the marine radio. From the fishing
vessel Lucy B, Rob West continued to call Van Druten's cell phone.
O'Neal approached and began to call out to Van Druten. Still conscious, Tall Bill was able to respond, "I am alive!"
O'Neal spread the word throughout the fleet and, on nearing Net
Results, assessed the problem and called the Coast Guard. In the
meantime, another fishing vessel, Paul Dunn's Shannon D, was
Van Druten believes he remained conscious throughout the ordeal and
knows he heard Miss Megan's engines as the boat came up next to him.
O'Neal put his mate, Cory Sisler, aboard Net Results, and Sisler set to
cutting Van Druten free of the nets that had wrapped around him
multiple times. He was aware that Sisler "cut the net but did not
move me, but loosened the tension from the net."
"I thought I was fine. Just cut me out of this net and let me get
up and shake my arms around," he remembers. "I had no pain in my neck,
no sudden pain at all."
The Coast Guard arrived from Station Hatteras Inlet with the intention
of transferring Van Druten. But, Van Druten recalls, "We had
drifted offshore, and it was getting sloppier so they decided to run my
boat back to the Coast Guard Station."
Latane Saunders, Paul Dunn's mate, was the designated driver.
Tall Bill "doesn't know how many people were on my boat. I know
there were some people."
It was a long, slow ride and they were met by EMTs and by his terrified wife, Michelle.
The EMTs "dragged me from under the net reel and put me on a back
board. My arms were numb and I still thought they were just
asleep and that I could shake them out. But they wouldn't move."
He was soon underway by helicopter to Outer Banks Hospital and a very
worried Michelle headed up in her vehicle. As if that solo
drive was not bad enough, we were still isolated by the new inlet and
she had to take the emergency ferry from Rodanthe to Stumpy Point and
then come back east to Nags Head, adding more stress and a lot more
Word was passed to the ferry staff in Rodanthe, and they held the ferry for her, saving her the extra wait for another ferry.
Meanwhile, Van Druten's son, Brian, who was hunting on the mainland that day, raced to Nags Head to meet his Dad and Michelle.
But Michelle was in for another "nightmarish" drive.
While she was crossing the bridge and finally nearing the Outer Banks
Hospital, she received a phone call from Brian telling her that Bill
was paralyzed with a spinal cord injury and that a helicopter was
landing that would take Van Druten to Greenville.
She desperately wanted to see him, and Brian had them wait until she arrived.
On evaluation, the medical staff at OBH recognized the potential danger
of his injuries and sent him to the Trauma Unit at Pitt Memorial
Hospital in Greenville, N.C., where his daughter, Kristin Gray joined
them. By then, nearly twelve hours had passed since the accident.
During her drive to Greenville, Michelle kept thinking, "I have to get
there safely. If something happens to me, who is going to take
care of my husband?" But to this day, she cannot remember getting
Bill was suffering from hypothermia, but that was the least of his
problems. His muscles and tendons were badly stressed and torn
and, as a result, his body was releasing enzymes at a dangerously high
level that threatened his kidneys. There were also concerns about
his swallowing reflex and pneumonia.
His bruising was severe and he had deep rope marks on several
places. But, amazingly, there was no organ damage and no broken
During "that first, dark week," as Michelle describes it, the family
was given the dire news that Van Druten "would not be coming
home. His spinal cord was severed and he would be a paraplegic."
Michelle, a registered nurse with 14 years trauma experience, collapsed in the hallway.
Then she steeled herself and became her husband’s greatest supporter
and personal coach. "I grieved hard, fast and quick. We had
no time. We had to deal with the reality."
She decided that Tall Bill was not to be told and neither was anyone
else but Brian and Kristin. No one was going to take his hope or
his fight away.
Michelle told him, "We are a team and together we will get through this."
Thus began, literally, the fight for his life.
True to his nature, Tall Bill quickly began to work hard at doing the
simplest things, like moving his fingers. Soon he was lifting his
foot and his arm. And he maintained a smile.
Then an MRI gave them hope. There was considerable damage to his
spinal cord, but it was not as devastating as first believed.
Once he began to heal from his other injuries, he would be in for a
very lengthy residential rehabilitation in Greenville.
When Michelle got the report that his cervical vertebrae 1 though 4
were not completely severed; that it was an "incomplete injury," she
thought, "There is my hope."
He was not happy about a lengthy rehab away from home and began
pressing the doctors about when he could get back on his boat.
The response wasn't acceptable either. Maybe in six months he
could get on someone else's boat, but not his.
Now that motivated Tall Bill Van Druten.
He was transferred from trauma step-down to rehab on Oct. 13. He was released from rehab on Nov. 1 to come home to Frisco.
He is moving around on his own, bathing, dressing, and feeding
himself. "Maybe my shirt is tucked in crooked and I might miss a
spot, but I can do it myself."
Michelle's nurturing side wants to help him but knows he will progress
faster and better if she doesn't intervene. "If it takes him an
hour to get dressed, it takes him an hour."
His left arm is not as strong as his right and there is no way to know
if it will ever be. She describes it as "excruciatingly
weak." Michelle was told, "The spinal cord is a
mystery. We can't predict when or even if it will heal."
But occupational therapy is producing impressive results, and Tall Bill
is now "mirroring" his left arm with his right. What he cannot do
with his left arm alone, he can do when he uses both arms
together. So now all arm exercises are done with both arms.
He is also receiving laser treatments to his spinal cord that has had
great success in Europe and has only received FDA approval in the past
His ACL is blown but, "Since I won't be playing basketball I can live
without an ACL." There is possibly some arthroscopic knee surgery ahead
for him, but nowhere near the extent expected earlier.
Michelle Van Druten calls his recovery "miraculous.”
“He is amazing. I am so hopeful. I am so hopeful. I
believe with all my heart that he is going to be fishing again and
shooting another deer again. I know. I don't just think so.
"With his spirit, he is unstoppable."
With all of his progress and optimism, it must be noted that his
muscle-wasting is so severe that it is going to be months before he is
truly active again. Michelle reminds us that he is going to make
it but "It is a long haul."
On the stellar safety record of the Hatteras fleet, Tall Bill
reflected, "Look at the average age of the fishermen. There's a
lot of experience. We are all aware of weather conditions.
We don't take a lot of chances. We are concerned about safety."
As for his accident, " I didn't do anything that I haven't done many, many times. Things happen."
"There are so many people I want to thank,” he says. “So many
contributed to my recovery with prayers, thoughts, and financial
contributions. Many people came to see me in the hospital.
I can't possibly thank everyone and don't want to miss anyone.
This is a blanket thank-you statement."
"If we had not had the Blessing of the Fleet,” he says, “I might have ended up dead."
Now, not even two months after the terrible accident, they will be
hosting their traditional family Thanksgiving dinner at home.
Michelle is looking forward to a therapeutic cooking session and to
having their supportive family all together.
As Tall Bill said, "We have so much to be thankful for this
Thanksgiving. But we have so much to be thankful for every year."