Terry Jo Duperrault was 11 years old when she displayed an incredible, almost superhuman survival instinct. She floated on a lifeboat until officers from an oil tanker saw her in the vicinity of the Bahamas Islands, in the Providence Channel of the Atlantic Ocean. Her family had been killed on a boat, which sank off the coast of Florida, United States.
It was Thursday, November 16, 1961, and Terry Jo Duperrault had been adrift for eighty-four hours, although she had not counted them. Day and night, under the scorching sun and surrounded by sharks.
Terry Jo Duperrault: A Little Mermaid At The Sea
Nicolaos Spachidakis, the second officer of the Greek oil tanker Captain Theo, sailing to Puerto Rico, squinted his eyes. He wanted to avoid being blinded by the sun as he surveyed, inch by inch, the waters of the Providence Channel of the Atlantic Ocean. From the height of the command bridge, he could see how dozens of ships dotted the enormous blue surface.
Something small shining on the horizon caught his eye. It didn't seem to be going anywhere and danced to the beat of the tide. He first thought it was a tiny fishing boat. The idea was ridiculous. What would a fisher do so far from the coast?
He decided to call the ship's captain, Stylianos Coutsodontis, to help him solve the mystery. When he climbed back onto the bridge, the object of his attention was already getting closer.
It wasn't a boat or a catamaran. It was nothing they expected.
On that small floating islet, between sharks and huge waves, sat a little mermaid. There was a blonde girl, tremendously tanned, with a faint look floating on an oval life preserver with a net bottom. She was wearing a white blouse, pale pink capri pants and had her feet submerged on the side of the float. It seemed surreal.
Terry Jo Duperrault Fighting Sharks
The men ordered to stop the ship's engines. They wanted to avoid hitting the tiny boat. They yelled at the little girl not to jump into the water, that it was very dangerous, that they would rescue her from it. In a few minutes, they assembled, using empty fuel barrels, a kind of raft to approach her.
They had to hurry. Several sharks were swimming in circles around the dying mermaid, still with her feet submerged.
A sailor took a photo from the deck. The image of the blonde angel found in the sea would go around the world and be on the cover of Life magazine.
Terry Jo Duperrault almost passed out and was hoisted to the deck with a rope placed under her arms. She was severely dehydrated, and the thermometer read 40.5 degrees. The sailors gave her sips of water and orange juice. They gently wiped wet towels over her face, arms, and legs. The captain spoke to her several times, but she did not respond. She had her gaze fixed on the floor.
"So… do you have family somewhere?" insisted the captain. She ended up nodding her head. He brought his ear close to her mouth so he could hear her. With a low voice, she told him that her name was Terry Jo Duperrault, 11 years old, and her relatives were from Green Bay, Wisconsin. Then she passed out.
Hiring Captain Julien Harvey
The Duperraults were from Wisconsin, United States, located far from the sea and often faced harsh winters. Arthur (41) and Jean (38) had three children: Brian (14), Terry Jo (11), and Rene (7).
Arthur was a successful optometrist who sold contact lenses. For a long time, he had been saving with one goal: to take a year off, rent a sailboat and spend twelve months on board with his family.
But before going for the long journey, the couple wanted to rehearse with a vacation and see what family life was like onboard. They decided to take about three weeks on a chartered sailboat to sail between the Florida Keys and the Bahamas. That way, they would learn the ins and outs of sailing, escape the harsh winter weather, and get a taste of how they felt about that marine life.
Arthur contacted an old acquaintance, Julien Harvey (44), a veteran of World War II and the Korean War, decorated twelve times. Harvey was an experienced sailor and retired lieutenant colonel in the Air Force, where he had flown bombers.
Harvey was married for the sixth time to Mary Dene Jordan (34), a young woman who worked as a flight attendant. They agreed that Arthur would pay him $100 a day to make Harvey the captain. Dene was in charge of cooking for them.
A Perfect Family Holiday
The Duperraults traveled to Florida. The rented sailboat was called Bluebelle, 18 meters long, and moored in the Bahía del Mar marina in Fort Lauderdale.
They boarded at noon on Wednesday, November 8, 1961, and set sail. The dream vacation was underway.
They left the Florida coast behind and headed toward the Bahamas. They sailed towards the small Bimini Islands. Just as they had dreamed, they swam in turquoise seas, discovered exotic islands, scuba-dived on paradisiacal beaches, and went down to buy souvenirs. Everything was going perfectly.
On Sunday, November 12, Harvey decided to sail at night. That promised to be an adventure. Before 8 pm, they dined on the deck of the Bluebelle.
Those first four days had been as Arthur had dreamed. So much so that the afternoon before leaving the port, he said that they would return "before Christmas" because he was determined to fulfill his desire to live a year over the water.
But, there would be no future. That same night, the fifth of the voyage, everything would go down the drain.
Harvey Was Trying To Cover Up A Murder
Terry Jo Duperrault was very tired, so she went down to her cabin to sleep after eating. Rene usually went down with her, but tonight she stayed on deck with the rest, enjoying the evening.
After a while, terrifying screams startled Terry awake. The screams came from above. It was the voice of her brother: "Help, Dad! Help!". She heard quick footsteps, like people running, and then total silence.
Terry Jo Duperrault was motionless on her bed, petrified. A little later, she decided to go out to see what was happening. Along the way, she bumped into her mother and her brother Brian. They were lying on the ground, covered in blood.
Terry thought she saw a rifle lying next to her. She slowly climbed onto the deck, wanting to find her father. Instead, she met two wide eyes. They were Captain Julian Harvey's. He yelled at her, motioned for her to go back to her cabin, and began pushing her down the stairs.
Terry's heart was pounding out of her chest. She took refuge in her room and went back to bed, wishing she was in the middle of a bad dream. Was it a nightmare? Why didn't she wake up at once?
Abruptly, a sound brought her back to reality. It was the water that had begun to seep through the hull and flooded the floor. What could she do?
Harvey entered the cabin with a gun in his hand. He looked her straight in the eye, didn't say a word, and left.
Terry Jo Duperrault was trembling. The cold liquid had reached her mattress. She couldn't stay there.
She had to move and get out. The girl pushed against the swirling water around her waist and climbed the steps. Terry Jo Duperrault saw Harvey about to launch himself into the boat that had been untied. He wasn't worried about Terry, she was going down with the Bluebelle.
With Harvey out of her sight, adrenaline kicked in. She remembered the little life preserver her father had told her about and found it. She climbed up the side of the sail and reached for it. Terry Jo Duperrault jumped into the water.
Seconds later, the ship completely sank.
Terry Jo Duperrault: Orphaned And Adrift
Terry Jo Duperrault was, for the first time in her life, absolutely alone in the face of the unknown. Now she felt a devastating fear. It was tangible and dark as the night she was in, like the vast sea that would swallow her.
Her greatest fear was meeting Harvey's lunatic gaze again. She knew that he had done something very wrong. She had only one certainty: that man had killed her family.
She was so traumatized that she overrode her hunger and thirst. Images of her mother and her brother in a massive pool of blood haunted her. But her father was strong, so where was he?
As the hours passed, dawn came, and she faced another problem: the sun. The company of light brought sunstroke. On the second day, she suffered from nausea and fever. On top of that, the little life preserver had begun to disintegrate.
Every hour that passed, Terry Jo Duperrault felt her tongue getting drier.
The waves turned into giant black monsters again at night, accompanied by an icy wind. She felt safer sitting in the net, waist-deep in water most of the time.
During the day, Terry Jo Duperrault would stand on the edges to try to dry herself, but the sun scorched her.
The third day also dawned sunny and hot. Her body ached, and she was dizzy. Her skin burned, and her mouth felt swollen, and numb.
The morning of the fourth day, she barely kept her balance on her unstable float. She was hallucinating. She saw an island and a palm tree. She wanted to paddle there with her feet, but she never got there. The image receded again and again. She fell asleep.
In the middle of the morning, Terry Jo Duperrault opened her eyes and saw the shadow of a giant ship. Was it a dream? Where was she? Shortly after, she heard voices and saw heads approaching her. Stranger's arms lifted her. She had been rescued by the Greek ship.
Terry was airlifted to a hospital. It took her eleven days to recover.
In the hospital bed, the authorities questioned Terry Jo Duperrault, and she recounted her nightmare.
The News Of Terry Jo Duperrault Being Rescued
On Monday, November 13 at 12:30 noon, while Terry Jo Duperrault was fighting for her life in the middle of the sea, Julian Harvey was rescued by the United States Coast Guard. The body of little Rene was also on the boat.
Harvey said that he had seen her body with the life jacket floating in the water and had rescued her. He had tried to revive her without success. Doctors certified that the minor had indeed died of drowning.
Harvey spent his time explaining his terrible accident in the days that followed. A sudden storm had hit them around eight o'clock on the night of Sunday the 12th and had mortally wounded the sailboat. The mast had been blown off by the force of the wind and had fatally struck the other passengers as it fell, leaving Harvey separated from the others. Above, a crack had opened in the boat's hull. The water was flooding the ship.
Harvey said he tried to cross to where the rest were, but the fire just broke out, preventing him from doing so. He threw himself into the boat seconds before the sailboat went to the bottom of the sea.
The story was unbelievable. There were no records of such a gale-force wind or storm, but there wasn't much reason to doubt Harvey.
He was testifying when the Miami authorities gave him the news: Terry Jo Duperrault had been rescued. Harvey said he was glad, but he panicked. He excused himself from the hearing and went back to his hotel. He realized that he would spend the rest of his life in prison.
The following morning, Friday, November 17, when the hotel maid entered his room and saw blood on the sheets, she freaked out. She called for help because she couldn't open the bathroom door.
When they got inside, they found the exsanguinated body of Julian Harvey. He had committed suicide by severing an artery in one of his legs and slashing his neck. He had left a note that read:
"I am in a nervous wreck and cannot continue."
Harvey Had A History Of Undiscovered Crimes
The authorities reopened the case and delved into the motives for such a massacre. They found that Mary Dene had $20,000 in life insurance. That would have been why Julian wanted to get rid of her. He accepted the job with the Duperrault family and planned the crime.
It would be easy to simulate an accidental drowning on the high seas. But nothing went as planned.
It is believed that Arthur found Captain Harvey trying to drown Dene and wanted to stop him. Harvey did not give up and ended up stabbing him. He stabbed Jean and Brian to death. He then stabbed the other witnesses.
At some point in his madness, he drowned the youngest, Rene. For the ship to sink, he made a hole in it. He decided to let Terry Jo Duperrault go down with it. He left the boat thinking that he had finished his murderous job.
But there was a calculation error. Terry Jo Duperrault was strong and determined.
With the investigation, Harvey's past came to light. They discovered that, in 1949, his wife and mother had died while he was driving a car that careened, ran over the guardrail, and plunged into a swamp.
Harvey escaped, but the two women were trapped and drowned. His ship, the Torbatross and Valiant powerboat had sunk under strange circumstances. Some of the planes he had flown had had freak accidents. Of course, his wife had good life insurance.
Fraud and collecting policies were his thing. Harvey was a deadly con man willing to do anything for money.
Terry Jo Duperrault Talks Half A Century Later
Terry Jo Duperrault's story went around the world several times. But she didn't speak in public for long, though she was Life magazine's December cover story. It was the perfect story of a Christmas miracle.
Terry Jo lived with her uncles, cousins , and grandmother. After high school, she studied to be a radiation therapist but realized that she could not tolerate the world of medical emergencies.
She decided to change her course and began studying cultural geography at the University of Wisconsin. Later, she committed himself to work in the state Department of Natural Resources as a specialist in water issues.
It took her years to accept the disappearance of her father. Since she had not seen his body, she speculated on theories:
"Only at the age of 35 did I accept that he had left. Until then I spent my time looking for him…".
In 2010, with the help of the author and specialist in survival experiences, Richard Logan, she decided to put the nightmare into a book. She titled it Alone: An Orphan In The Ocean.
She had ups and downs, underwent treatment, was married four times, gave birth to three children. She is now retired, married to Ron Fassbender, and lives in Kewaunee, Wisconsin.
Barry Leibowitz interviewed her, and CBS published it in 2010. She managed to get her to tell things that she had not said before. Here are some of her responses:
"I always believed that I was saved for some reason, but it took me fifty years to gain the strength to be able to give others hope with my story. Even if it only helps to heal a person who has experienced a misfortune, my path will have been worth it. I am a survivor trying to find other survivors."
"I lost my family and came back without being able to ask questions or talk to anyone about my feelings. I went to school where the teachers and my classmates knew about my loss, but they couldn't talk to me. When I published the book and one day I dedicated myself to signing them, many of my teachers who had been there 49 years before, showed up just to see if I was okay. They said they were sorry they hadn't been able to talk to me, that they couldn't do it and help me. They had been told to pretend that nothing had happened."
"Julian Harvey left me thinking that the ocean would swallow me, but instead, I created a bond with the water".
Sixty years have passed since that night, but Terry Jo's experience is present as if it had happened yesterday.