Originally created 05/18/99

Stranded worker found safe



JACKSON -- An employee of the Aiken Department of Public Safety had a whopper of a tale for search crews Monday after a four-hour search for him ended happily.

Bill Musselwhite, a police maintenance mechanic and volunteer firefighter, was stranded in a police boat all night on the Savannah River. Mr. Musselwhite ran out of gas while test-driving the boat from Jackson Boat Landing on Sunday and ended up stuck in the river overnight, forced to tie the 16-foot boat to a tree and sleep in the chilly air. He used a life boat as a pillow and the boat canvas as a blanket.

By the time he was found, search crews from six agencies had spent four hours using personal watercraft, boats, bloodhounds and even a helicopter to locate him. The four-hour search ended at about 1 p.m. when an officer with the state's Department of Natural Resources radioed searchers that he was "10-4," or safe in his boat at the U.S. Highway 301 bridge in Allendale County 40 miles away.

Mr. Musselwhite, 41, seemed overwhelmed by the media attention and the number of search crews still gathered in Jackson when a DNR helicopter dropped him back at his truck.

"I told my wife I was fine," an obviously embarrassed Mr. Musselwhite told Aiken Sgt. Mike Hunt.

To the media gathered around him, he told this story:

He was test driving the police boat when he miscalculated the gas left and realized he wouldn't make it back upstream. So he tried to make it to the Highway 301 boat landing without success. He tied up along some woods as darkness fell and curled up for the night.

His wife, Joanie Musselwhite, paged him Sunday night, and he called her on a cell phone to tell her he was out of gas. He asked her to call the boss Monday morning to say he wasn't coming in.

"I wasn't going to try and walk out at night because of the gators," he said.

But when Mrs. Musselwhite tried paging him Monday morning with no reply, she got worried and called police. His pager battery was dead and the telephone was scratchy. Officers with several agencies started a search Monday morning, including the Aiken Department of Public Safety, Jackson Volunteer Fire Department, North Augusta Public Safety Department, Richmond County Dive Team, DNR and Wackenhut Services Inc.

Mr. Musselwhite said he got up Monday morning, walked through the woods and hitched a ride to a gas station. Some fisherman took him back to his boat with gasoline in hand, and that is where he was found.

After the happy ending, Mr. Musselwhite's fellow employees from Aiken joked with him about the incident as he lighted a cigarette.

"Well, it all ended well. It's something we can talk about at next year's awards banquet," Sgt. Hunt joked.

Greg Rickabaugh covers police for The Augusta Chronicle. He can be reached at (803) 279-6895 or scbureau@augustachronicle.com.