48 Hours Live to Tell: Black Wave

A Shipwreck on the High Seas Forces a Mother to Make an Unthinkable Choice

This story originally aired Feb. 28, 2009.

When John and Jean Silverwood set out to sail the world with their four children, they had no idea that the emotional baggage they brought on board would nearly sink them. Anger, tension and family secrets pulled them apart.

But when they suddenly strike a reef, John is pinned under a fallen mast and his wife must choose between saving him and saving their children. This is an unbelievable, but true tale of physical and emotional rescue told from the inside out.



Jean Silverwood: I just kinda stared at the ocean and I stood there and I talked to God because I didn't know what to do. We were about a day and a half out of French Polynesia. We had just left an island called Raiatea, which was about 300 miles west of Tahiti.

Amelia Silverwood: This trip was all my dad - all his dream. Ever since I could remember, my dad would talk about taking us out on the boat and taking us sailing around the world.

Jean: It was a very, very dark night and the moon hadn't come up. And I went down to my stateroom to relax, because it was the end of the evening and all of a sudden, we looked at my son, Ben, who just screamed "Reef."

Ben Silverwood: Just like a grinding noise. I couldn't see any land. We could sink at any moment.

Jean: The sounds were like microphone feedback in an auditorium where you have to cover your ears.

Amelia: That was when the whole boat started shaking.

Jean: We looked at each other with surprise and then we hit even harder. We're out in the middle of the Pacific [Ocean] and you just can't hit a reef.

Amelia: And then I hear stuff breaking and alarms start going off.

Jean: We came running up on deck - it was like mass hysteria. John and Ben ran up to cut the sails and put the engines into reverse. I instinctively ran down below to see how the kids were doing.

At that point in time, I turned to the sofa to see my two little kids hugging each other... Jack and Camille, screaming, "I don't want to die. I don't want to die!"

Camille Silverwood We just held each other. I was scared and sad.

Jean:: I turned to look to my right and I saw this massive, huge wave come gushing through the right side of the boat through Amelia's room.
Plates and sneakers and toys are floating around in the galley. And I stood there and I just felt I was in a scene from the "Titanic." It was surreal.

I had no clue what to do. And that's where it really hit me; that we were in a situation where we were all gonna possibly die.

I just looked and I started thinking about drowning. And that's always been my worst fear, drowning. I used to have dreams when the kids were little about them drowning in a bathtub or even in a pool.

Amelia Silverwood: My parents were like, look, you need to buckle down. You need to get our position and get on the radios.

Jean: And in desperation we yelled, "Mayday, mayday, mayday."

Amelia: My mom was screaming you know, "Oh God… Jesus…" you know like, "How could this happen to us?"

Jean: The satellite phone was showing no signal. It was picking up no signal from the satellite and my hands were shaking so badly that I dropped the phone on the floor. By this time, the floor in the main salon is wet and I just picked up the phone and it was dead.

All that we had left was the emergency beacon the size of a small thermos. We switched it on and pointed it to the sky, but we didn't know if it was working.

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