No Time to Lose
Gunning the dinghy, he and Willem sped the 300 yards back toward the Hayat, where Jannie, 45, had already been tied up in the cockpit. It wasn't until he drew within 20 yards that he saw the guns. The men yelled for him to come closer, then one began firing wildly. "Jannie started to scream, 'Get away! Get away!' " says van Tuijl. But when he turned, a bullet struck his son above the right hip, passing through a kidney, nicking his intestine and severing his spinal cord before hitting the other kidney and exiting. Then it hit the dinghy, dumping the pair in the water. "I have no feeling in my legs!" Willem cried as the water turned red. Shouted the father: "Boy, hold on to me!"
What ended in nightmare had begun as the adventure of a lifetime five years earlier when the van Tuijls, a middle-class Dutch couple, set out with their only child to see the world in a 44-ft. vessel of their own making. After logging some 40,000 nautical miles—hitting destinations as far flung as the Azores, Fiji and Alaska—they were finally bound for home when they stopped off the coast of Honduras to rest and do a bit of fishing. They could hardly have imagined they would fall prey to local pirates who likely will never be found. Or that their energetic, ever-curious son would be left paralyzed from the waist down after the shooting and a dramatic international rescue that would bring him, finally, to the Dallas hospital center where he is now recovering.
Ironically the van Tuijls had chosen to stop at Half Moon Reef, 26 nautical miles east of Honduras, because the lagoon's peaceful, shallow waters offered protection from ocean swells. Unknown to them, the area was rife with drug traffickers. It was just after 4 p.m. that the four men motored up and asked Jannie for some water, and minutes later the gunfire began, leaving Willem, paralyzed in the water, clinging to his father. "I thought I was going to be eaten by sharks because I was bleeding so much," says the boy. But when the intruders fled, Jacco—with the boy grasping his shoulders—swam back to the Hayat, where he instantly radioed for help.
U.S. amateur radio operators who picked up his signal helped put him in contact with Honduran naval officials, who told him to head 60 nautical miles northwest toward the coastal town of Puerto Lempira. As Jacco navigated and worked the radio, Jannie desperately pressed her hands to her son's wounds to slow the bleeding. Turning again to his network of ham operators, Jacco reached Jim Hirschman, 69, a Miami cardiologist. "He said, 'I think he's going to die, and I need to know what to do,' " says Hirschman, who, from his home, talked the parents through the rescue, telling them how to use a sheet to help stanch the flow of blood. "We didn't talk a lot," Willem says of the ordeal. "They thought I was dying, and they were scared." Fourteen hours later they met the Honduran naval craft that took mother and son ashore, where they were rushed to a local hospital, then airlifted by U.S. military helicopter to a clinic in the city of La Ceiba.
With no safe place to anchor, Jacco, exhausted by the night's ordeal, was forced to pilot the Hay at single-handedly toward Roatan Island, more than a day's journey away. Ed Petzolt, 52, a Hobe Sound, Fla., ham operator, talked Jacco through the voyage, occasionally helping him make radio-to-telephone contact with his wife in La Ceiba. There doctors removed part of one of Willem 's kidneys, reconstructed the other and mended the boy's intestine. But they could do nothing for his spinal cord, and doctors bluntly told Jannie her son would never walk again. And by the time Jacco finally arrived in La Ceiba, doctors were concerned that Willem's kidneys might fail. "We needed to get him to the United States as quick as possible," says the father.
In Florida, Petzolt's efforts to find a U.S. hospital for Willem came to the attention of Jim Haynie, 56, a Dallas businessman and president of the American Radio Relay League, who helped clear the way for the boy to enter the local Children's Medical Center. Late Friday the hospital's jet flew to La Ceiba, where it picked up Willem and his parents and took them to Dallas. "I was really impressed with his mental state," says Tom Abramo, the emergency doctor who met him at the hospital. "He was almost tranquil." Soon, Willem will be moved to a rehabilitation facility, where he is expected to spend six weeks in aggressive therapy to help him cope with his paralysis.
In hindsight, Jacco van Tuijl rebukes himself for ever leaving the Hayat, but his son is having none of it. "Willem said, 'No, Pop, you did the right thing, because maybe they would have shot all three of us,' " recalls Jannie. And rather than show concern for himself, the boy seemed enormously relieved that his parents had escaped unharmed. Says Jannie: "He said, 'I'm glad that you were not shot, Mom, because otherwise I would die of sadness.' "
Even when he was a small child in the Dutch seaside town of Enkhuizen, Wiilem's teachers recognized his rare self-assurance. "He always knew what he wanted," says Gerrie Halsema, 46, a teacher who remembers that Willem could read as a toddler and later could identify fish of all kinds. Jacco, who worked on the crew of an oil-pipe-laying ship, had always been enthralled with the sea, and when a friend introduced him to Jannie in 1985, his first question was, "Do you like sailing?"
Clearly she did, and shortly after they married in 1986 and Willem was born in 1987, they started saving to build their own oceangoing sailboat. What they lacked in cash, they made up for in their passionate desire to sail around the world. "They had immense patience and were keen to solve every detail," says Siep Broersma, 50, a harbormaster in Enkhuizen. "They were very positive people."
By 1993 they had completed the steel vessel with mahogany woodwork and christened it the Hayat—"life" in Turkish—after Jacco's Turkish-born mother. After two years spent breaking it in, they set out in July 1995, with a budget of $10,000 a year and a box of books with which to home-school Willem. Heading to South America, they then spent six months in New Zealand before sailing north to Japan. In the process they came to savor the quiet rhythms of nautical life. "You'd think you would get bored to death," says Jannie. "But the days just fly by." They had logged 30,000 nautical miles by the summer of 1998, when they anchored at Kodiak Island, off Alaska, where they stayed for a year while Willem attended sixth grade. "He was so verbal and literate," Ed LeDoux, principal of North Star Elementary School, says of Willem. "He was alive with curiosity." But with adolescence approaching for Willem, his parents decided it was time to return home to Holland. Last June they resumed their journey and had passed through the Panama Canal when they anchored off Honduras.
Friends in the amateur radio community have set up a fund at a Dallas bank (The Wiilem Fund, Southwest Bank, Suite 100,1603 LBJ Fwy., Dallas, TX 75234) to help the family with their medical bills, and children from the school Willem attended in Alaska have been sending their best wishes. "Tell them thank you," says Willem. "Thanks for all the letters and all the love."
Michael Haederle in Dallas, Lori Rozsa in Miami and Angelique van Engelen in Enkhuizen
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