MOKENA, IL — Becky and Matt Savage will sit down to Thanksgiving dinner with their two boys on Thursday, grateful as always for good health, friends, and family.
But the day that is set aside each year to give thanks has taken on a new perspective for the Mokena couple. The holiday arrives as they continue to unpack their emotions from being rescued from choppy Caribbean waters after the double-deck catamaran ferry they were on with 100 other people capsized while en route to a private island in the Bahamas, resulting in the death of a 75-year-old Minnesota woman.
The chaotic turn of events turned what was to have been a “simple, calm” 35-minute ferry ride from Paradise Island to Blue Lagoon Island into a horrific ending to a trip that the family says they will now never forget for all the wrong reasons. Yet, as the couple struggles with re-living 25 fretful minutes that they say played out in slow motion and instead seemed like hours, they cannot lose sight of the fact that they will spend Thanksgiving together amid what has been a rollercoaster ride of emotions.
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“We have so much to be thankful for,” Matt Savage told Patch on Tuesday. “Every year, you kind of struggle [at Thanksgiving] if you didn’t have a great year because even though you have so much to be thankful for, [it] kind of gets lost in the day-to-day.
“But this year, there are going to be some very specific thankful and gratefuls without hesitation.”
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The six-day Bahamas cruise represented the Savages’ first post-pandemic trip and had been designed as a belated celebration of Becky Savage’s birthday in early November. When the couple, along with their 8-year-old son, Ace, and 6-year-old son, Reave, boarded the ferry at around 9:30 a.m. on Nov. 14 for a beach day on a private island, they did so, assuming that the excursion would just be another memorable experience in Paradise.
The relaxing getaway on the final full day in the Bahamas was supposed to be the perfect finish to a trip that had included a ziplining adventure in Jamaica just two days before the family looked forward to enjoying a beach day in the piercing blue ocean waters after spending the previous five days out at sea.
Yet, as the catamaran approached Blue Lagoon Island which is located only a short distance from Nassau, police in the Bahamas said that the boat began to take on water. Becky and Matt Savage, along with their two boys, were on the top deck and told Patch that they were unaware anything was wrong until everything suddenly changed.
“The top [of the boat] was never notified about what was going on,” Becky Savage told Patch. “So, it took a minute for us to realize that we were taking on water and for us to get our life vests on.”
Another passenger was shooting video on her phone and was recording a TikTok video when she realized what was happening.
“Our boat is sinking ….so that’s fun,” Wisconsin resident Kelly Schissel says in the viral TikTok video that shows passengers in life vests leaping into the water that has been viewed more than 3 million times since last week. “Everyone is freaking out…(The boat is) literally sinking.”
According to media reports, the boat’s crew were among the first to jump into the water as the boat began to take on water. Matt Savage said that no announcement was ever made that the ferry was in trouble, forcing the approximate 50-60 people who were on the vessel’s top deck to cope with the reality of the situation in real-time.
The Savages were sitting in the second row of church pew-like seating near the front of the top deck close to where a bin held life jackets. As passengers began to realize what was happening, Matt Savage likened the feeling of what was happening to being in the pit section at a concert when people begin rushing toward the stage.
Becky Savage said that she heard some commotion toward the back of the upper deck before chaos broke out. As passengers began to make their way toward the bin of life vests, Becky Savage was able to reach into the bin to secure life vests for herself, Matt, and the two boys, before they started passing pre-packaged vests back to other passengers.
Surrounded by strangers from around the world, the Savages said that they were amazed that dozens of people began working together as one as the boat began to tip toward the right as it took in more water. The more the boat began to tip right, passengers all moved to the left to try to self-correct the vessel. A week later, Matt Savage says he is amazed by the way that strangers who came from so many parts of the world and were, in many cases, divided by language barriers, managed to work as one.
Yet, in the midst of everything that was happening around them, Becky and Matt’s parental instincts kicked in. They each grabbed one of their sons to make sure they had life vests on before the couple surveyed their surroundings and worked with other passengers to help others around them.
“Without us even talking, we knew [the boys] were the number one priority,” Becky Savage said.
Matt Savage added, “It was like slow-motion. The sound didn’t register, nothing else registered. I went back to every ‘Survivor’ show I ever watched or had ever read on it, accessed it, and just acted. The kids were awesome — they were rock stars, Beck was a rock star and we managed not to get hurt and we just stayed calm as possible and you just go from one thing to the next.
“You don’t have a lot of options at that point … But as the steps unfolded, it’s just stay calm, get to where you can, and assess it from there.”
Becky Savage said as things took place in real-time, her mind shifted from shock to being forced to deal with the chaos they found themselves in. Surrounded by passengers who were screaming and panicking while others had no idea what to do, the family coped as best they could.
At that moment, 6-year-old Reave declared, “I’m going to die…I’m going to die” before being told by his parents to remain calm. Suddenly, Becky said, her son’s mentality immediately shifted as he clung to his older brother’s hand.
“I’m going to pray for the whole boat,” Reave said.
Meanwhile, 8-year-old Ace remained calm, helping to put Becky and Matt at ease as they did their best to assess next steps. The family began climbing across rows of benches attempting to make their way to one side of the upper deck in an attempt to keep matters from getting worse. While some passengers jumped into the water below as soon as they could, the Savages were in as good of a spot as they could have been, finding themselves on a side of the boat that had taken on the least amount of water.
As more ferry boats approached to assist with rescuing passengers from the water, the water became even more choppy due to the wake caused by approaching boats. Eventually, everyone — the Savages included — leaped from the boat and into the water, where people’s belongings and clothing were scattered about.
Matt assisted Becky and his sons were getting onto a dingy that would take them safely to the island after the family had been able to cling to the bow of the catamaran until a rescue boat could reach them. Matt was able to get a rope to two elderly women who were struggling to stay afloat in the choppy waters, including a woman who had been confined to a wheelchair and said her legs “didn’t work” and whom Matt was able to help lift into the dock.
Once on the dock themselves, Becky said she took a moment to survey everything around her.
“It’s just surreal when you look into the ocean and there are people everywhere,” Becky Savage told Patch.
“And hats and shoes, passports,” Matt Savage said. “It felt like it was a movie, it looked like it was a movie, but it was very, very real — and happening — and you didn’t think it would.”
At the last minute, the Savages made the decision to keep their belongings with them in their backpacks, which were now waterlogged. Amid the chaos, the Savages said that organizers of the excursion did their best to shield other resort guests from what was happening.
Becky Savage characterizes the 100 ferry passengers as a “lost little herd” that was shuttled from one place to another. Trip organizers kept counting passengers to try to make certain everyone was accounted for. At the time, the local couple said that no one from the excursion company told passengers that the 75-year-old woman later identified as Gayle Jarrett had died after her family told “Inside Edition” that the grandmother who had paid for nine family members to go on the cruise had become separated from the oxygen tank she relied on her survival.
Jarrett’s granddaughter told Inside Edition that the crew brought her grandmother the ferry’s emergency oxygen tank, but that it could not be activated.
“When the captain decided to head over to where my grandma was, that’s when I told my grandma: ‘I love you, grandma, I have to get these kids off. The captain is going to help you,'” Kayla told Inside Edition.”
As time began to pass from the time they entered the water and were rescued, Becky and Matt Savage said that reality began to set in as the adrenaline began to wear off. At that moment, they realized that things could have ended much differently.
Matt Savage said that the fear that the family of four had fought so hard to fend off as the ferry was sinking began to surface. Matt, who says he has begun counseling sessions with a therapist to begin to work through everything he endured, says the aftermath has become the worst part of the entire ordeal.
“You’re with your family and you don’t think you’re going to have to do anything like that,” Matt Savage told Patch. “But it happened.”
Becky Savage agrees.
“I heard a quote, ‘You never move on, you move forward from traumatic things,’” she said. “But it’s always going to be with us.”
Since returning to Illinois on Nov. 15, the Savages have done their best to find some normalcy. Their boys have returned to school and Becky and Matt have resumed their adult responsibilities. But ever since, Becky says that the family has lived with a sense of heaviness she has trouble putting into words.
They have done their best to address the family’s new reality with their two young sons. Becky and Matt said that they have discussed their ordeal with co-workers as a way of working through the reality of what they managed to survive. They have discussed the matter with their sons’ teachers and have asked them to keep an eye on the boys as an added way of trying to help their boys cope. Yet, the process of moving forward remains difficult.
“It’s like you’re trying to get back to normal,” Becky said.
“But,” Matt interjects, “you haven’t processed anything.”
He added: “It’s stuff you can’t release without (professional) help and I personally very much needed that help because it affects you on a daily basis. …It’s the stuff you can’t release because you don’t even know it’s there.”
Since returning home, the couple says they have had almost no communication with either Royal Caribbean Cruises or the excursion company that set up the trip to the private island. Becky says that both companies have attempted to sweep the incident under the rug rather than acknowledging passengers for what they endured.
In a statement, Royal Caribbean Cruises said it was saddened by the death of the Minnesota woman.
“We are saddened to hear that one of our guests passed away following an accident on a shore excursion in Nassau, Bahamas,” the cruise line said in a statement. “Our hearts are with the families involved and our Care Team has been activated to support them during this difficult time.”
Since their return, the Mokena couple said they have joined a private Facebook group made up solely of people who were on the ferry that day. While they have seen much of the media coverage surrounding the tragedy, they said that they have found solace in working through the shared experience with others who were there.
“I think something like this, where you share it with so many people, but then you’re all over the world quickly after, you kind of feel alone,” Becky Savage told Patch. “You have all of these feelings but then you hear from others, and they say, ‘No, we’re struggling’ has been cathartic.”
She added: “I think we’re still in the process of unraveling what exactly happened and how it affected us.”
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