Lake Ontario - Zerwas Houseboat Wreck
Recollections of 1973 by Minnie Zerwas Stalker
Found by: Dan Scoville & Chris Koberstein - Summer 2012
Location: Off Oswego, NY
September, 14th 1973 by Minerva Zerwas Stalker
A 32' houseboat, sold by Robert LaShomb of George W. Mercier Inc., was promised to a customer, Miles Perkins of Oswego, New York. Since Mr. LaShomb was too busy to make delivery, he asked Preston to make delivery and return to Clayton in another houseboat, the trade-in vessel. The boat was due on or before 9:00 am on Saturday, September 15, 1973 in Oswego, New York.
In discussing the trip with me, his wife, Preston said he could make the trip Friday or leave very early Saturday morning. In either case, he would not make the trip without U.S. Coast Guard favorable report of Lake Ontario's weather conditions. Since Iwas going to be leaving around 4:00 pm Friday from Clayton, N.Y. to spend the whole day of Saturday, September 15 in Plattsburg, N.Y.,I thought it would be good for him to be home with his sons on Saturday.
Our oldest son, Philip, had just started Kindergarten after Labor Day. Preston had previously taken Philip along while making boat deliveries, but since Philip would have been in school when Preston left, he contemplated taking our second oldest son, Gregory. However, Preston had decided not to take Greg because he did not know the condition of the return trade-in vessel.
Preston was home for lunch. When he left about 1:30 pm, we had a good hug, kiss and exchanged “I love yous.” I remember calling out to him as he got into the truck, “Don't forget your life jacket!” The plan was that I was going on an overnight trip to Plattsburg, N.Y. for a religious education conference with fellow teacher and friend Jean Heady. Jean and I were going to leave Clayton as soon as her daughter was out of school, as her daughter would baby-sit our boys until Preston returned from delivering the boatlater that night.
I later learned that upon his arrival at Mercier's Marina, several interruptions delayed his departure from Clayton. He went up the St. Lawrence River and refueled at Cape Vincent, New York before embarking upon Lake Ontario. It seems that Mr. Balcom, of Anchor Marina, Cape Vincent, discouraged Preston from continuing the trip because it was already 5:45 pm. Preston insisted on continuing probably because most of the trip could be completed before dark and he'd have the lights of Oswego in sight by dark. He also probably insisted on going because Lake Ontario's condition was reported good, and he had made the trip before.
I had left a jar of fresh tuna salad in the refrigerator so that Preston could have sandwiches when he returned home.
Jean and I stayed overnight at a convent in Plattsburg. We attended talks and viewed displays the next day, Saturday. We returned early Saturday evening to my home. The house was quiet. The full jar of tuna salad was still in the refrigerator. Then we found a note on the door from Jean's husband, Dr. Heady, indicating their daughter and the boys were at the Heady home.
When Jean and I arrived at their home, Doc told us that Preston had not arrived at Oswego. They assured me that he had probably had engine trouble or had run out of fuel. Doc said that there were many people searching for Preston and that he would be found.
Sunday: no Preston. They continued to search. I began to get fearful.
The Discovery Team
Dan Scoville is an experienced cave and technical diver. In 2005, Dan led the development of an underwater remote operated vehicle (ROV) with a team of college seniors from the Rochester Institute of Technology. He is currently a project manager and electrical engineer for Oceaneering International in Houston, TX
Chris Koberstein is an experienced cave, technical and rebreather diver. Chris uses sophisticated rebreather diving equipment to explore depths to over 300 feet. Chris works as an aviation maintenance technician with Air Canada.
Dan Scoville - cell 1-832-423-6318
Chris Koberstein – home 1-450-458-3590 cell 1-514-236-0824
On Monday afternoon, I talked to Audrey LaShomb, whose husband was participating in the search; I could tell by her voice that it didn't look good. I spent some quiet moments with myself, and then I knew that I had to call my parents. I believe the very next day my parents took a flight from St. Louis to Syracuse and probably rented a car to drive to Clayton. They were here for me! They were most likely the ones to contact Preston's family, other relatives, and friends. My mother and I pulled out a large white candle that was a wedding gift, and we began to burn it for a vigil.
The U.S. and Canadian Coast Guards continued to search for the next several days. They would send helicopters over our home to let us know that they were out there searching. To this day, I think of the search whenever I hear the sound of a helicopter.
I remember that some people who knew Preston took me up in their private plane so that I could get an idea of what could be seen from the air. It also gave me an idea of enormity of Lake Ontario. I felt like we were flying over an ocean.
Soon after my parents arrived, other family members began to arrive. I was surrounded by a loving supportive family. My oldest brother,Tom, drove a car from Illinois so that my parents would have a car to use. Preston's oldest brother David and his wife Twyla, arrived from Brazil. Preston's mother and father came from Joliet. Illinois.It made a difference having family there with me and the children. I remember watching the Billie Jean King-Bobby Riggs Battle of the Sexes tennis match with all of them.
After over a week, the official Coast Guard search was called off. There was a memorial Mass at St. Mary's, in Clayton, on Saturday evening, September 22 1973. Soon afterward, family members began to return to their homes. My parents stayed. My brother left the car for them and flew back home.
Then, the investigation began. The sheriff's office and the Social Security
Administration had to do a thorough investigation as to whether Preston would have wanted to purposely disappear. Neighbors, townspeople, business associates, etc. were questioned about Preston's integrity, our finances and the stability of our marriage. This was probably the most difficult part of the ordeal, as, on top of all of that I was dealing with the loss of the love of my life and the father of my three precious children who adored him.
My parents were so helpful. Mom helped out so much with the boys. She kept a log of all of the telephone calls and of the dishes that would come in from friends. She helped with the laundry and cooking. She made me eat so that I could keep up my health. Dad helped me with all of the visits to the Social Security office in Watertown and other legal issues.
They stayed for two months in case there were any further developments in the case. Scott, our youngest, and Greg celebrated their third and fourth birthdays. The six of us took a trip to Vermont to visit good friends who had moved from Clayton two months previously because of a tragedy in their family. Then, a few days before Thanksgiving, a neighbor drove the three boys and me to Syracuse to board a flight to St. Louis via Chicago. Mom and Dad drove back. There was a storm over Chicago and we flew around in circles and encountered very turbulent conditions. One of the boys threw up. We were delayed getting into O'Hare and missed our connection. I had to scramble around the airport with my three little boys to find another flight to St. Louis. Finally, we arrived in St. Louis about 3:00 am, whereas we were supposed to arrive around 9:00 pm.
In about five months we began receiving Social Security benefits, and Preston's life insurance representative arranged for the life insurance benefits to be put into an irrevocable trust account so that we would be able to receive interest on the principal.
We then started a new chapter of our lives with much love and support from family and friends.