The New York Maritime College community is grieving over the loss of Captain Philip Thomas and his three children who were all lost at sea when the storm surge from Hurricane Dorian ripped through Grand Bahama Island a week and a half ago.
“Our community shares a profound sense of sorrow in the death of Captain Philip Thomas ‘08″ said Rear Admiral Mike Alfultis, president of the college. “His friendly and approachable nature impacted all who knew him.”
This is the second alumnus the small college lost to a hurricane in the last five years. In 2015 Hurricane Joaquin sank the ill-fated containership El Faro and took her chief engineer Richard Pusatere class of 2003.
“It’s a tough loss,” said Chief Engineer Erik Barton, an alumnus of the college. “When you graduate less than 100 cadets a year let’s just say it’s a small community that is very tight.”
Captain Thomas grew up in the small East End settlement of McLean’s town on Grand Bahama Island, where the sea is a way of life for a young boy. He was a fisherman’s son who was taught to provide for his family by way of the sea. Early on, Thomas apprenticed to his father, picking up boat handling, diving, and ultimately the finite art of bone fishing.
“They’re extremely elusive fish and very hard to catch,” classmate Matthew Arnold told NPR. “Philip was an expert bonefishing guide. His father had a company, raised him and taught him the ways of the sea.”
Philip Senior succeeded in passing on the time-honored family tradition of bone fishing to his son, managing their company well together. But Captain Thomas wanted more. He had ambition. At just 16 years of age, Thomas graduated high school and gained admission to New York Maritime College. His family helped him pack his bags in 2004 and put him on a flight to New York City.
At college, Thomas worked hard and gained the respect of his peers and professors. “I certainly remember Philip,” said Anthony Palmiotti, then head of the school’s Marine Transportation department. “Maritime has had many bright students from the Bahamas, Philip was one of the brightest. I remember an intelligent, focused, extremely respectful young man who knew exactly where he was headed.”
After graduating Captain Thomas returned to the Bahamas to seize his goal of piloting large ships. That same summer he was hired by the Freeport Harbour Pilots and became the youngest pilot they ever trained. He met his wife Barri that year and looked forward to building both a career and a family.
Thomas loved being a Freeport Harbour Pilot but his deep-seated ambition drove him to reach further. “He wanted to start an independent pilot organization which would be recognized internationaly.” said Captain Bill Bartsch, founder of the private SUNY Maritime Alumni group Fort Schuyler Shipmates. “This bold move empowered the Bahamian people and allowed Bahamian pilots the freedom to work independently.” With the help of his cofounding pilots the Bahamas Maritime Pilots Association was launched in 2014.
Details on what happened to Captain Thomas on the night of the storm are still emerging, but it is clear that he died trying to save his family.
According to his classate Matthew Arnold, “Philip fought to rescue his family, but only succeeded in saving his wife Barri, before heading into the sea after his children. His last action in life was ensuring Barri survived.”
After Thomas and his three children – Mateo, Tidal, and Remielle – were lost, Barri was rescued by a Bahamian Defense Force helicopter crew. She was taken to a hospital in Nassau and was subsequently evacuated to a hospital in the United States.
Cadet Philip Thomas (Second from left) with his classmates aboard the NY Maritime College Training Ship Empire State.
“Barri remains devastated by the loss.” says Arnold. “I reached out to her cousin two nights ago for an update and to my surprise, Barri responded! She called me and said she had just been released from the hospital in Nassau.” Arnold went on to say, “It was the most emotional call I’ve ever had. She said to me ‘l lost all 3 of my babies! I know you loved my husband. My heart is broken!’ That’s all I could make out. She’s crushed.” Before the call ended, Arnold was able to tell her ‘We are going to do everything we can to support you. Please stay strong!’.
In cooperation with the Fort Schuyler Shipmates alumni group, Thomas’ classmates and fellow alumni put together a Gofund page for Barri that has raised over $55,000 in three days and has been featured by NPR and Action News Jacksonville. “BE ADVISED,” wrote Arnold. “EVERY DOLLAR RAISED IN THIS CAMPAIGN WILL GO DIRECTLY TO CAPTAIN THOMAS’ WIFE, BARRI THOMAS.”