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Wednesday, June 25, 2008
LIFE OF REILLY


By Rick Reilly

Last Wednesday two men Linda Stone had never met, never seen, but couldn't stop thinking about stepped meekly through her door.

She gave them sodas and snacks. They sat. She sat. She looked at their sun-scorched skin and their blistered lips and wanted to cry. How could she not? After all, her husband traded his life for theirs.

Flashback two weeks earlier:

June 6. The Texas A&M-Galveston Offshore Sail Team is aboard a 38-foot sailboat named the Cynthia Woods, racing in the 700-mile Regata de Amigos, from Galveston to Veracruz, Mexico. It's a quarter to midnight. Three members of the six-man team—53-year-old safety officer Roger Stone, and two students, Steven Guy and Travis Wright—are resting in the sleeping quarters below deck. Suddenly, Guy notices that water is pouring up from below.

Stone has thousands of sailing hours. Been racing boats his whole life. He knows this is awful.

"It's the keel!" he hollers. He runs to the steps to tell those above. "We're taking on water! Crank the engine! Drop the sails!"

Then he whirls around at Guy and Wright, yells "Get out!" and scrambles back to help them.

Now the keel has ripped completely away, opening a huge hole in the bottom of the boat, which fills and flips in 30 seconds. And now the three men are in complete blackness, completely submerged and upside down.

"WE'RE TAKING ON WATER," STONE YELLED. "GET OUT."

In the sheer horror of the moment, Guy and Wright don't remember much, but they remember this: Stone got behind them and pushed them out of the wreckage. First one, then the other, he got them out.

At the surface, five of the sailors found each other. Everybody except Guy had a life jacket, so the four others tried to hold him up in the six-foot swells and the darkness and the terror. And as the boat drifted away from them, they kept hollering, "Roger! Roger!"

Those five drifted 20 miles off the coast for 26 hours, lashing themselves to each other with belts, keeping each other sane and alive with plans and stories and even jokes.

Back in Clear Lake, Texas, meanwhile, Linda Stone, her 14-year-old son and her 12-year-old daughter had been given word about an accident. And they held out hope.

"Roger is Mr. Quick Thinker," Linda says, "I thought, It's Roger. If anybody was going to be safe, it'll be Roger. He'll make everybody safe. I never thought he was going to die … that never, ever, ever crossed my mind."

What she didn't know was that he was already dead, had certainly died in the first minute, had died saving the lives of those two crewmates.

After floating for 26 hours, a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter spied a weak flashlight signal and rescued the bobbing five. All suffered severe sunburn and dehydration. Roger was found hours later, trapped in the boat. "He's gone," the Stones' son, Eric, posted on a sailing website. "He was a hero. He did his job as safety officer. He got those kids off the boat. He's in a better place now."

And that's about the moment Linda Stone realized that the man she married 18 years ago this week—in Veracruz, no less—was never coming home.

"I wish to God he were sitting next to me right now. But if he had saved himself and not those boys, I'd have a body next to me but not a person. He'd be an empty shell of a man. He did the right thing. And that gives me peace."

And that's why she invited the two boys— plus the three other crew members, plus a Texas A&M grief counselor—to her home, to tell them that it was all OK.

But for some reason, she just couldn't make them hear. Eyes wouldn't meet. "They're just 20-year-old boys," she thought. Finally, the counselor put them in a circle. He looked at Steven Guy and said, "I want you to say it: 'I am not responsible for Roger's death.'"

Steven looked at him, puzzled.

"Say it out loud," the counselor said.

"I am not responsible for Roger's death," Steven muttered.

The counselor made all of them repeat it, as a group: "Steven is not responsible for Roger's death," they said.

Then Travis. Then the others. All five said it—and all five heard it back. It was wrenching and cleansing and then it was over.

As they were leaving, Linda thought about saying something like, "You've been given a gift. Make the most of it." But she didn't need to. "They're such good and respectful young men. I know they will go on and live wonderful lives."

They hugged and promised to keep in touch and she closed the door.

But it's the damndest thing. No matter how many times she reads about her husband's death in the paper, and no matter how many sympathy cards she gets, and no matter how often she sees this story on TV, Linda Stone still looks at that same door and expects, any minute, somebody else to walk through.

Roger.

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