Woman meets hero rescuers 35 years after being saved at sea

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A woman who was rescued at sea after her boat capsized, and her entire family perished, finally got to reconnect with the heroes who saved her — 35 years after the tragedy.

Desireé Rodriguez Campuzano was just 9 when a May 1986 fishing excursion with her parents, younger sister and aunt and uncle turned deadly.

They set off in a 28-foot boat off of Catalina Island near Long Beach, Calif., and started to return in the early evening.

Campuzano recalled to the Los Angeles Times that she fell asleep in the boat’s lower deck, but was awakened when her father yelled, “Get out of the boat. The boat’s sinking!”

The family dove into the chilly Pacific Ocean water seconds before the boat capsized leaving the clan stranded.

Campuzano, who was wearing a life jacket, recalled to the newspaper that she watched as her pregnant mother died and the water consumed her 5-year-old sister and her aunt and uncle. Her father, she said, swam away to get help and was never seen again.

Floating in the ocean into the next day and now alone, Campuzano recalled being ready to give up.

“I think at that point, I was just kind of done,” she said.

Meanwhile, two 23-year-olds, Mark Pisano and Paul Strasser, were at the helm of a commercial fishing boat taking passengers out for the day.

Strasser was behind the wheel when he spotted something flash in the water several miles away. He steered the boat toward it and upon arrival saw a body — Campuzano’s mother — floating face down.

They then saw Campuzano bobbing in her life jacket. Pisano jumped in to grab her and, by that time, the Coast Guard had arrived to provide aid.

She was treated at a hospital for exhaustion and hypothermia and a Coast Guard spokesman said at the time that the little girl had “a strong, resilient constitution.”

Campuzano, now 44, was raised by an aunt and uncle and is now the married mother of a 5-year-old boy.

She recalled trying to find her rescuers, even writing to Oprah Winfrey for help.

But the reunion happened in an almost accidental way.

Philip Friedman, a California fishing enthusiast whose travel plans were derailed by the pandemic, decided instead to made a series of podcasts about local fishermen. He interviewed Pisano about the rescue decades earlier.

A podcast listener recalled working with a woman years earlier whose entire family had been killed in a boating accident.

They had the same name —  Desireé Rodriguez.

“I was like, holy moly,” Pablo Peña told the newspaper. “Wow, this is just surreal.”

He immediately wrote to Friedman who contacted Campuzano. They agreed to set up a meeting with Pisano and Strasser. She posed as a translator who was going to tell the rescue story in Spanish.

After about 10 minutes, she revealed she was the little girl they had saved.

“I feel like she’s sort of our daughter, in a way, because we brought her back to life,” Strasser told the paper. “Even though we never knew each other.”

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