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Truth in man's death is black and white

Commentary: Truth in man's death is black and white
By Emily J. Minor, Palm Beach Post Columnist
Saturday, November 19, 2005

Usually, when I tell someone's story, there's no need to mention race.

Usually, a story's a story.

But not today.

Because what happened to Rogers Washington happened to him because he is black.

There's no other explanation.

Washington is 49, a South Florida native who was born in Fort Pierce and moved to Pompano Beach when he was a boy. He is the third of four children, raised for years by a single mother. He and I are about the same age, both born in 1956 and both coming of age, so to speak, in the '70s.

Our lives, though, couldn't have been more different, and no one understands this more than Washington.

Two weeks ago this coming Tuesday, Washington and his close friend, Robert Moore, 62, went out fishing. Washington has worked for many years as a commercial fisherman on his own boat, a 22-foot Cobia. Indeed, the two men were perhaps more comfortable on the water than on land. But that day, in the ocean offshore from Boca Raton, the two Broward County men were very unlucky.

A wave swamped the boat, eventually sinking the 22-footer, sending Washington and his friend into the ocean.

They initially regrouped quickly. Washington blew a metal whistle, the kind they tell you to keep on board for this very reason. Moore blew the foghorn. And they had a white plastic cooler lid that floated.

Plus, there was a boat about a quarter of a mile away.

"They were fishing for dolphin, same as us," Washington said.

The boat, he said, began to troll closer.

"I knew I was going to be saved because this boat was coming right toward me," he said. "I was blowing my horn."

The situation worsened considerably about then. Moore, 62, began to foam around the edges of the mouth, so Washington held him and did CPR.

Washington says there was a shark nearby, and Moore either had "a heart attack or a stroke or a panic attack."

He says he told his friend to hang in there, that boat was going to save them.

"Then I administered CPR for the last time to my friend, and that boat just went right past me," Washington said.

Rogers Washington is quite positive the white boaters would have picked them up if they hadn't been black.

"No doubt at all in my mind," he said. "What them people did was prejudice."

Since this is sickening, I quizzed him, relentlessly.

Isn't it possible they didn't see him? Maybe they didn't hear the distress calls?

A quarter of a mile's a long way, I insist.

"They were waving at me, ma'am," he said. "They were waving at me. They were probably only 300 feet away.

"I'm quite sure they heard the horn," he said Thursday.

Washington said that several days before this happened, the bodies of two Haitians had been found in nearby water.

"I'm a black male, ma'am," he said. "They thought I was a Haitian immigrant."

After the first boat passed, Washington's friend died. Washington said he let him go so he could swim toward shore. "I know he was deceased. I held him for 45 minutes."

It was hard to decipher the time out there, something I can only imagine.

"I was swimming as hard as I could toward shore," he says. And another boat, a 40-foot sailboat, came onto the horizon, eventually moving so close that Washington could see a white couple on board.

"The guy didn't have no shirt on and was waving at me," he said. "What they did was inhumane. I seen this with my own eyes. I ain't going to lie about nothing."

They, too, he says, kept going.

A third boat eventually stopped and brought Washington to shore. Both men on board were white.

"Those two guys are the best," he said. "God sent me those two guys. Those two guys are angels."

They're doing an autopsy on Moore, so there's no official word whether he died of a heart attack.

The news clipping about Rogers Washington and his friend, Robert Moore, sat on my desk for a good week. I'd pick it up each day, read it, get myself riled up.

I rationalized. There had to be some other reason those boaters didn't stop.

I repressed. Hmm. Maybe I could write another hurricane column.

But in the end, there it was, staring at me.

The awful truth.

Those white boaters didn't pick up this man because he is black.

There's no other explanation.

"Ma'am," he says. "They know who they are. God knows.

"They left a person out there to die."

On Friday, Washington buried his best friend, Robert Moore.

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