Orphaned at Sea: The Story of The 11-Year-Old Girl Who Survived 4 Days on a Lifeboat

Fatim Hemraj

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The infamous photo of Terry Jo right before her rescue. Photo source.

Arthur Duperrault’s lifelong dream was to spend a year living at sea, travelling from one island to the next. At the age of fourty, the Wisconsin optometrist finally felt it was the right time to make his dreams a reality. To ensure life at sea met his expectations, Arthur decided to embark on a one-week trip with his family as a trial run.

Arthur, his wife Jean and their three young children, Brian, Terry Jo and Rene, boarded a chartered yacht that took them to Fort Lauderdale. Once the Duperrault’s arrived in Florida on Wednesday, November 8, 1961, they rented a sailboat called Bluebelle and continued their trip to the Bahamas.

Julian Harvey, an experienced sailor and former Air Force fighter pilot was hired by Arthur to be the captain of the Bluebelle. Julian’s wife Mary Dene decided to come along on the trip as well. Off the two families went on their exciting voyage.

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The Bluebelle. Photo source.

The trip was complete bliss for Arthur. It was the family adventure he had always wanted and his children were ecstatic to spend a week collecting shells and snorkelling on Sandy Point, a village on Great Abaco Island in the Bahamas. Arthur called the trip a ‘once-in-a-lifetime vacation’ and vowed to return by Christmas. Unbeknownst to them, many of those among the Bluebelle ate their last meal that night.

At 9 am on Sunday morning, 11-year-old Terry Jo was sleeping below the deck in a small cabin at the very back of the ship when she was awoken by the sound of her 14-year-old brother Brian screaming for help. She heard the sound of footsteps stomping above, a thud and then — silence.

The panic-stricken child slowly inched up the stairs, her entire body shivering. When she reached the top she saw the bodies of her parents and brother, laying on the ground in a pool of blood. She tried her very best to avert her gaze — not wanting the image to be burned into her memory forever.

Terry Jo continued walking towards the front of the boat where she saw Mary Dene dead in the cockpit. Suddenly, Julian lunged at the child holding a bloody knife and screamed at her to go back downstairs.

Terry ran downstairs and crawled back into her bed. She lay frozen in fear, unable to move. The ship began to fill with water and soon enough her mattress was completely submerged. “Is the ship sinking?!” she frantically screamed out to Julian who confirmed it was, as it had been his plan all along.

Julian handed Terry Jo the line to the dinghy and screamed at her to hold it. The line slipped through the frightened child’s fingers. The dinghy began floating away. Julian jumped into the water towards it and vanished.

Julian was ‘rescued’ the following day. The body of Terry’s 7-year-old sister Rene lay beside him in the dinghy. Julian told the Coast Guard there had been a fire on the Bluebelle. He had jumped off the ship and later came across an unconscious Rene, who he tried to resuscitate In reality, the seven-year-old child was just another innocent victim of Julian’s.

Suddenly, Terry remembered seeing a small lifeboat hanging in the main cabin. She frantically untied it and only mere seconds before the ship sank underneath her feet, little Terry Jo pushed the float into the open sea and climbed atop it.

Terry spent the next four days at sea without food or water. She was wearing only a thin blouse and pants. Her throat had never felt so dry and the sun began to burn her skin.

On Tuesday night Terry dreamt of her family and of easing her thirst. She began to have hallucinations in which she was swimming frantically towards an island with a lone palm tree — the island vanished and Terry fell into a state of unconsciousness.

By Thursday, Terry was close to death. She had been stuck at sea for four days and she could barely open her eyes. Then, suddenly, she heard voices in the distance shouting and was pulled up off the float by her saviour — Greek freighter Captain Theo. She was taken to a hospital where she spent the next eleven days recovering.

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Terry Jo in the hospital. Photo source.

Terry Jo could not stop smiling. It was miraculous that she had survived for so long — and all alone at that.

While at the hospital, Terry Jo was interviewed by the police. She told them Julian had murdered her entire family and his wife aboard the Bluebelle. The authorities had hoped there were other survivors, but Terry Jo had seen their bodies vanish into the open sea.

Of course, Julian’s story did not align with Terry Jo’s and when investigators dug deeper into the captain’s life, they discovered he had been involved in many suspicious incidents in the past.

Mary Dene was Julian’s sixth wife. His second wife and her mother were killed in a car accident where Julian was the driver. The vehicle flew off a bridge and into a river. Somehow, Julian was able to exit the vehicle before it plummeted, walking away unscathed. He was also involved in two other suspicious boat sinking incidents. Investigators discovered Julian had received large insurance payouts after each mysterious ‘accident.’

The investigators theorized Julian had killed his wife Mary Dene in hopes to collect on her $20,000 life insurance when he was caught by Arthur. In an effort to avoid being caught, Harvey murdered the family but left Terry Jo on the ship as he hastily made his escape, believing she would sink with it and drown.

Once Julian learned Terry Jo had survived and his crimes had been outed, he fled and checked into a Sandman hotel. When a maid entered his room and noticed blood on the bedsheets and a locked bathroom, she immediately informed her manager who called the police.

The authorities forcefully pried open the bathroom door and there they found Julian’s limp body. He had slit his own throat with a double-edged razor.

Unfortunately for Julian, he had underestimated little Terry Jo’s strength and courage. Not only did she survive a terrible tragedy, but she exposed Julian as the cold-hearted mass murderer he was.

Terry Jo, who changed her name to Tere a year later at age twelve, was raised by her aunt after her parents’ murder. Today, she is married with three children.

Fifty years following Tere’s rescue, she was encouraged by a friend to write an autobiography called Alone: Orphaned on the Ocean in which she wrote intimate details of that fateful night in an effort to not only help heal herself from her own trauma but to help others heal, too.

“I always believed I was saved for a reason. If one person heals from a life tragedy [after reading my story], my journey will have been worth it.” — Tere Duperrault Fassbender

Sources: Mental Floss, All That’s Interesting, Vintage Everything, Wikipedia, Reader’s Digest, Find A Grave, History Collection

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Former criminal justice major. TBI survivor. Get my free true crime newsletter: https://fatim.substack.com

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