It was the vacation of a lifetime for Arthur and Jean Duperrault and their three kids, a week of fun in the sun on a chartered yacht in the Bahamas. But it was a voyage only one of them would survive, the others killed by the boat’s captain in a bloody spree.
Terry Jo Duperrault was the middle child, an 11-year-old girl sandwiched between older brother Brian, 14, and her little sister, Rene, 7. She was also the survivor.
The story was huge news when it happened in 1961. Now, 49 years later, Tere Duperrault Fassbender is finally telling her story in a book, “Alone: Orphaned on the Ocean.”
“I thought that I was spared for a reason, and the reason would be to help other people,” Fassbender told TODAY’s Matt Lauer Thursday in New York. “I would just hope I could help someone after they read the book to give them inspiration.”
Voyage of horror
Her story remains as extraordinary today as it was when it happened in 1961. Arthur Duperrault was a well-to-do optometrist from Green Bay, Wis., who took his family on a cruise on a 60-foot ketch, Bluebelle, captained by a genuine war hero, ex-Air Force pilot Julian Harvey. The 44-year-old captain’s new wife, Mary Dene, 34, was also on the trip.
Late in the cruise, the idyllic trip turned into a nightmare. Harvey, who had serious financial problems, killed his wife, on whom he had just taken out an insurance policy. Fassbender theorizes he meant to dispose of the body later and claim she was lost at sea. But Mary Dene put up a fight, attracting the attention of other passengers.
Harvey apparently killed Fassbender’s father below decks, and killed her mother and brother in the boat’s cockpit. Fassbender had been in her own cabin.
“Later I heard screaming and stamping and I woke up and it went away, and I went upstairs to see what it was and I saw my mother and my brother laying on the floor and there was blood all over. I went up to the captain and he shoved me down,” Fassbender wrote with her co-author, Richard D. Logan.
She never saw her father, sister or Mary Harvey, but she went back below while Harvey, who had opened the sea valves on the boat so he could scuttle it, prepared to make his escape in the Bluebelle’s dinghy.
With the water climbing in her cabin, Fassbender came back on deck. Harvey gave her a line attached to the dinghy, which was in the water, and told her to hold it while he went to get something.
Logan is convinced Harvey was going to get a weapon to kill the brilliantly pretty girl with the sun-bleached hair.
“When he saw her on deck, he realized, ‘Oh, my God, there’s a possibility that she might survive. I better kill her.’ So he went forward to get a knife or something to kill her,” Logan told Lauer. “But she did not hold onto the line.”
Harvey was rescued the next morning and told a wild tale of a sudden squall, a broken mast, a fire and a boat that finally sank with everyone aboard except himself and the dead girl with him.
The story raised suspicions, but there was no evidence to prove it wrong.
Until four days after the sinking.
It turned out that Terry Jo Duperrault, a tomboy who loved playing Tarzan in the woods and loved the water, was tougher and more resourceful than Harvey gave her credit for.
Fassbender rode the little float for three days, suffering from hypothermia at night and the broiling sun during the day. She had no food or water and was so weak she could barely sit up.
Although she was hallucinating, Fassbender never thought she would die.
“I was never frightened. I was an outdoors child, and I loved the water,” she told Lauer. “I had strong faith. I believed in God and I prayed for him to help me, and I just went with the flow.”
A rescue and a suicide
Midway through the fourth day, a Greek freighter spotted her. She collapsed when brought on deck and lost consciousness after managing to tell the captain who she was. She was rushed to a Miami hospital, where she was treated for dehydration and severe sunburn. She was running a fever of 105.
A Greek sailor took a picture of her in her little float waving from the immensity of the ocean’s surface. It ran in all the magazines and newspapers and made Fassbender famous.
The fame soon ran out and she was adopted by relatives. But she got no help in dealing with her trauma.
“Everybody was told not to speak to me about it, so I never was able to talk about it,” Fassbender said. “It was always in my mind. I did see a psychiatrist, but he didn’t really get to the meat of what was my problem, and that was the loss of my family.”
“I didn’t witness any killing,” she said. “I did see my mother and brother dead with blood. I never saw my father, I never saw Mrs. Harvey, and I never saw my sister.”
Fassbender would go through four marriages, but she’s remarkably upbeat and optimistic about life. After undergoing more therapy later in life, she’s at peace with herself.
Said Logan: “This lady right here turned out to be a lady of great substance.”