BY KEVIN LOLLAR • [email protected]
A group of modern-day explorers is preparing to search the Gulf of Mexico for underwater wreck sites of historical value – they also hope to have a documentary about their 2008 adventures ready by the end of the year.
Last year, Tim Wicburg, Brian Ulman, Tom O’Brien and Jon “Hammerhead” Hazelbaker TBT&J (which stands for Tim, Brian, Tom and Jon) launched an expedition to find a pile of gold bullion.
They ended up solving a 66-year-old mystery and created Underwater Historical Explorations to continue their work.
TBT&J’s journey actually began Nov. 16, 1942, when a B-26 Marauder flying a training mission out of Fort Myers Army Airbase (now known as Page Field) crashed 30 miles south of the Sanibel Lighthouse.
Search teams recovered the bodies of the pilot and co-pilot; the other four crew members were never found.
Forty-eight years later, fishing guide Wicburg discovered the aircraft’s wreckage in 70 feet of water and was convinced it was a legendary treasure plane.
According to the stories, on Jan. 1, 1959, as Fidel Castro was taking over Cuba, Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista loaded billions of dollars in gold onto four B-26s, which took off for Tampa.
Only three got there, and Wicburg figured his wreck was the fourth Batista plane.
Wicburg persuaded O’Brien, who owns a security business in Chicago, that the tales were true, and along with commercial diving consultant Hazelbaker of Fort Myers Beach and fabricator Ulman of Chicago, they formed TBT&J.
Last summer, a team of 13 divers on seven boats spent a week scouring the wreck site. They found no gold but did find the aircraft’s radio call number, which identified the plane as the B-26 that had crashed in November 1942.
Pat Clyne of Paradigm Productions was on board to make a documentary of the search.
TBT&J obtained the official accident report, which stated “Pilot charged with crash,” and set out to determine why the aircraft went down.
Next step was to enlist Delta pilot and air-crash expert Kevin McGregor, who dove the site in September.
A few days later, TBT&J raised the Marauder’s right propeller, and, after examination by Aviation Propellers of Opa-Locka, McGregor determined that the crash was caused by a catastrophic failure of the right propeller.
Having made an interesting historical discovery, the TBT&J members decided to form Underwater Historical Explorations, an organization specializing in historical wrecks.
As the investigation of the B-26 continues, UHE is putting together a research team to coordinate the search for three new sites in the Gulf; UHE is also looking for financing for the documentary, which Clyne expects to finish sometime this year, and the Southwest Florida Museum of History is putting together an exhibit about the B-26, which will include the right prop and other artifacts salvaged from the wreck.