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  • Writer's pictureJoe Capozzi

Miracle at ‘Schwartz Lagoon:’ A lost and found tale about sunken treasure and the bond of friendship

DESPAIR SWEPT OVER STEPHEN Schwartz like the waves in which he'd just been swimming.

Not even 30 minutes after snorkeling in the Intracoastal Waterway behind his Singer Island home, the retired lighting salesman made a horrifying discovery: His wedding ring, the gold band that hugged his finger for the past 51 years, was gone.

Schwartz knew where it went.

Sitting on his back patio, his gaze drifted from the white tan line on his ringless finger to the vast waterway at the end of his yard, stretching to the distant Blue Heron Bridge and, beyond it, Peanut Island, the Palm Beach Inlet and the Atlantic Ocean.

“I almost fainted,’’ he recalled. “I couldn't believe it. It was a scary moment.’’

Stephen Schwartz

There was no point of even trying to hide the news from his wife, Diane: She was sitting right there when her husband realized the precious ring was missing.

“I didn't know what to do,’’ Schwartz, 77, said. “I called the boys.’’

The “boys” are Andy Earl and Carter Viss, longtime friends Schwartz met after he started volunteering at Loggerhead Marinelife Center in Juno Beach eight years ago.

Earl, 36, and Viss, 26, are technicians at Loggerhead, where the three men bonded through a shared love of the ocean and marine life.

Andy Earl

Carter Viss

“For me, having young friends like that is keeping me young,’’ Schwartz said with a laugh. “I became sort of like a father figure to them because their parents live out of town.’’

They go fishing on Schwartz’s boat. And they often snorkel together at Phil Foster Park under the Blue Heron Bridge, known for its colorful array of tropical fish.

One of their favorite places to enter the Intracoastal is north of the bridge, behind Schwartz’s house on the west side of Singer Island, a spot they nicknamed ‘‘Schwartz Lagoon.’’

On Feb. 28, the three men enjoyed another great day of snorkeling. When they finished, Earl and Viss said good-bye and headed home and Schwartz retreated to the back patio to relax with his wife.

Arrow points to general area of "Schwartz Lagoon"

“You know when you have a ring, you touch it all the time? I was doing that and felt something strange. I looked down and there was no ring.’’

Drowning in despair, he dialed Earl and Viss.

“They were still in the car,’’ Schwartz recalled. “Immediately they said, ‘We are coming back. We're going to find that ring for you. When know what it means to you.’’’

Schwartz tried to tell them to not bother, to just keep going home, but the boys wouldn’t listen.

“I told them, ‘You guys are crazy. You’re insane. We were in so much water, and the size of that ring …

“They came back and looked and they didn't find it and I thought that was the end of it.’’

"Schwartz Lagoon" in the Intracoastal Water off Singer Island

IN THE ENSUING DAYS, Schwartz started coming to terms with the likelihood that the ring was history, either carried away in the currents and swept out to sea or embedded in sand somewhere near North Palm Beach.

To his relief, his wife took the news ‘’amazingly well,’’ he said. “She was upset, but she didn't freak out.’’

It was Diane who picked out the ring before they were married in July 1969, two years after Schwartz worked up the nerve to ask her to dance after he first saw her on Long Island, “this hot-looking girl’’ in a red sweater pulling a kite along the beach in Montauk Point.

The ring symbolized not just their marriage but their life. They raised a son while Stephen built a successful lighting sales business before he retired with Diane to Singer Island.

Days after the ring disappeared in the Intracoastal, Diane suggested a backup plan: Wear your father’s wedding ring, which he did the first week in March.

Then, the following Sunday his phone rang.

It was Viss announcing that he’d purchased an underwater metal detector and that he and Earl were on their way to “Schwartz Lagoon’’ to resume their search.

“We are going to find that ring,’ Viss told him. “This is our mission.’’

At first, Schwartz wanted to tell them not to bother. Seven days had gone by, with bad weather and fast-moving currents. The ring was long gone, he told them.

But he relented.

“I did not want to crush their enthusiasm,’’ he said. “They had been through enough with the tragedy that had happened.’’

On Thanksgiving Day 2019, Viss and Earl were snorkeling off Palm Beach when a speeding motorboat failed to see their red diver down flag. The boat ran over Viss, its propellers severing his right arm and badly injuring his three other limbs.

Earl was the first rescuer to reach him; he kept Viss’ head above water until the boat that hit Viss returned to ferry him to a waiting ambulance.

Schwartz and his wife were among the dozens of friends and relatives who kept vigil at Viss’ bedside the first week after the accident, when doctors weren’t sure he’d survive.

After seven surgeries, 68 days in the hospital and countless prayers, Viss recovered. He has returned to work at Loggerhead and has gone snorkeling again.

And on March 7, with Earl following, he purposefully marched across Schwartz’s back yard with his new underwater metal detector.

“Filled with nothing but optimism, we hit the water,’’ Earl recalled.

It was too cold that day for Schwartz. “I took my chair and just sat and watched them,’’ he said.

Earl and Viss in "Schwartz Lagoon"

For about 90 minutes, off and on, the metal detector dinged, each time signaling hope that only fizzled to the sad reality of crushed cans, rusted nails and a corroded pipe.

“We were happy the detector was working, but discouraging thoughts started to creep into both our minds,’’ Earl recalled.

The water was 15 feet deep and the boys kept diving, hoping for a miracle.

“After an hour and a half, I said, ‘Guys! Enough already! I’m freezing out here!’” Schwartz recalled.

They started swimming toward Schwartz and reached a rocky bottom near the ladder to his property where the water is about 2 feet deep.

“Let’s look one more time by this rock pile,’’ they yelled.

Again, the boys pulled up a few more pieces of trash. Schwartz, by now resigned to enduring disappointment, had stopped watching them.

After several old, unidentified metal objects, Carter got one last “hit” on the metal detector.

Buried about three-quarters of the way under the sand, they saw a glittering gold band.

“There it was!’’ Earl said to himself. “We had found it!’’

Earl climbed the ladder and extended his closed hand toward Schwartz. “Stephen, we found it,’’ he said.

Yeah, right, Schwartz thought, assuming Earl was joking.

“Then Carter pops up,'' Schwartz recalled. "I see him smiling like crazy. Andy opened his hand and there was my ring.’’

At first, the boys thought maybe they found someone else’s ring. But after a quick inspection, Schwartz confirmed it was his.

“Oh, my God!” he yelled.

“We went crazy. We were screaming, yelling,’’ he said. “(Neighbors) were coming out because they thought something had happened. There was my ring. And it’s so freaky. I mean, if you are in that amount of water ...

“It's just incomprehensible. It’s just miraculous. You know that saying ‘a needle in a haystack’? This was bigger than that. You didn’t just have the haystack, you had currents and tides.’’

Schwartz, who said he recently lost 10 pounds, thinks maybe the ring was loose and got pulled off by the strap of his snorkel mask.

A few days later, Schwartz said he asked Viss how much he paid for the metal detector.

“What are you talking about?” Viss protested, interrupting Schwartz before he could offer to help pay for it. “I don’t want any money from you. I’m going to use this thing.’’

Schwartz plans to share the experience when giving tours at Loggerhead, “so kids can relate to it as a lesson to never giving up.’’

Stephen Schwartz helps run a kids fishing program at Loggerhead Marinelife Center.

“That's what’s so beautiful about the story, in my mind,’’ he said. “What those two guys went through. They have such grit and determination, especially Carter.’’

The boys also learned a lesson from the experience.

“Miracles happen to everyone,’’ Earl said. “Sometimes you just got to put a little footwork in for them to come full circle.’’

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