Orphaned at sea at just 11 years old, Terry Jo Duperrault's story is not for the faint of heart. In fact, it took over 50 years before she was ready to share her horrific experience publicly. But in bravely doing so with the book "Alone: Orphaned on the Ocean," she's given purpose to all of the pain she's overcome. And Terry Jo Duperrault now wants her unbelievable survival story to be a message of hope to encourage other hurting souls!
Terry Jo's parents, Arthur and Jean Duperrault, always dreamed of taking their 3 kids on a family vacation to remember. So, they saved and planned. And finally, they had enough to charter a private cruise aboard a 60-foot ketch, the Bluebelle.
The family set off for a week-long trip spent sailing around the Bahamas. It was supposed to be the perfect getaway. But rather than a dream come true, the journey turned out to be a horrific nightmare.
A Trip To Remember
In 1961, the Bluebelle set sail with the Duperrault family of five. Nestled between her big brother, Brian (14), and little sister, Rene (7), 11-year-old Terry Jo was the middle child. The Captain’s new wife, Mary Dene (34) also came along.
Little did any of the passengers know, but the Captain was a very troubled man. He'd fallen into serious financial trouble and was using this voyage as an opportunity to execute a wicked scheme.
The plan was to murder his wife in order to collect the insurance money from a policy he'd opened in her name shortly before the trip. It sounds like something from a movie. But tragically, this is a true story. And the Captain's vile actions ultimately left Terry Jo orphaned at sea.
One night, towards the end of the trip, Terry Jo decided to turn in early. But the terrifying screams of her older brother cut her slumber short.
“Help, Daddy! Help!" Terry Jo said he yelled. "And it was the type of scream that you know that something horrible is happening."
Frightened, Terry Jo lay in her bunk, trying to make sense of the screams that had since stopped. After a few minutes, she worked up the courage to go investigate. And what she found changed her life forever.
A Terrible Discovery: Orphaned At Sea
Terry Jo went upstairs to see what had happened. There lay her mother and brother, dead and covered in blood. In shock, she continued searching.
She found the Captain, who was in the middle of opening the sea valves so that the boat would sink. The terrified girl asked what was going on. The Captain shoved Terry Jo violently down the stairs and went back to work.
Frightened, alone, and certain the rest of her family was dead, Terry Jo ran back to her bunk. But with water beginning to fill the cabin, she ultimately went back to the deck.
By now, the Captain was preparing to escape in the small life raft, which he'd lowered into the waters below. When he saw Terry Jo, he asked her to hold the line attached to it while he went to go get something.
Most likely he was going to get a weapon in order to kill her, too. Thankfully, we'll never know for sure because Terry Jo had enough wherewithal to realize she needed to escape. She jumped into the lifeboat and was gone by the time the murderous Captain returned.
The very next day, rescuers saved the Captain. He fed authorities a suspicious story involving a sudden sea squall, a fire, and a broken mast. While the facts didn't quite seem to add up, there was not enough evidence to prove the seemingly sole survivor wrong. Not yet, at least.
Rescue Following Being Orphaned At Sea
Terry Jo drifted at sea in the tiny raft for four days. She had no food or water. But she had something stronger - faith.
“I was never frightened,” she said. “I was an outdoors child, and I loved the water."
Terry Jo then went on to explain what carried her through the horrible ordeal: "I had strong faith. I believed in God and I prayed for him to help me, and I just went with the flow."
On the fourth day, a Greek freighter spotted Terry Jo. They rescued the poor girl who, on top of being orphaned at sea, suffered from severe sunburn, dehydration, and a fever of 105 degrees. But she was alive!
WATCH: Terry Jo Duperrault Now Recalls Becoming Orphaned At Sea
Word of Terry Jo's rescue soon reached the Captain. The desperate man took his own life upon realizing his web of lies was about to crumble like a house of cards.
The shocking story was huge news in 1961, running in every magazine and newspaper you could imagine. But at 11 years old, no one was allowed to talk to Terry Jo Duperrault. As a result, no one ever heard the story from her perspective.
From Survivor To Overcomer
Terry Jo had survived the horrific ordeal. But it took many years before she actually overcame the traumatic event.
Relatives adopted the 11-year-old girl who had been orphaned at sea. She saw psychiatrists, but they just kept focusing on the murder. The thing is, Terry Jo, who now goes by Tere Duperrault Fassbender, never actually witnessed any killing.
“I did see my mother and brother dead with blood. I never saw my father," she explained, "I never saw Mrs. Harvey, and I never saw my sister."
It wasn't until later in life that Tere's continued counseling got to the root of the problem - the loss of her family. And as an adult, she finally made her peace with that terrible day. It brought about a healing that has made her an upbeat and positive influence on all of those who meet her.
And through the telling of that story, Tere found purpose for the terrible pain endured.
“I thought that I was spared for a reason, and the reason would be to help other people," she explained. "I would just hope I could help someone after they read the book to give them inspiration."
Tere witnessed evil at its worst. But through it all, she never lost faith. Against all odds, she overcame. And her incredible story is proof that light will always outshine the darkness!
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