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Erik sinking: Two survivors give their story

Life jackets for crew, but not passengers who said tragedy could have been avoided.



BY PAT McDONELL

WON Staff Writer

 

SAN FELIPE, Baja California Norte -- I have never heard such a story before,
nor do I hope to ever heard one like it again, as two survivors of the sportfisher
Erik's sinking 60 miles south of San Felipe on Sunday providing gripping details
of the July 3 ordeal and tragedy for 44 anglers and crewmen
60 miles south of San Felipe.


It is a spellbinding story of survival and unnecessary death and,
from where some of the survivors sit, gross negligence on the part
of the captain and crew.


The worst of all the mistakes was that there were not enough life
jackets, just enough for 17 crew members. The only jackets
available as the boat was sinking were three or four personal
inflatable vests brought by passengers for use on the pangas. If
there were more available boat life vests aboard, it mattered
little, as they were not given out by the crew, although all 17
crewmen ended up wearing them, two passengers said.


Here are the bullet points of what I learned on Friday evening after
the surviving anglers returned home to northern California. They are
followed by a condensed interview of survivors and Novato, CA
residents Gary Hanson and WON subscriber Jerry Garcia. Others were
contacted by WON, but could not be reached.


Highlights of the interviews:


-- There were only 17 life vests available in the melee in which
three large waves in 90 mph winds sunk the boat in a matter of five
minutes. Only the crew had the Erik's life jackets on. One
fisherman told the rest of his group later that a crewman in the
minutes before sinking said there were no more life jackets
available. All 17 crewmen survived. One of the 27 fishermen died
during the swim to shore, and seven more are still missing.


-- The captain, in complete defiance of common sense, said one
angler, Jerry Garcia of Novato, ran the boat away from the large
waves, not directly into them, in a middle of a storm that began at
11:30 p.m. and continued until five minutes after the Erik sank. The
result was that at the crescendo of the storm's power at about 2:30
a.m., in 25 to 30-foot seas, three huge waves in 30-foot seas
pounded the exposed port side, filled the stern and the 10 pangas
stacked and tied to the stern with water.


-- As the boat was sinking, anglers told, WON, the captain froze,
failed to sound any general alarm and only Americans who were on
deck and aware of the flooding of the stern rushed to warn their
fellow anglers, many of whom were in their cabins at 2:30 a.m. (At
least one of the crew, a cook’s assistant, insisted in an AP
interview that they did warn many fishermen in their staterooms).
The captain also did not, even after being asked in the wheelhouse
by an American if he had done so, send an SOS or mayday to the
Mexican Coast Guard. No flares were sent up. There was no EPIRB on
the boat. No flares were shot. Two fishermen spent the night in a
panga that had broken free from the sinking Erik, with the pair
later joined by 11 more at daybreak. The rest of the crew and
fishermen were in the water not only through the night but during
the day for 12 to 14 hours before being rescued, or reaching the
shore three miles away.


The result is that one fisherman, Leslie Yee lost his life in the
long swim to shore with others, and seven others are missing. The
search was reported to have been called off, but Mexican authorities
continued their search beyond the normal four days for search and
rescue missions. Still, their families hold out hope. At the very
least they await a dive team from either the U.S. or Mexico to dive
on the Erik that is reported to be in 300 feet of water,


The ones who survived, many of whom who live in Northern California,
are home now after the ordeal and media circus that produced stories
that provided tales of survival and tragedy. Many are outraged and
insisted that no one needed to die if basic common sense and basic
maritime safety rules of the sea and training were adhered to.


Interviewed by WON were survivors Gary Hanson and Jerry Garcia, both
of Novato, as were many of the anglers by other media after the ill-
fated 6-day annual Fourth of July trip for 27 anglers.


Hanson, is a retired highway patrolman who served more than 30 years
in the San Francisco area. He retired 10 years ago. He and his wife
of 22 years Patty have two sons and 1 daughter. An avid fishermen
out of Bodega Bay, it was his second trip on the Erik.


“I fished last year in May with the same guys, and again we booked
it with Don Lee,” said Hanson said of the chartmaster who is among
the missing. “I drove down with Russ Bautista, Dennis Deluca and
Jim Miller. We all fish together out of Bodega Bay and Russ was the
main man, the leader in our group in all things, really.


That Bautista is among the missing is hard to swallow. “You
couldn’t get on his boat without putting on one of those personal
flotation vests when you got on his boat, and I’m the same way. It
was safety first with him.”


Hanson said the trip was typical at the start. They drove down
together from Northern California as a group and like most of the 26
anglers, spent the night at the El Capitan Hotel in San Felipe. The
next morning after breakfast they loaded all the gear into Russ’
pickup and drove to the dock, but the tide was too low. San Felipe
tides typically fluctuate 12 feet. The Erik was sitting in the
harbor too far below the dock to load gear, so they returned at 1:20
and a higher tide.


The departure was delayed as a result of the tide, but Hanson said
the group soon eagerly settled into a routine, enjoyed a crew-
prepared lunch and relaxed on the top deck. They soon received
stateroom assignments and unpacked, and began to set up tackle
The boat untied at 2 p.m. and headed south to the Midriff, a group
of islands off L.A. Bay known for yellowtail fishing from bare-bones
20-foot pangas that were typically stacked right side up on the
stern as they always are for travel on Baja motherships for decades.
There were 10 of the pangas, five to a side, stripped down for
stacking and travel.


The trip was delayed, though.


“We got 20 feet from the dock but the federales arrived and
demanded the boat return to the dock, so we made a big circle and we
assumed it was all about our paperwork, but no one ever asked for
our licenses or passports that were required. The man with the
clipboard went straight to the wheelhouse and the captain, and 20
minutes later he left. The rumor we heard then was that there was a
storm, and the captain had been warned, but that was all it was, a
rumor. And that the captain had told the official he’d been through
storms before. It also seemed he was upset, and the word was that he
told the federal official he was already behind schedule and didn’t
to wait. Again, it was all rumor.”


That rumor was never substantiated by officials.


Hanson said the afternoon and evening hours were relaxing and
uneventful as the Erik moved slowly down the coast at 8 knots and
business was as usual as they used the time to get out reels and
put them on rods. The 20-foot pangas were all off the stern,
stacked, and were uncovered. Hanson said they were cushioned by
plastic dock bumpers or floats. All normal, Hanson remembers now,
but those typically uncovered pangas and float cushions likely
contributed to the sinking, anglers on the Erik contend.


“The water was like a mirror and at 10 o’clock we were going to
bed,” he said. Some rooms topside were accessible on the the port
side. He was not sure about rooms or heads on the starboard side.
There was also one stateroom for six people accessible through the
bridge. Several fishermen were bunked in the below-decks
staterooms. The hatch access on the stern had two entries. One was
for staterooms for crew and customers, the other side of the hatch
entry led down to the engine room, said Hanson.


Three of the seven listed as missing were assigned to the port
staterooms, recalled Garcia, including the chartermaster Don Lee. At
least two of the missing men were assigned to the below-deck
staterooms. The stern, Hanson said, went down quickly, and the ship
rolled onto its port side. “If they were in there, I don’t think
they made it out. But I just don’t know. ”


The upper stateroom held Russ Bautista, Pius “Pete” Zuger, Dennis
Deluca, Jim Miller and Gary Hanson. “Everyone made it out,
including Russell (Bautista) and one of our group saw him out of
the stateroom putting his arm through his flotation vest he always
had. That was the last anyone saw him, though.”


At 11 o’clock as anglers slept as they headed south toward the
Enchanted Islands, three miles from shore, the calm conditions
changed abruptly. The wind picked as did the seas. It was a quick
change, typical of chubascos in the Sea of Cortez that are often
deadly for their short-lived violence.


“We continued to go through the weather and we were getting
hammered, with 20- to 25-foot waves, I’ve been through rough water
and we had some last year on the trip, but this was substantial and
I had an upset stomach. I had just got back to bed, and we took a
big hit and the boat was listing badly and was not coming back.”
That was at around 2:30 a.m.


He added, “Jim Miller had run up and told us the Erik was sinking
and we all got out of the stateroom. We went out of the pilothouse
and looked back and 40 feet of the stern of the ship was underwater
and the pangas were all full of water.”


Hanson said Miller and Jerry Garcia had been watching in chairs at
the stern and saw three big waves crash into the port side of the
boat. Until the big waves, the Erik was self-bailing. But the bigger
waves created bigger problems. They filled the 10 pangas with water,
and they dislodged the cushions, and it is Garcia’s opinion the self-
bailing properties of the ship disappeared when the cushions floated
away from the shifting pangas and plugged the stern scuppers. But
Garcia also said the big waves never should have slammed the port
side and stern in the first place.


Said Garcia, “We were taking waves over the port side and the
captain should have had the boat right into the wind and waves,
directly into them. We would have been taking hits, but we’d have
been okay. But he left the boat open to the big waves. At its worst
it was like 90 mph, hurricane winds. Garcia said at first the stern
did drain, but the big waves lifted up the two stacks of pangas. The
floats under them plugged the holes (scuppers) and this time the
stern deck didn’t drain.”


The ship was going down. The pangas were filled, the stern awash.
And there were reports, not verified, that the fish hold hatch at
the stern near the stacked pangas flipped open and seawater filled
it, further weighing down the Erik. Garcia said he yelled at a
crewman to warn others. Miller had run for the wheelhouse to warn
others.


Garcia saw what other American fishermen also saw that seemed out
of place on the high seas. The entire crew was above deck and were
wearing new boat personal flotation devices (PFDs), but were not
warning customers, nor were they handing out any PFDs.


“They didn’t seem too concerned about us, they were worried about
themselves. There was no warning to others.,” said Garcia.


As with all accounts of accidents, there were disputes. The
Associated Press reported that Alejandro Bermudez, 32, an assistant
cook on the boat, said the crew did assist passengers.


"The first thing we did was to open the tourists' cabins and shout
that they needed to get out," Bermudez said to the AP. "We helped
some of them put their life vests on; others already had them on
because they were woken up when the boat got on its side." One other
angler, Charles Gibson, said in a TV interview when he arrived home,
some crew members did attempt to assist.


Nevertheless, the steel-hulled 105-foot boat was going under and was
severely listing to port and was sinking stern-down. Garcia is in
his late 60’s but he was able to get to his nearby storage cooler
and grabbed his own personal inflatable vest. A wave hit him and the
vest inflated with the moisture, making it harder to put on. He was
being helped into it by two men, Richard “Fish Rich” Ciabattari and
Mike Kui Min Ng. He had one arm through it and clipped incorrectly
when a wave vaulted him into the ocean seconds before the ship sank.


Minutes earlier, Hanson said he was in his vest and underwear after
the warning by Jim Miller. He was in the wheelhouse and saw the
captain. At the time he was the only crewman he saw not wearing a
boat life vest. The captain was trying to go to full starboard to
stop the listing.


“I don’t even know if the engines were running. The captain, he was
at the bridge, just standing there at the wheel. I asked him
directly, “Did you call the coast guard?’ I know he speaks perfect
English. And he said nothing. He was just bug-eyed.


“The guys were all up and around by this time. The crew had life
vests but there were none for us. I had my PFD in the bunkroom so I
had put it on. I was on the port side and water had come up another
10 feet up the stern. I saw a big cooler and dumped it out and
threw it over and jumped in after it and swam as far from the ship
as could.”


The ship, said Hanson, swung over completely, the third level metal
pipe framed awning slamming the water just feet from him, hitting
the cooler he was hanging onto.


“I started swimming away from the ship. I pulled the cartridge
line and it went off … and then the ass end of the boat went down,
and about 60 percent of the stern was down. I could see little
lights on the boat itself. Like, people were trying to do something.
Jim (Miller) was up there trying to cut the red rafts loose
because they were tied down,” said Hanson. One of the rafts was cut
loose and used later by survivors.


Within seconds, the Erik stood straight up, and went straight down,
taking down anything nearby in the suction, including Garcia who
had been vaulted off the boat earlier with his misaligned, inflated
personal vest on. He was sucked down, deep.


“I was down to my last breathe he told WON. “That life vest is what
saved me. It shot me up two feet into the air and I took my first
breathe.” How far down was he sucked by the sinking boat? “”I have
no idea. I don’t even want to think about it.”


All told, said Hanson, the boat took five minutes to sink after the
third wave hit, the pangas filled and Miller ran to the wheelhouse
stateroom. There were no crew warnings, said Hanson and Garcia.
Only crew were issued boat PFDs, said Hanson and Garcia.


Debris was all over the water, including a slick of fuel that burned
the skin of some, although fortunately much of what floated were
the 30 to 40 coolers that are traditionally brought on such Midriff
trips by crew and anglers.


“All the coolers, plus the water was 85 degrees. That’s what saved
us,” said Hanson.


The ordeal was just beginning as they grouped up, clinging to
coolers, the raft and one of the pangas in the pitch black night.


“I was horrified,” said Hanson, “This was just surreal. I kept
asking myself if this was really happening. It felt like a dream. I
heard people yelling. I saw couple of little flashlights moving
around. Everyone saw coolers floating around and grabbed them, and
one of the pangas was overturned. Two guys were hanging onto it.”


Those two men were Pius Pete Zuger and Joe Beeler. Zuger reported to
the Associated Press that the panga was heavily loaded with water.
Zuger said they clambered aboard and bailed out the 20-foot
boat, which had no engine. At daylight, when people could locate
the panga, more were brought aboard. The panga, when found near a
remote island, eventually held 13 of the group.


Hanson said most of his group were without PFDs and clung to coolers
all night. The 17 crewman and 20 fishermen were in various groups,
kicking for he shore a remote island three miles away.. Hanson’s
group consisted of Dennis Deluuca, Charles Gibson, Glenn Wong,
Warren Warren Tsurumoto and two crewmen.


Various stories emerged from the ordeal in the water. At night the
groups were bigger. At daylight they split up depending on who could
team up with better swimmers to reach shore and get help, or they
reached the panga containing Zuger and Beeler.


“After four hours in the water,” said Hanson, “I fully expected that
someone who come, that someone had called for help. Ten hours later
in the water I knew nothing had been sent. There had been no
communication from the bridge to the crew, No flares, no call for
help, no EPIRB, there was nothing, Absolutely nothing.”


The Associated Press reported from San Felipe that the captain and
crew later said they had no time to send an SOS because the boat
sank so quickly. Mexican officials said an investigation will be
completed in 10 days.


What was ironic was that the seas and wind quickly diminished and 15
minutes later after the sinking, the water was again, like a mirror.


Hanson and Deluca kicked together for shore, as did others. The
group of 13 in the panga used cooler lids for paddles and reached
land first, and Zuger and Beeler walked to a home a mile away
owned by a family from Chula Vista. They were given food and
clothing and the authorities were called. A helicopter soon arrived
and the search and rescue was on.


For those in the water, trying to swim to shore, the ordeal took
longer. While the warm water kept them alive. The sun beat on them
but they made headway in groups. All would have reached shore more
quickly but the strong tides and current pushed them away from land.


“We’d get within 150 yards to shore and the tide change pushed us
back out, Three times. It was heartbreaking. We never got to shore.”
What saved many of the men was the arrival of a Mexican panga for
one group, and an American Michael Kalicki in a small aluminum
skiff. Kalicki’s house on the beach was where Zuger and Beeler
ended up earlier. He and his father told survivors they picked up,
including Hanson and Deluca, that they had heard of the sinking two
hours earlier and started looking for survivors in his small
aluminum skiff.


Kalicki told them the local village had just gotten the word at 2
p.m. and the rescue was on. It was now 4 p.m. when Hanson and Deluca
got into the skiff. It was 4 p.m., 13 ½ hours after they’d entered
the water.


For one fisherman, it was too late. Garcia said he, Leslie Yee and
Mike Kui Min Ng were “on the cooler” together at night. Garcia and
Kui Min Ng were rescued by a pangero.


“Leslie did not make it,” Garcia said. “I don’t know what happened.
I came back to the cooler and Leslie wasn’t there anymore. Garcia
added that he owes his life to Kui Min Ng. “Mike saved my life more
than once. I was cramping all over in my legs as we paddled, and he
was a life saver. He massaged my legs several times. I would not
have made it without him.” A panga rescued Garcia and Kui Min Ng.

 

One of the first responders appear to have been a retired Eastern Sierra couple who have a home on the beach at the Punta Bufeo fish camp in Gonzaga Bay where crewman Rodrigo Romero Fernandez crawled ashore on the aftermoon July 3, nine miles from where the Erik sank.  Accoding to the Mammoth Times, which was contacted by Doug and Peggy  McGee from their home in Baja, when the   the crewman reached shore he found a radio and called the Fernandez family who live on the property of  the McGees. A knock in the door of McGee's home they have had for 25 years by one of the alerted local residents, Ed Vasquez, set the rescue effort into motion on several levels.


Doug McGee served 20 years as Mono County resere sherrif's deputy and a search and rescue leader during that time.Peggy was the June Lake postmaster and also assisted in many Eastern Sierra search and rescue operations.  The McGee's also alerted the U.S. Embassy. Several boats from the fish camp found several survivors. It was Vasquez in his skiff who found Leslie Yee, the one passenger who died. 


The media circus ensued in San Felipe. There were the attempts by
Mexican officials to provide assistance to a group of men who had
lost friends, all their identification, tackle and clothing, even
keys to cars. The captain of the Erik was reported to have been
arrested, which proved false.



“Never happened,” said Hanson. “We never heard that. The federales
took him, but if he was arrested we never heard that, and I could
care less. The important thing is that there is restitution for the
guys and what they lost, and the families of those who still hold
out hope. The most important thing, said Hanson is that the media
and the public and the families know what really happened on that
boat.


“It was gross negligence. The more you dissect it, the more you see
that the crew was not trained in anything. No communication to the
crew by the captain, not enough life jackets, no radio call, and no
attempt by the crew to wake up the passengers. We just want to keep
the pressure on, to find the guys, and to make sure people know what
happened on that boat and why it happened.”


As for Mexico and how the crisis was handled after the rescue, all
Hanson would say was that “there were a lot of idiot officials who
didn’t know anything. The only one who knew anything and told us the
half truths was the guy at the U.S. Embassy.”


Physically, Hanson and Garcia had minor injuries are healing from
severe chaffing from the inflatable life vests that saved their
lives but wore holes in their skin. And severe sunburns.


Garcia said he’s not going to stop fishing, but he’s going to buy
another inflatable life vest. “I bought the Mustang model, it was
about $180, which I thought at the time were expensive, but now I’m
going to buy a $300 version that one has an EPIRB. So that when I go
in the water, they will know I’m in the water.”


The following were survivors: Charles Gibson, Gary Hanson, Michael
Kui Min Ng, Jim Miller, Steven Sloneker, Richard Ciabattari, Lee
Ikegami, Gary Wong, Craig Wong, Pius “Pete” Zuger, David Levine,
Jerry Garcia, Bruce Marr, Joe Beeler, Robert Higgins, Ross Anderson,
Dennis Deluca, Warren Tsurumoto and Glen Wong,


Leslie Yee of Ceres, CA was confirmed dead. His body washed up on
the shore of a remote island. Those who remain missing are:
Russell Bautista, Mark Dorland, Don Lee, Brian Wong, Al Mein, Gene
J. Leong and Shawn Chaddock.


“I don’t want to say anything that might take away hope from the
families that they might still be alive, on a beach somewhere,” said
Hanson. “But people need to know what happened on the boat and why
it happened. They need to know the truth of what happened on that
boat.”


For video of Gary Hanson on television, view this link:


http://www.ktvu.com/video/28494617/index.html

One of the best recounts of the anglers rescue efforts is from the
Associated Press at http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5iNDSxsb07ONgY5oVt_Q3-6tXZmgg?docId=3e045d46adc24ad48571e95d892fd28c

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