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Friday, October 26, 2012
Huge brown trout taken at Silver Lake
Wednesday, March 27, 2013
Erik: The Search and Dive,- Part 2


Remains of three men recovered from Erik; part 1 of 2-part story
  A 2-part Series

FIND OUR FATHERS:

July 3, 2011 sinking off Punta Bufeo that captured national attention is a tragedy that may never end for eight families of those who died and those who survived; the final dive in September organized by Al Mein’s stepson Joe Jacinto and a crack  dive crew brought back Mein and remains of two other men; no other dives are planned, says Jacinto, citing costs and wishes of spouses

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TWO FRIENDS, Al MEIN, left, and Don Lee, before the ill-fated trip out of San Felipe. Their remains, and that of one other man, were recovered from the Erik in September.

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THE THREE DIVERS who recovered the remains in September.  Wings Stocks at lower right and his son KC standing over him. Joe Jacinto, who did not dive, standing at left and Dale Pearson. The elder Stocks was the only diver who entered the ship.

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THE SONAR IMAGE, exclusive to WON, of the Erik in its   resting place 2.9 miles from shore in 170 feet of water. It is on its bottom and listing to its side at a 5 to 8 degree angle, likely from the shrimp trawl nets being draped on it. SONAR IMAGE COURTESY OF CAPT.  WINGS STOCKS

BY PAT McDONELL
WON Staff Writer

PUNTA BUFEO — Joe Jacinto says if it were him in the Erik, entombed in the sunken ship off remote Baja, his stepfather Al Mein would have done the same for him. But it was Mein who went on the trip out of San Felipe with friends that July day back in 2011, and it was Jacinto who doggedly searched and found the Erik.

He is one final step from bringing Mein home after recovering the remains of  three men, including his stepfather, in September. His interviews with WON are the first media accounts he has made of his expedition in an effort to tell his story of how and why he has mounted this  lengthy effort on behalf of the victims, families and survivors.

“Al always said he wanted his final resting place to be in the Sierra mountains where he loved to fish,” said Jacinto. “He was an amazing man, a guy who could do anything, and do it well and you’d just never know all the things he could do and did in his life. He served his country, was a great husband to my mother Sharon, and stepfather to me, and I felt I  owed it to him to bring him home.”

The 14-month quest by Jacinto started right after the sinking as he joined an extended search for survivors of the July 3 tragedy, and continued over several difficult expeditions in waters off Punta Bufeo 75 miles south of San Felipe, often in  115 degree heat and 100 percent humidity.  

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THE SEARCH MAPS, at the beginning and the end. One is a redone version of a hand drawn  Google-based map by Doug McGee, a retired Eastern Sierra (June Lake-based) deputy and search and rescue team leader, who coordinated the rescue from his home Punta Bufeo. The map was amazingly accurate at the time, generally, but as Joe Jacinto said, it still took local pangeros, trawler tips, several sonar tracking trips, paying for tips  and a little luck to pinpoint the ship 12 months later, with the remains of the men recovered last September. In scale, said Jacinto, finding the ship “was like looking for a cell phone with your eyes closed in an area the size of three football fields.”


For 11 months after the tragic sinking that captured national interest, the ship sat undiscovered until the 47-year-old Clarksburg, California resident confirmed its resting place, sitting upright, 2.9 miles from shore in 170 feet of water, cloaked in shrimp trawl nets and slightly tilted. Three men’s remains were recovered, and after interviews with Jacinto and May Lee, who represents the wives of the deceased men, another dive is not likely.

Lee, who lives in San Ramon, said she has heard that one of the men’s remains is likely her husband’s. “I’m hoping and praying that it is my husband’s remains,” she told WON on Sunday. “I am very thankful that they retrieved my husband’s remains and I want him back with me.”

Immediately after the sinking the website www.findourfathers.org was set up to push U.S. and Mexican officials to immediately extend their search for the survivors. They did. But only the body of Leslie Yee was found. Of the 27 anglers, eight perished. It has been assumed that nearly all of the missing seven men are still entombed in the ship. However, Lee told WON that has been a common misconception in the media. She said  the families believe three, possibly four men were trapped in the ship, but two of the seven men were seen jumping from the ship by others, and two others were  on deck when it sank.

Many of the survivors feel that without lifejackets, several men were pulled under with the ship that abruptly sank stern-first. One surviving angler pulled deep below from the suction of the ship sinking was Jerry Garcia, but his inflatable vest pulled him to the surface, he told WON soon after the sinking.

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THE DIVE AND SONAR equipment was high-end, and was provided by NorCal-based Capt. “Wings” Stocks, a living legend in the technical and recreational dive community. Here, his son KC Stocks mixes and writes the percent mix of the nitrox mix (nitrogen, helium and oxygen) needed for deep-water technical dives. This was all done in harsh Baja conditions, essentially beach camps in remote Baja.


“I’ve been in close contact with the families of those who died and the survivors, and we can account for all of the missing,” said Lee, who added that another recovery dive is  unlikely. She was asked why. “Four of the spouses know where their husbands were on the boat, and that they were not trapped in staterooms, and they have indicated that they do not want   disturbed  what they feel is a sacred burial ground at the bottom of the sea.”

Three months after locating the Midriff mothership, a crew of divers on a September expedition led by Jacinto brought up  three of the remains of  the seven men who died that day. Only survivors and family members were notified by Jacinto and the news was kept quiet for months.

Only last week did the Mexican government confirm they had concluded what they called its official “investigation” into the sinking, the location of the ship, and informed victims’ families there was a recovery of the remains of Mein and others, and a DNA test  on one of the remains confirmed it was Mein. (The other two remains will be  tested when samples are provided by the families.)

“The Mexican officials didn’t offer any assistance or help, but they did provide the most important thing for us, which was access,” said Jacinto. The final result was that on the fifth and final expedition into Baja since the 115-foot ship sank in waters roughly 2.9 miles off Punta Bufeo, the recovery of several sets of remains took place by Jacinto and a team of tech divers and was accompanied on this trip by his wife Dena.

Remains of Mein, Lee and the third man recovered from portside  staterooms were handed to the Mexican authorities. Jacinto already knew DNA testing  conducted on Mein  would  confirm those  are his remains. Lee told WON that she is planning on submitting DNA samples as soon as possible.  

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THE CREW RETURNS after the final recovery dive in September. At right is Joe Jacinto, middle is K.C. Stocks, and Dale Pearson at left. Jacinto has surgical gloves on. The remains are not seen, in a bag at his feet. He conducted the securing and separating of the men’s remains for Mexican authorities for DNA testing.

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JOE JACINTO SENDS out a wreath in honor of the men when they found the ship in June, 2012. The buoy seen here marks the spot, but was later cut off for privacy  before they left the site. At that time the group was not sure there would be another expedition with money having run out. The final trip did come, in September.

“The family is anxious to provide DNA and to bring Don home when the remains are identified,” said Lee.  

Jacinto said that although the belief among many spouses is that no more bodies are in the ship with the three recovered, he is nearly certain there is another man who ran below as the boat was taking on water to retrieve medicine from his stateroom below, survivors told Jacinto, as water rushed into the stairwell and blocked his exit. All stateroom doors swung outward on the Erik.    
    
“We’ve done all we can at this point,” said Jacinto. “Essentially I’m hoping everyone can focus on the countless hours given by honorable people that put their time in, and that not one single person is responsible for the success but rather many,” said Jacinto. “Also there has to be some mention of the gratitude for the Mexican government for allowing us to work. You wouldn’t believe the amount of work I had to do to politically and document-wise to push through to just get on the water. But each trip got easier as we gained the confidence of Mexican authorities who realized  that my goal was only to recover remains and not to finger point. Plus our 100-percent safety record helped.”

He said there has always been some “underlying awareness” by authorities, justified or not, that someone, especially someone who finds the boat and dives it, may be able to confirm some rumors of why the ship sank. “I was coming from the family’s side of eight widows, and had to balance that with what I needed to do. I repeatedly stated my sole intention of recovering Al and in no way wavered and I made sure to never be mistaken for any other motive.”

While the Mexican authorities have not arrested anyone or provided any findings of an investigation, the tragedy had one positive effect. May Lee was told by WON that far stricter safety regulations are now imposed in San Felipe and other ports.

“I’m pleased to hear that, very pleased, and my family would be happy to hear that, and friends and family of the spouses,” said Lee.   

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A PANGA IS RECOVERED, thought to be used by a group of survivors. Jacinto is pictured with it.

Sometimes the lives of people are left behind in tragedies. The media arrives, and leaves for another story after the headlines disappear to the back pages and websites. But the rubble of hundreds of lives remains in the wake. Jacinto wanted to honor his stepfather, a husband, friend to many. A decorated veteran, a Vietnam tank infantryman who was awarded the Bronze Star, and other wartime commendations.   

“He was in a tank division strictly designated to an area well known for deep sh__ called Dong Ha. There are books written about this area and how aggressive it was.  And of course if you are in a tank division you can count being on the front line. At one point during one of his tours Al had driven over a huge land mine. The tank was  literally tossed  and landed upside down.

“Al was trapped inside with fire on the outside. His tank was in a convoy with others, and realizing Al couldn’t get out, they dragged the tank with another back to rutted dirt road and centered the turret  opening just over a rut enough to expose a way for Al to crawl out. It’s ironic in the Erik rolled the direction it did and onto door to his portside cabin that swung open and he was trapped once again. I can hardly keep my composure as I say this. There is so much to this entire tragedy.”

Jacinto said Al was like many war vets.

 “You would have never thought what he saw in battle was in his past based on his unbelievable heart and soul he used daily to navigate life. He loved people and you knew it. He never boasted about his past and you would’ve never guessed Al could hurt another person. In his personal life he was good at everything he tried, and he was known as an unbelievable marksmen. Something you would have never  guessed. Al was humble, and you would never have known he had even handled a gun if you met him.  Not long after you knew him you quickly realized there was not one thing he couldn’t teach himself to do. He was the real deal, and if the roles were reserved he would have found the Erik, too.”

Finding the ship 2.9 miles from shore was not a one-man job. In fact, Jacinto says a shrimp trawler snagged it. “We had several other tips from trawlers of snags in other areas and checked those turns out, this was the one.”

But the effort to locate it took money, and dozens of people along the way offered to help, most with good intentions, he told WON. All the sonar and dive expeditions were done for pennies on the dollar that a normal deep-water salvage and recovery team would charge.

With no more recovery operations planned, there is now just a settling of accounts and some confusion over reimbursement of the trips. As May told WON, any funds disbursed were done in a majority vote, and all trips approved by the spouses in a vote were funded. In the case of the February trip, the spouses voted to not fund it because they had not been told about it. Jacinto says they knew of it, kept delaying a decision or a vote, and with time running out, he went ahead. Since that trip, there has been a lack of communication between Jacinto and Findourfathers.org which Lee has administrated, and she has been the one to call for an e-mail vote of funding when needed.

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THE DEBRIS FIELD on the bottom in the general area of the wreck was scattered and included an Erik panga, a tackle box and more. Shrimp trawlers also found tackle in their nets, and even brought up a panga. Such finds and further sleuthing with sonar – and a shrimp trawler who snagged on the boat, eventually located the ship. Jacinto said it  was a lot of little bits of information.

“I don’t know why they didn’t vote to fund the February trip,” said May. “I voted for it, but it didn’t pass and I had to honor that.”   

Said Jacinto, “When Find Our Fathers stopped supporting the trips, the gap was filled not only by my own finances but more importantly honorable people, dozens, who came forward like Capt.  T. Wings  Stocks, his son KC  Stocks, and Dale Pearson. There were just so many.”

Jacinto’s recounting of the tedious sonar searching and sleuthing over a full year, the dives, paying $100 to $400 for tips, the preparation for the technical gas dive mix  (Trimix first then nitrox to decompress then pure O2 to scrub  dives to confirm the ship and then make the recovery with three technical divers are thrilling. And they will be recounted in next week’s issue of WON in the second part of this story. As Pearson told WON, the dive was difficult. On one of the dives that trip, “Wings had a first stage regulator failure after his tanks hit the top of the steel door jam. The O-ring exploded and he had to abort. It was gnarly.”  

The final dives, five of them, came during the Sept. 4-13, 2012 expedition.

“They were conducted during a tidal lull,” said Jacinto and these final expeditions were high-tech deep dives in heavy current and low visibility. The point man was  Capt. “Wings” Stocks who owns Santa Cruz-based Adventure, Depth and Technology, whom Jacinto describes as  a living legend in the technical and recreation dive community.

With funds uncertain, Stocks essentially volunteered the use of his 27-foot fully-rigged Shamrock for the high tech sonar searches on specific grids, and then on the dives when the ship’s position was confirmed last June. Top notch deep-water diver San Diego resident Pearson and Stock’s son KC Stocks also came aboard to assist as professional deep-water divers.   

“Wings was the lead diver and a significant contributor of skill and intellectual property,” said Jacinto. “On the dive operation side we couldn’t even come close to accomplishing what we did without Wings, due to things like lack of decompression knowledge needed for tech-mixed gas dives, working in and around wreck. Wings was the only one to hook the boat with an up line and did that dive solo. He’s a stud. He was also the only person to go inside the wreck. He’s humble and incredibly capable above and below water.”

Two years later the  tragedy is still raw. There were 27 anglers and 17 crew on the trip who all survived. Eight of the anglers died. 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, 63 of Ceres, of Ceres, CA was confirmed dead. He was able to swim from the wreck but later that day drowned, and his body washed up on the shore the day of the sinking that occurred at 2:30 a.m. Those fishermen who were listed as missing and trapped in their staterooms were  Al Mein of Twain Harte, CA, Don Lee of San Ramon, CA, Gene Leong of Dublin, CA, Brian Wong of Berkeley, the trip’s chartermaster Russell Bautista of Penngrove, CA. Shawn Chaddock of Petaluma, CA and Mark Dorland of Twain Harte, CA.

In news reports, family members have told media the eventual goal was find the Erik, and return to home as many remains as possible. With the U.S. and Mexico agencies wanting nothing to do with a search for the ship or recovery, the task was taken up by Jacinto.

The first 13-day sonar search conducted in August 2011 covered 14 square miles  and was conducted privately with funds gathered from a variety of sources after the U.S. and Mexican governments declined to search for the sunken ship.  

The website has been a source of information about the sinking, media archives, fundraising efforts, photos and tributes  to the men who died.  FindOurFathers.org started with the intention of merely convincing authorities to extend the search for survivors, and with the public’s help they succeeded. The search was extended past their usual 96 hours as each family worked with their local congressional leaders.   
 
It was reported the website and various donations and efforts produced 6,000 petitions and $30,000 in the first 60 days. The website is still up, May Lee said, but is no longer updated. There have been no postings about the finding of the Erik or the recovery. There is a Facebook page, and a  posting  last week by May Lee’s daughter mentioned the Mexican authorities had concluded its investigation and that remains had been recovered. A few media outlets in Northern California picked up on the posting. But there have been no official announcements on the website on the searches, the finding of the Erik last June and the September recovery.

“I didn’t want to stir thing up again, to bring all these emotions back up to the surface for spouses,” said Lee. “We were waiting for something official from Mexican authorities, but I never thought it would take this long. The website, which I created out of my own pocket, is now just there for the comfort of the spouses and families.”

Jacinto is hoping funds that have been raised would be shared for the costs it took for the final three dives to find the ship and then to recover the remains. The amount  is approximately $40,000.

“We spent money frugally, like every single dollar was ours,” said Jacinto who added he still has to submit the books for the final trip. “I can only say our work was always consistent with the goals of Find Our Fathers.”

Lee told WON she is personally committed to $15,000 of the September recovery, and she would be contacting the other spouses about other reimbursements from the Findourfathers.org funds. “I’m also going to e-mail them again about the no vote on the February trip expenses,” she said.      

What now? A few weeks ago, the Mexican authorities said that DNA tests on Al Mein were complete and confirmed, and the family could drive down to take possession of the remains.

Then, Al Mein will get his wish, a spot at his final resting spot in his beloved Sierra Nevada.


Next:

  In part two of the two-part series  below,  WON reveals a detailed blow-by blow report on the task Joe Jacinto had of finding the Erik over six arduous trips, hundreds of tips, and the help of dozens of others, including the Erik captain Crispin Montes and crew, and the Mexican government who granted Jacinto’s crews access.



 


The search and dive


The first part of this appeared in WON last week and in the blog "breaking news" on this website.


This second and final part deals with the locating of the ship, the interview with the Erik captain, and the dive for the remains of three men back in September that is just now coming to light, thanks to the Joe Jacinto, stepson of Al Mein who died on the wreck and whose remains were recovered and have been DNA tested and being returned to family. 

The original blog concerning the sinking on July 3, 2011 off Gonzaga Bay can be found in this blog's archives.

-- Pat

 

PUNTA BUFEO, Baja California Norte – On July 3 of 2010 when the 115-foot mothership Erik with 17 crew members and 27 American anglers aboard sank in rough seas 75 miles south of San Felipe, it set off a 14-month chain of events the sportfishing industry will never forget.

 

Eight men perished  when a series of massive waves brought on by heavy winds dislodged the stacked pangas on the stern, opening a hatch to the fish storage area in the stern, and water poured in. The  converted and now top-heavy former shrimp trawler-turned mothership sportfisher took a series of hits as water poured in, the engines failed and the ship rolled to its port side, then sank, all within 5 minutes.

 

All17 crewman, all wearing lifejackets, survived, including the Erik’s captain Crispin Montes. Americans, only a few wearing personal flotation devices they brought on the trip, suffered eight casualties.

 

One man, Leslie Yee, drowned later  and his body was found that day on a nearby island, and seven other men were listed as missing by authorities in an extended search demanded by the family in the glare of national media. They likely perished at the site, either trapped on the boat, or were sucked under by the  abrupt stern-first sinking. The seven   fishermen were Al Mein of Twain Harte, CA, Don Lee of San Ramon, CA, Gene Leong of Dublin, CA Brian Wong of Berkeley, Russell Bautista of Penngrove, CA.  Shawn Chaddock of Petaluma, CA and Mark Dorland of Twain Harte, CA.  

 

For 11 months the ship remained lost, but in June of this year it was found, resting upright, slightly tilted, in 170 feet of water 2.9 miles off the coast near Punta Bufeo, a popular Sea of Cortez fishing area 75 miles south of San Felipe.

 

Over the 11 months the ship could not be found, one of the missing men’s stepsons, Al Mein’s stepson Joe Jacinto, 47, of Clarksburg, CA mounted six expeditions into Baja, the first immediately after the sinking to look for the unaccounted for men, then organized three more trips using sonar equipment to search for the ship. Another search  last June confirmed  it had been found, and a final trip in early September  recovered the remains of three men, one of them Albert Mein, Jacinto’s stepfather. 

 

 No more dives or recovery efforts are planned at this time. The majority of the eight spouses, WON has learned, feel the ship should remain untouched.

 

According to May Lee of San Ramon, wife of Don Lee whose remains were likely among the three sets brought up by Jacinto in September, each of the eight spouses has her own feelings on the tragedy. “Two are still very, very angry,” she told WON. She can only speak for herself when she told WON that she does not seek revenge against the captain, the owner or the crew.

 

“My husband loved the boat, loved the crew, and he knew the owner Mr. (Gus) Velez who lost his livelihood and has to live with this the rest of his life, as we all do. My husband would not want me to seek some sort of money for this.  It was an act of God, an accident, a horrible storm.”

 

The Mexican government recently informed victims’ families their official investigation into the sinking is now complete, that the ship had been found and remains had been recovered. This is despite the ship’s re-design flaws that made it top heavy, the lack of available lifejackets, no GPS or Epirb was aboard, no mayday was sent out and the captain was warned at the dock that there was a storm impending. The dispute between the captain and port officials in San Felipe at the dock, WON has since learned from Jacinto who spoke to the captain last February, ironically also concerned improper or missing crew insurance papers.    

 

“There have been no arrests that I’ve heard of,” said Jacinto, and added that no families “have been reimbursed for the trip, and there has not even been an apology from the boat’s owner (Gus Velez).”

 

Last week’s feature detailed many aspects of the recovery that had not been reported until WON’s story, as Jacinto informed only the survivors and victim’s families in conference calls and e-mails.  At the family’s request, and Jacinto’s, the third man’s identity will not be made public in WON, nor will the identity of the man whose remains are suspected of being in the lower stateroom.  

 

But overshadowed in the drama of the event itself, and the fact that there is likely only one more set of remains in the ship, was the difficulty of finding the ship in three sonar search expeditions by Jacinto, and the danger of diving on it in one of the most inhospitable ocean environments  possible.

 

As Jacinto told WON last week, while Mexico and the U.S. Consulate  declined to  physically assist in any way in finding the Erik, they “did provide the most important thing for us, which was access.”

 

The most compelling episode for all anglers is that Jacinto,  a clinical consultant and advanced boater, was relentless  in his quest on behalf of his mother Sharren Mein to find the ship and bring back the remains of his stepfather Al Mein. That doggedness resulted in a coup. He tracked down the Erik captain, Crispin Montes just before the February, 2012 sonar search expedition.

 

“I had knocked on his door in San Felipe several times on the way down and the on the way home and I always left my phone number on the door,” said Jacinto.  “I finally tracked him down in Mexicali and he agreed to talk with me.” He and Montes sat down for three hours and, as Jacinto said, the conversation was extremely difficult. The subject matter, emotions and the language barrier all worked against a smooth meeting.

 

“He wanted to tell what happened. He said the situation with the storm was out of his control,” said Jacinto. “I was walking on eggshells, and I thought he was going to leave the table a hundred times and he broke down several times. Then he looked up and asked me, ‘What do you want me to do?’”

 

Help find the ship, he was told.

 

“He said he had a few days off from his current job and he actually agreed to meet me in San Felipe the next morning at 7 a.m.,” said Jacinto who admitted he never expected Montes to show up because the captain would have had to leave just after midnight to get from Mexicali to San Felipe five hous away  in time for the boat to leave the dock due to the extreme tides. But he made it.”

 

Jacinto was asked if, after days on the water sonar mapping the area, did Capt. Montes have a good feel for where the boat might lay? “You know, I took other crew members from the Erik on the boat to help look, but like the captain who was sure he knew where it was, in the end they all had no idea.”  

 

Jacinto said Montes and other crew members did provide some revealing bits of important information: One, there were enough life vests for everyone on the boat, but when water started pouring into the boat, there was no way to reach them deep in the bowels of the boat. Two, the boat was not equipped with a GPS. Montes told Jacinto he relied on radar for navigation, thus he did not have access to lat/lon coordinates.  Also, the boat was delayed due to tides, and the men could not load their gear when they arrived, and when they did, port officials again held up the boat. While trying to sort through insurance papers, Montes was warned about the weather.  Jacinto also learned that as the boat headed south, crewmen reportedly argued with Montes about being so far from land, nearly 24 miles, as he ignored the storm warning and pushed toward the fishing grounds of the Midriff Islands area. He did say he was heading in for protection when the storm hit, but it was too late as 60 mph winds and huge waves hammered the ship in following season three miles from the coast.

 

THE SONAR SEARCHES

 

The searches with sophisticated commercial sonar equipment were brutal work in harsh conditions.  The one constant in all searches and recovery efforts was the help of  Capt. T. Wings Stocks of Santa Cruz-based Adventure, Depth and Technology, whom Jacinto  calls a “living legend in the technical and recreational dive community.” 

With funds from the spouses and website  www.findourfathers.org uncertain and financing coming out of Jacinto’s pocket,  Stocks essentially volunteered the use of his 27-foot fully-rigged Shamrock sonar search and recovery  dive vessel when it became obvious local boats donated (and gladly accepted by Jacinto to cut costs) had multiple systems failures in the harsh conditions while dragging a 130-pound torpedo-shape magnetometer unit while sonar searching. The goal was to search—and eliminate vast areas, narrowing the target areas.   

“In every trip down to Mexico we had at least two and as much as four new targets, like the fisherman’s tip from Penasco, to check once on the water. Looking at these targets were done outside of a typical day of running well-planned grid searching, which is the most efficient and complete way to find something underwater. 

 

“I hope you can give credit to Wings Stocks,” said Jacinto.  “He was there on every trip. He’s humble and incredibly capable, above and below water,” he said of Stocks. 

Jacinto said donations of food and equipment and help onsite by people who heard of the sinking were constant. The biggest battle was procuring information from locals. In Baja, money loosens tight lips. Jacinto offered local fishermen $100 for tips and $400 for any that led to the wreckage. He got more than 30 tips, including one in March about a shrimp trawler that caught its net on something near Gonzaga Bay in a likely area not yet sonar-checked.

As Jacinto says, a lot of little things led to the ship’s location. One of Jacinto's best  breaks  and local contacts in Baja was Sergius Hanson, a 61-year-old amateur shipwreck hunter from Littleton, Colo.,  It was in April that Jacinto asked Hanson to check out that specific Gonzaga Bay trawl tip. Using his fishing sonar, Hanson charted the area and sent back the images, but Jacinto wasn’t convinced it was the wreck and asked a nearby villager to help. He dragged a 5-pound piece of metal from the end of a rope off his boat, marking each time it clanked against the underwater object and charting the dimensions. The object roughly matched the Erik's size. A June sonar and dive expedition confirmed it was the Erik.  

Jacinto often e-mailed reports and updates to Erik survivors and the eight widows, even though he was, after the first two sonar trips, financing them himself. He reported the Baja region he often camped at and ran trips from in beach camps after trailering down from Northern California were  remote and inhospitable to say the least.” He added  he “felt an obligation on searches to be frugal in cost management when dealing with all logistics: food, fuel, lodging, boats or equipment.”

 

In the reports, he described the tedious and lengthy hours of planning and preparation minimized the difficulty in transporting equipment and personnel to Mexico. Renting trailers and double-insuring them, packing dive equipment for 10 hours, then driving over 1,000 miles from northern California to reach the search area, arranging affordable lodging in primitive working conditions, dining on days of frozen and reheated meals, enduring the hot 115 degree days and 90 degree nights, working 12- to 14-hour days, preventing dehydration and personal hygiene  describes just a few of the difficulties associated with a search in an area like this, he said. 

 

Security for personnel and equipment in a remote beach area was also a major issue at that time in Mexico, and there were no emergency services and little or no general services within hours. While these were not insurmountable, he said, “We just knew we were on our own.” 

 

The initial sonar search expeditions began in August 2011 and continued with November 2011, February 2012, June 2012 and September 2012 time frames.

 

“When an accident of this magnitude occurs, the more accurate the eyewitness accounts, the smaller the search area,” Jacinto said. “Unfortunately, the early morning darkness, unfamiliarity with location, currents and conflicting accounts (by survivors and crew) resulted in a very large search area. Sonar and magnetometer (metal detecting) searches are a process of area elimination. GPS and computers kept track of the areas we searched. During typical searches, weather and ocean conditions dictated when, where, how long and what type of equipment we could utilize daily.”

 

Jacinto said the major difficulties with operating in this area of northern Baja on the Sea of Cortez were  massive tidal changes and the sudden shifts of winds that occur. Tidal changes were  predictable but intense winds shifts were  not, so constant guard was required, he said. 

 

“Twenty-foot tidal changes are common and create three- knot currents that interfere or disrupt scanning and diving protocols. Combined with contrary wind patterns, these currents make confused seas that can

wreak havoc with equipment and personnel.

 

“As there is no local weather reporting station or modern boat launch ramps, all trips were planned around minimal tidal changes to reduce the effect on equipment and personnel,” Jacinto explained. “Regardless of planning, nature continues on its course, so throughout the searches we encountered extremely large schools of bait fish, erratic currents and excessive winds that interfered with the August and November 2011 trips, while rain storms in February 2012 kept boats on their trailers and actually physically moved the roads with flooding and washouts. With each consecutive trip however, more and more knowledge was gained about local weather and tidal concerns, potential boat launching sites and additional resources. Slowly, more and more search area grids were completed and we obtained "mystery" GPS coordinates from well-meaning locals. All this, we hoped, would contribute to locating the Erik.” 

 

When Hanson’s sidescan and then the pangero’s metal-banging confirmation of the location of the Erik came in, the dive team conducted survey dives to assess the Erik's condition and diver access to the Erik. They found a shrimp net covered the wreck, the forward port doors were closed, underwater visibility was less than two feet and currents were confused throughout the water column. The team decided to return in either August or September of 2012 to verify where any bodies might be, and attempt to recover any remains.

 

Reality hit.  It became obvious that commercial contractors would charge $50,000 a day for what would be a three-day dive, and they changed plans. With the blessing of the Mexican Navy, the Mexican Tourist Board and the U.S. State Department, a small technical diving team was assembled to conduct recovery operations. 

 

THE RECOVERY DIVES

 

In early September Joe Jacinto, his wife Dena Jacinto,    Stocks and his son K.C Stocks drove two Ford F350 pickups - one group towing a 26-foot foot survey/dive boat while the other towed a 20-foot camping trailer. All were loaded with a  mountain of  sophisticated equipment for diving, gas blending, and emergency equipment. Dale Pearson, a San Diego-based diver with good knowledge and connections in this area of Baja, drove down once they had the base of operations set up.

 

“Dale has always offered to help,” said Jacinto.  “He was fairly aggressive and in this situation you need to find out right away if people are capable. He was.”

 

“The dive operation was one of the most dangerous I have ever done,” said Pearson. “The dive site is located to the south of the Enchanted Islands. That area is where the tides that sweep around the islands come together and create a rip current that is approximately half-mile wide and dumps like a river to the south with the outgoing tide. It does the same as it fills heading to the north.”  

 

Pearson said the dives and searches were set up using tide and weather windows that only occur twice per month. WIth the seasons and the tides to take into account there were only a few open weather/tide windows. 

 

“The leader of the dive operation was  Stocks. He is a master tech diver and wreck specialist.  WIthout him on the project I would not have attempted it. His son KC Stocks was our safety diver. He was the one responsible for filling our tanks with the mixed gas, and also for monitoring us during decompression. He would meet us at around 70 feet to check on us and he would also transport any remains we had to the surface from there so we didn’t have to hold on o them during deco (decompression, the long slow rise to the surface).”

 

He told WON the mixes used were different on each phase of the dive. They operated twin 80cu tanks with TRIMIX for the decent and actual work at depth. TRIMIX is a mix of helium, nitrogen, and oxygen.  

 

“KC would mix the tanks before and test them with a computer gas reader to confirm the percentages of each gas to make sure they were safe,” said Pearson.  Pretty much the guy had our lives in his hands on every dive.” Pearson’s job was to assist Wings  during the dive to help in the removal of the remains and to be there in case we were  entangled.  

 

Said Pearson, “The wreck was a mess of snag hazards. If you can imagine an entire ship covered with trawl nets. Not one or two but layers of them.  We had to cut them back and work under and next to them in order to reach the target areas on the ship. I was tangled in them a couple times, but we had gear to cut free.”  

 

 Stocks took the most risks. He was the one who entered the staterooms as Pearson waited outside with a light and body bags. The rooms were full of all kinds of hazards from cast nets, to wires and fishing lines.

 

“I remember during one dive seeing a fishing pole there rigged up with a big treble hook trolling lure on it.  It was a floating lure so it just kind of hung in the current waiting for someone to snag it. You had to make a choice of doing your job or trying to make the dive area safer, and after the first dive we just worked around the hazards instead of trying to mitigate them.”  

 

Pearson said stateroom entrances were small and it was hard for Wings to get in there to work.

 

“At one point on a dive his first stage got smacked just right by the steel lip of a door causing his 0 ring to fail,” said Pearson. “He was leaking air fast at depth on the wreck. I let him know he had a leak and that was all he needed.  A guy with his experience is always ready for something to go wrong.  He handled it no problem, as we had other safety gear and tanks staged on top of the wreck just in case.  The guy’s a pro.”

 

The depth was manageable but the current on the wreck site was “crazy.” Even during the lull in the slack tide they still had to hang onto the drop/decompression rope with both hands and kick.  

 

“You basically pulled your way down to the wreck, and if you let go of the rope you’re screwed because there would have been no way to properly decompress,” said Pearson. “We did have a plan that if one of us broke loose the other would go with him; we would then pop a locator buoy and drift and hope the dive boat would see us, then give us a chance to deco.  With no deco chamber near it was always on your mind.”

 

What was?

 

“Never let go of the freaking rope,” said Pearson.   

 

For divers, this next information is interesting, but for anglers it should indicate how difficult setting up a beach camp with technical mixing equipment was in remote Baja. “On the way up during deco we used the Nitrox 50/50 mix, and at 20 feet we would switch again to pure oxygen. Using pure o2 at 20 feet will clean all of the nitrogen from your blood by replacing it with the o2.  We call this scrubbing your blood.”  

 

Pearson said the Mexican military monitored them, but essentially they kept people and pangeros away from the dive site.

 

 “Some of the pangeros from Gonzaga Bay would try to shadow us so they could get the numbers for the wreck.  It was kind of sick I thought, that they were more interested in getting the location of the wreck than allowing us to operate and dive safe.  The military teams with us made short work of that and we had a clear area to work for the rest of the time.” Also, conditions on land were brutal. Hot, windy, humid. “At night I slept on the roof of my Expedition, It was hot, too hot to sleep inside and too windy to sleep on the ground for me.”

 

The most dangerous and difficult of the dives, was the removal of remains,” said Pearson.

 

“Wings would slowly enter a room. He would have to move things around to get to the remains but when he did that it would turn visibility to zero.  Normal vis at the site was four feet but as soon as you touched something or hit the nets the muck would explode and you were down to just one foot and leave you with only your touch to navigate and work.  The fact that Wings was able to locate the remains of three people was amazing.”

 

Pearson said there is one, maybe two more men aboard but were unable to reach them because they ran out of tide and weather.  “The site became undiveable again and we were forced to stop the operation and return home.” Pearson said he is proud of the job they did, and “even though it looks like the job will go unfinished at least we put the rubber to the road and did what we said we would do.”

 

***

 

The final chapter will be identifying the remains of the two men. The remains of Mein, Lee and the third man recovered from portside  staterooms were handed to the Mexican authorities. Mein’s remains were DNA-confirmed and the family will drive to San Felipe to get them. Lee told WON that she is planning on submitting DNA samples as soon as possible.  Jacinto is hoping funds from donations through findourfathers.org will reimburse the more than $40,000 he  and Dena spent on the final three expeditions.

 ***

For more information the men, and media coverage of the event, see www.findourfathers.org. For the original WON story, see Pat McDonell’s blog (see blog archives) at wonews.com. He can be contacted at pat@wonews.com

There are some basic YouTube videos by diver Dale Pearson of the sonar searches and contact with the Mexican Navy at:  

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LO_5lf4Cd7c&list=UUkgt4-aoFqFbg_ZRdPrPnAA&index=12

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iPbp9SWq3EM&list=UUkgt4-aoFqFbg_ZRdPrPnAA&index=13

 

 

             RECAP OF TRIP DATES OVER 14 MONTHS

July 2011, Searched presumed area of sinking in hope of finding survivors. None found,

 

August 2011: Search trip utilizing sonars and magnetometer on used, borrowed boat to search pre-planned grids based on assumptions from knowledge gained. 8 days on water with several possible sites to recheck.

 

November 2011:  4 days on the water utilizing sonar and magnetometer to search pre-planned grids on borrowed boat. Shortened due to high winds.   

 

February 2012: 3 1/2 days on water. With Capt. Montes, covered 6 square mile area and doubled the presumed area to 12 square miles. More tips of possible sites due to snags and hunches from locals. Wind and unseaworthy boat cut short trip. Nothing found.

 

June 2012: 6 days on the water with dive crew. Confirmed site utilizing sonar and dive crew.

 .

September 2012: 4 days on site with dive crew. Remains recovery trip. Re-confirmed site and commenced dive operation.

 
erik
THE ERIK, A 115-FOOT STEEL-HULLED former shrimp boat, converted to a sportfishing mothership, was based at San Felipe. It was owned by Gus Velez, operating under Baja Sportfishing
 
 
 
Reader Comments

Great story. Joe has to be commended for doing what he thought was right and not stopping until it was done. But you should point out to your readers again, that when you leave your home on a trip, it is an adventure and things are not always in your control. I think a lot of us go for that reason, that is part of the thrill.
Alan Aden
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