|After a year of searching, the Erik is found 75 miles south of San Felipe
The mothership is located in just 147 feet of water 2 miles offshore as survivors and survivors’ families lobby the U.S. government to recover the seven bodies of those believed to still be with the ship
BY PAT McDONELL
WON Staff Writer
SAN FELIPE — The boat has been found and a lobbying effort is underway to bring back the bodies of loved ones. Nearly a year after the 105-foot mothership Erik sank in an electrical storm July 3, 2011 on its way to fishing the Midriff islands area, it was found last week in waters approximately 147 deep, 75 miles south of San Felipe but just 2 miles offshore, WON learned.
Survivors’ confirmed to WON on Friday that the mystery of where the ship lay was solved when a boast’s shrimp net became entangled in the structure of the ship that American divers this week said was sitting in a vertical position. It was always believed the ship had sunk farther offshore in deeper waters.That is good news and has spurred intense lobbying by the families to have the U.S. government mount a recovery of the bodies.
One man died and seven others are still missing from among 27 Northern California fishermen who chartered the Erik.
Charles Gibson, chief of Contra Costa Community College District and one of the survivors who spent 14 hours in the Sea of Cortez, told fellow survivors and their family members in a conference call last Thursday that divers had found the wreckage of the San Felipe-based mothership. The incident captured national media attention last July when it sank. The ordeals of the men were recounted in WON, websites and national media outlets, first as a story of survival, but later controversy and bitterness erupted over the lack of safety equipment when passengers related that no lifejackets were issued to the passengers as the boat took over water in rough seas, capsized and sank within 10 minutes.
In the months since, families of the dead fishermen and survivors have staged fundraisers to provide equipment and manpower to scan the waters off Isla San Luis for signs of the ship. At least one extensive effort over 14 days several months ago spearheaded by Joe Jacinto, Al Mein’s son, failed to find the ship in a 14-mile radius search, but the search focused on deeper water off Puntas Bufeo where the ship sank two miles offshore.The shrimp trawler's entangled nets finally – and luckily -- provided the needed clue to his resting place.
"It is bittersweet," survivor Charles Gibson told the Contra Costa County Times."This story seems to never have an ending, and I don't know if it will in my mind and for the families of the missing."
More information will be forthcoming as the location of the ship has been turned over to the Mexican Navy, and now comes the decision-making by the families. Do they dive on the ship and recover the bodies that are believed to be trapped in the boat, or do they leave it as a memorial? Are all the missing men's bodies in their staterooms?
WON interviews of survivors after the tragedy confirmed that at least one American was trapped on the deck of the boat as it sank. Thus, it is likely that all seven of the missing men's bodies are not likely to still be with the ship. It is something for the families to consider in their decision to leave the ship as a memorial, or to recover the remains of those were trapped in their staterooms.
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. His body washed up on the shore of a remote island. Those fishermen who remain missing who are thought to still be in their staterooms on the Erik are: 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.
Joe Jacinto, Al Mein's stepson, has been the lead man among the families searching in the Sea of Cortez, reported the Contra Costa Times.He and Capt. Wings Stocks and KC Stocks of Santa Cruz-based Adventure, Depth and Technology, dove on the vessel after receiving coordinates from the shrimp trawler.
It was Jacinto who has worked to get Mexican government officials okay in the past year to search for the vessel, and to dive on the wreckage.The team has turned over the location of the wreckage, located 75 miles south of San Felipe, to the Mexican Navy. Jerry Garcia of Novato was among the survivors and provided much of the account of the incident as he was outside on deck when the waves were smashing into the Erik. A press conference was slated at Gary Hanson’s home with several other survivors.
“We’re trying to generate something with the government so we can shame them to going down there and recover those guys,” said Garcia. “These are our guys. Those men still on that ship are American veterans and we need to bring those boys home to their families. Back when we were looking for the ship, the U.S. government wanted to declare it a ‘burial at sea’ but now that the ship has been located, it’s a different story.”
Garcia said the boat was believed to be in water as deep at 350 feet, but not so. It lies in just 147 feet of water, although that will vary with a 20-foot tide differential.
“That’s not that deep, but the current Joe said are very strong at 100 feet,” said Garcia. “At 147 feet, it’s not that big of a deal, but with the nets all over it, it’s touchy.”
Garcia said Joe Jacinto and fellow divers did not have a lot of time to look over the ship and did not go into it, but confirmed it was the Erik and took pictures of the ship with the shrimp trawl nets draped on it.
Controversy centered on the captain’s decision-making during the violent storm, the crew’s ignorance of maritime law, the fact a mayday was not sent by the captain, and no lifejackets were provided to the American passengers. Although some had brought their own inflatable vests and those who made it off the ship before it sank clung to anything that floated, such as ice chests, to survive.
Family of the missing survivors, Mr. Yee have organized a blog that also provides information on the men lost and previous media accounts and even news media video after the rescue by Americans living in San Felipe. The website is wwwfindourfathers.org. The original blog and article on the sinking of the Erik which recently won the Outdoor Writer’s competition for best column can be found at wonews.com.
Pat McDonell can be reached at email@example.com
Now, the original blog and story that appeared a year go in WON and wonews.com
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 a 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 would 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 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., 13½ 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 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 reserve 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.”