RIO HATO, Panama (AP) — Three Panamanian men were on their way home after a night of fishing, happy with their success, when the motor on their small open boat rattled and quit, leaving them adrift in sight of land, but too far out for their cell phones to work.
With nothing left to eat but the fish they caught and a few gallons of water, they drifted for 16 days, more than 100 miles from home, before they thought they must be saved.
Adrian Vasquez, 18, saw a huge white ship coming toward them. He waved a red sweater to get their attention, reaching high over his head, and dropping it low to his knees. Though he was near death, the skipper of the little panga, Elvis Oropeza Betancourt, 31, joined in, waving an orange life jacket.
“Tio, look what’s coming over there,” Vasquez recalled saying in an interview Thursday with The Associated Press. “We felt happy, because we thought they were coming to rescue us.”
The ship didn’t stop, and the fishing boat drifted another two weeks before it was found. By then, Vasquez’s two friends had died.
“I said, ‘God will not forgive them,’” Vasquez recalled. “Today, I still feel rage when I remember that.”
That same day, March 10, birdwatchers with powerful spotting scopes on the promenade deck of the luxury cruise ship Star Princess saw a little boat adrift miles away. They told ship staff about the man desperately waving a red cloth.
On Thursday, Princess Cruises, based in Santa Clarita, Calif., said a preliminary investigation showed that passengers’ reports that they had spotted a boat in distress never made it to Capt. Edward Perrin or the officer on duty.
If it did, the company said, the captain and crew would have altered course to rescue the men, just as the cruise line has done more than 30 times in the last 10 years. The company expressed sympathy for the men and their families.
The fishermen had set out for a night of fishing Feb. 24 from Rio Hato, a small fishing and farming town on the Pacific coast of Panama that was once the site of a U.S. Army base guarding the Panama Canal. There are plans for a new airport to bring in tourists. Vasquez had lost his job as a gardener at a local hotel, and Oropeza invited him to come fishing to make a little money. The night before, they had no luck, so they were very happy to have a load of fish to sell, Vasquez said.
By the time they started to drift, Adrian had eaten his lunch of rice and beef. They only had five gallons of water to start with, and much of that was gone. There was raw fish to eat, but no one liked it very much, and it soon rotted after the ice melted in the coolers. Sometimes Vasquez went over the side to probe passing rafts of debris, and sometimes came up with coconuts for them to eat. At one point, they caught a turtle, but decided they couldn’t eat it and put it back in the water. As they were, they found a jug of water that they drank “with tremendous anxiety.”
One night they saw a ship far in the distance, and lit a rag on a stick that they waved, but the ship didn’t come for them.
On the Star Princess, birdwatcher Jeff Gilligan from Portland, Ore., was the first to spot the boat, something white that looked like a house.
When Judy Meredith of Bend, Ore., looked through the scopes, she could plainly see it was a small open boat, like the kinds they had seen off Ecuador. And she could see a man waving what looked like a dark red T-shirt.
“You don’t wave a shirt like that just to be friendly,” Meredith said. “He was desperate to get our attention.”
Barred from going to the bridge herself to notify the ship’s officers, Meredith said she told a Princess Cruises sales representative what they had seen, and he assured her he passed the news on to crew.
The birdwatchers said they even put the representative on one of the spotting scopes so he could see for himself.
Meredith went to her cabin and noted their coordinates from a TV feed from the ship, booted up her laptop and emailed the U.S. Coast Guard what she had seen. She said she hoped someone would get the message and help.
She sent a copy to her son. When she returned to the promenade deck, she could still see the boat.
But nothing happened. The ship kept going. And the little boat with the waving men disappeared.
“We were kind of freaking out, thinking we don’t see anything else happening,” Meredith said.
Gilligan could no longer bear to watch.
“It was very disturbing,” he said. “We asked other people, ‘What do you think we should do?’ Their reaction was: ‘Well, you’ve done what you could do.’ Whether something else could have been done, that’s a bit frustrating to think about.”
After Oropeza and Fernando Osario died, Vasquez was eventually picked up by a fishing boat off Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands, more than 600 miles from where they had set out.
Vasquez said he slipped their bodies into the sea after they began to rot in the heat. Before he was rescued, a rainstorm gave him fresh water to drink, helping him survive. Throughout the ordeal, the thought about his eight brothers, and never gave up hope.
Safe at home, Vasquez said he recognized their boat, the Fifty Cents, from the photos Gilligan had taken with his 300 mm lens.
“Yes, that’s it. That’s it. That is us,” he said. “You can see there, the red sweater I’m waving and, above it is the sheet that we put up to protect us from the sun.”
Vasquez mentioned the ship in his first statement to Panamanian authorities when he returned to his country.
Back at home in Oregon, Meredith couldn’t sleep, wondering what happened to the men. Reading a news story about a Panamanian rescued off Ecuador after 28 days in an open boat, she figured that was the boat they had seen. She pestered Princess Cruises, the Coast Guard, and even the Panamanian embassy.
“We were all just sick about it, and just wanted to believe the ship notified someone,” she said.
(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)