Mexico searches for 7 missing in boating accident

Published 9:01 pm Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Mexican rescuers were scouring the Gulf of California on Tuesday for seven U.S. tourists whose fishing boat capsized two days ago, saying they were extending their search because the missing tourists could still be alive in the warm, calm waters.

One American has been confirmed dead in the accident, which came after a sudden storm upended the boat before dawn Sunday, spilling dozens of tourists and crew members into the water. The identity of the dead man was not released.

By early Monday, 19 of the tourists and all 16 crew members had been picked up by the navy or other fishing boats after clinging to coolers, rescue rings and life vests for more than 16 hours.

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Mexican navy, army and state officials met late Monday to discuss the search and there were reports they would call off rescue efforts. But instead they announced the search would continue over an extended area.

The U.S. Coast Guard sent a C130 fixed-wing aircraft that can stay in the air longer and search farther than the helicopter it used Monday, said Petty Officer Levi Read.

Three helicopters from the navy, the state of Baja California and the city of Mexicali were searching Tuesday morning, said Baja California state Civil Protection Director Alfredo Escobedo Ortiz.

Escobedo said authorities are considering requesting deep-water divers from Mexico and the U.S. who can search the wreckage, which is in water more than 200 feet (65 meters) deep.

Mexican navy Capt. Benjamin Pineda Gomez said that with the warm weather and water temperature in the Gulf of California, it’s still possible that the missing tourists are alive.

“A person who casts away can survive many days. That sea is calm,” he said.

Most of the 27 men on the fishing excursion are from Northern California and had made the trip before.

Gary Wong was on the trip with three brothers, Glen, Craig and Brian, all from the San Francisco Bay Area. The group had made the trip twice before, according to a relative, who asked not to be named. Brian Wong, of Berkeley, is still missing.

“We’re not leaving until we find him,” Gary Wong told “Good Morning America” on Tuesday. “One way or another.”

Pius “Pete” Zuger was among a group of eight friends who caravanned down to Mexico in two cars for the fishing trip. They had hoped to catch a lot of yellowtail, said his wife, Jackie Zuger, of Novato, California.

As of Monday night, all but one of the men, Russell Bautista, had been accounted for.

“He was in a room with Russ, four in a room together,” Jackie Zugar said of her husband. “It happened so fast, and it turned over, and he said he flew across the room and they said, ’We gotta get out of here.”’

After the ship capsized, Zuger and another man, David Levine, jumped on one of nine dinghies the tour company says were aboard the boat and used for angling. Others said they didn’t have time, the boat sunk so fast.

The seven survivors also plan to stay in San Felipe until they get word of Bautista, an experienced boat owner who often took the other men fishing or crabbing, Jackie Zuger said.

Another survivor, Lee Ikegami, called his wife in San Martin, California, and told her he survived by clambering into a life raft when the boat overturned.

“There was an angel sitting on his shoulder,” his wife, Murphy Ikegami, said.

The U.S. Coast Guard offered Mexico help in the search and rescue operation and said it will continue its operations.

The 115-foot (35-meter) vessel, the Erik, sank about 60 miles (100 kilometers) south of the port of San Felipe around 2:30 a.m. local time Sunday, the second day of a weeklong fishing trip the group had organized for several years each Independence Day holiday.

The boat capsized less than two miles (three kilometers) from shore, but the navy extended its search 60 miles (100 kilometers) deeper into the gulf later Monday after searching the area by helicopter and airplane and finding nothing, Pineda said.

Those rescued were in good condition with a few scrapes after bobbing in the intense sun and Gulf waters that were about 77 degrees Fahrenheit (25 degrees Celsius), according to the Mexican navy. Photos released by the Mexican navy showed several sunburned fishermen in T-shirts and Bermuda shorts waiting to get on a bus.

The Erik has been on the Gulf of California, known in Mexico as the Sea of Cortez, since 1989, according to the website of the company Baja Sportfishing Inc. It was built in Holland and was equipped with stabilizers to handle the turbulent North Sea.

The company, Baja Sportfishing, has had its incorporation status suspended since Feb. 1, 2001, by the California Franchise Tax Board, said Shannan Velayas of the California Secretary of State. Officials at the franchise board said they were checking on the reason.

“We have been working with Mexican Navy authorities and the U.S. Coast Guard in the search and rescue,” Baja Sportfishing Inc. said in statement emailed to The Associated Press. “Right now our main concern is making sure that everyone is accounted for.”

The company would not comment further. It said on its website Monday that all trips have been canceled.