Panama Castaways Were Spotted By Cruise Ship Passengers - And Ignored By Ship's Captain
Friday, April 13 2012 @ 06:45 pm EDT
Contributed by: Don Winner
Two of the people on the boat, 18 year old Adrian "Santi" Vasquez, and 16 year old Fernando Osario, had spotted the cruise ship and were doing everything they could to attract attention to themselves, and to let the people on the cruise ship know they needed to be rescued. "It was a really big, white ship. I was waving a red t-shirt, and Fernando was waving a bright orange life jacket over his head. For a minute it looked like they were going to turn to come for us, but then they just went on their way," said "Santi" Vasquez yesterday afternoon, in an exclusive interview granted to www.panama-guide.com.
All three of the Panamanian fishermen were still alive on the day the three birdwatchers on the Star Princess spotted them, and recognized they were in trouble. The oldest of the three, 24 year old Oropeces Betancourt, died during the following night, and 16 year old Fernando Osario died five days later. If the Captain of the Star Princess had believed the three birdwatchers and sent a boat to rescue the three men, all three of them could have survived.
The amazing survival story about the eventual rescue of Adrian Vasquez by an Ecuadoran fishing vessel near the Galapagos Islands more that 650 miles from shore after spending 28 days adrift at sea and his emotional return to his family in Panama was widely reported by both local and international media, but this is the first time the story of the missed opportunity for rescue by the Star Princess cruise ship has been reported, anywhere. (more)
On 24 February 2012, three local Panamanian fishermen set out from from the beach near Rio Hato in a 26 foot fiberglass "panga" (small boat) named the "Fifty Cent." On board the small fishing boat were three friends, 24 year old Oropeces Betancourt, 18 year old Adrian "Santi" Vasquez, and 16 year old Fernando Osario. Fishermen in Panama regularly and routinely use these "pangas" in the ocean, but they rarely go out very far, and normally they will stay within sight of land. However on that day the outboard engine on the "Fifty Cent" refused to start and the three were set adrift at sea.
Twenty eight days later, on 24 March 2012, Adrian "Santi" Vasquez was rescued at sea by an Ecuadoran fishing boat. His two friends had died of thirst and he was forced to dump their bodies into the sea. The story of Santi's survival and rescue was widely reported by both local and international media. Santi returned to Panama to a hero's welcome amid mixed feelings, glad to be alive but sad over the loss of this friends.
But, that's not the end of the story.
It has come to light that a full two weeks before Santi was rescued, on Saturday, 10 March 2012, three American birdwatchers who were aboard the cruise ship Star Princess spotted the Fifty Cent off their starboard side. Judy Meredith from Bend, Oregon is an avid member of the East Cascades Audubon Society. She and two friends were taking a cruise Aboard the Star Princess that departed from Santiago (Valparaiso), Chile on 3 March 2012, with stops in La Serena (Coquimbo), Chile, Lima (Callao), Peru, Quito (Manta), Ecuador, Puntarenas, Costa Rica, San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, Acapulco, Mexico, Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, and San Francisco, California.
On the morning of 10 March 2012, the Star Princess was making the crossing from Ecuador to Costa Rica. Judy and her friends are more than just "avid bird watchers," that description simply doesn't do them justice. They are "birders" of the first order. Last night and this morning I was trying to talk to Judy again as I was writing this article, and I could not get in touch with her because she was guiding a group of birdwatchers on a tour. The point being - Judy and her friends are serious about spotting birds. One of the things I didn't know is that there are opportunities to spot "ocean going" birds, far out at sea, and well away from any nearby landmass or islands. These are the kinds of birds Judy and her friends were trying to spot on the morning of 10 March 2012.
They had gotten up at dawn and positioned themselves as far forward on the bow as they possibly could on the Star Princess, in order to get the best observing position. Armed with high power binoculars, expensive spotting scopes, and cameras fitted with telephoto lenses, they were perfectly equipped to scan the ocean at long range and to spot anything unusual they might have encountered. It's important to note that Judy and her friends are accomplished and trained observers, accustomed to peering through their glasses and spotting little things that might be hard for others to see or distinguish.
A couple of hours after the sun came up, the three bird watchers were eventually forced by the ocean winds to move back to a more comfortable and less exposed position on the starboard side of the ship. And then, unbelievably, they spotted a small fiberglass "panga" floating in the middle of the ocean. By some chance of fate, the route of the Star Princess had crossed with the drifting Panamanian fishing panga the "Fifty Cent" carrying Adrian Vasquez and his two companions. The motor on the fishing vessel was not running, and it was apparently dead in the water, just sitting there, in the middle of nowhere.
Judy and her friends could see people on board, frantically waving for help. Judy said "the three of us saw this small fishing boat in the photo I sent you. We thought he was trying to flag down the ship, vigorously waving a shirt up and down, and then switching to waving what looked like a red flag up and down and we thought he was in distress." In an interview conducted via telephone Judy later said "it was perfectly clear to us that those people needed help, and they were trying to get our attention."
Concerned, they contacted one of the ship's crew and pointed out the small fishing vessel. Judy said "we told someone at a desk we wanted to call the bridge and be sure they checked on it. We weren't sure the bridge did anything about it but the guy at the desk made the call while I was standing there and then he came back out with me and looked through our spotting scopes at the guy and he went back inside. The ship didn't turn around."
At this point, on the morning of 10 March 2012, they were located more than 130 miles from the closest land in any direction, way too far for a small fiberglass boat like the "Fifty Cent" to navigate safely. The crew member even used the bird watcher's binoculars and optics to see for himself, and he confirmed that it did look like the fishermen aboard the small fiberglass panga were waving frantically as if they were asking for help. The crew member on the Star Princess contacted the bridge of the ship and informed the ship's captain of what he and the birdwatchers had seen. After the Star Princess crew member returned from the bridge, he said the ship's captain had changed course to "avoid the fishermen's nets." According to the captain, the men on the "Fifty Cent" were not waving to ask for help, but rather they were waving to say "thanks for avoiding our nets."
As it turns out, the captain of the Star Princess could not have been more wrong.
Judy and her friends now knew the crew of the Star Princess was not going to do anything to help the men in the stricken fishing vessel.
Still concerned about the men they had seen waving for help, Judy returned to her cabin and made note of the ship's position and the current GPS coordinates, which were available on one of the television channels in her cabin. She said "I went down to our cabin and got the coordinates which are posted every few minutes on a TV channel in the cabins. I wrote down the coordinates a little while after we passed by the boat. That location was at position 06° 12′ 25″ N, 083° 29′ 08″ W on 10 March 2012. So the photo I sent you was of the boat we saw just SW of these coordinates."
Now the cruise ship was steaming away, and the castaways were fading towards the horizon, but Judy still would not give up. Determined to do something to try to help these men, she returned to her cabin and actually sent a message to the United States Coast Guard, in a frantic last-ditch effort to get help for the men on the fishing vessel. This is the text of the email Judy sent to the US Coast Guard;
- "Sent to US coast guard at 6 pm local time ( between CR and Ecuador) While on a cruise ship the Star Princess, between Ecuador and heading to Puntarenas Costa Rica, 3 of us are birding off the starboard deck with good optics and spotted a boat at about position 06 12.25 N and 083 29.08 W today, possibly about 10 miles SW of that location. The boat appeared to be a disabled fishing boat with one person aboard and nets strung up from the masts. The person was actively waving a shirt or fabric object up and down with both hands. Since we were so many miles off shore and had not seen ANY watercraft all day, we summoned a representative from the ship and asked him to phone the bridge. The rep then came back after calling the bridge of the Star Princess and looked through our scopes himself and could see the man waving something. By this time, he appeared farther away and was now waving a red flag. We took this to be a sign of distress. The boat could be disabled and the man adrift. The Star Princess did not turn around or appear to make any active attempt to deal with the information so we were bothered and decided to send information somewhere ourselves although we realize this is NOT US waters. We are 3 birders with a lot of experience at sea and were using Swarovski binoculars 10/50, a Swarovski spotting scope at 30 to 60 power and my KOWA scope at 30 to 60 power. We have no doubt whatsoever that we saw a man appearing to be in distress and want to be sure that someone who is able to communicate such information knows about it. Respectfully submitted, Judy Meredith, Bend, Oregon, 97701, but presently at sea and unable to make a phone call."
Even though she had done everything human possible to help those poor people, the sight of the men frantically waving for help continued to haunt Judy. Upon return from the cruise, two weeks later, Judy saw the reports of the rescue of Adrian "Santi" Vasquez and the plight of the "Fifty Cent" on the news. She immediately suspected the boat they had spotted that day on the Star Princess might have been the stricken Panamanian fishing vessel. But, she had no way of knowing for sure, and she decided to try to find out. Judy started reading all of the news stories published on the Internet about the rescue of Adrian Vasquez, and eventually she saw the articles I had published on the Panama-Guide.com website.
- Panamanian Fisherman Rescued 640 Miles Offshore - Adrift For 27 Days - 24 March 2012
- National Police Coordinating Prompt Return of Rescued Fisherman to Panama - 26 March 2012
- Panamanian Fisherman - Adrift For 27 Days Then Rescued - Returns To Panama Tomorrow - 27 March 2012
- The second life of a castaway - Survivor Returns To Panama - 28 March 2012
Skeptical At First: When Judy first contacted me and said she through she might have seen the "Fifty Cent" adrift at sea, my first thought was that the odds against something like that happening would be astronomical. I asked a few questions, about the ship they were on, the route they had taken, and the additional information she had. By then I knew there was a possibility that she might actually have something, but I had to confirm the story.
Contacting Adrian: I called a friend of mine, Len Melso who owns the Panamauto car repair shop in Rio Hato. It turns out one of Len's mechanics knows the surviving Panamanian fisherman Adrian Vasquez personally, so I asked him to pass a message to Adrian, to give him my cell phone number, so I could talk to him on the phone. Adrian called me yesterday afternoon, and after just a couple of minutes on the phone I was able to verify that yes, the two stories checked out. Adrian and his friend had, in fact, spotted the cruise ship and tried to flag it down. And, Adrian said they had seen the ship on the same day that Judy reported having seen the "Fifty Cent" adrift at sea. But I still wanted to show Adrian the photos Judy had sent me, to close the loop for sure.
Scoot To Rio Hato: I quickly printed out the photos Judy had sent me, hopped into my Jeep and drove straight to Len's garage, where I met Adrian "Santi" Vasquez. I heard his version of the story, told him what Judy had told me, and showed him the photos. He confirmed without any doubt that yes, those were photos of the "Fifty Cent."
So, What Now: I suspect the relatives of Oropeces Betancourt and Fernando Osario, who almost certainly died because the Captain of the Star Princess failed to stop and save them, might eventually take some kind of legal action. In fact, the Captain of the Star Princess was legally obligated to help those fishermen, and he failed to do so. Regulation 33 of the International Convention for the Safety of Life At Sea (SOLAS) Chapter V states:
- "The master of a ship at sea which is in a position to be able to provide assistance on receiving a signal from any source that persons are in distress at sea, is bound to proceed with all speed to their assistance, if possible informing them or the search and rescue service that the ship is doing so. If the ship receiving the distress alert is unable or, in the special circumstances of the case, considers it unreasonable or unnecessary to proceed to their assistance, the master must enter in the log-book the reason for failing to proceed to the assistance of the persons in distress, taking into account the recommendation of the Organization, to inform the appropriate search and rescue service accordingly."
According To The Merchant Ship Search and Rescue Manual (MERSAR):
- "It is accepted as the normal practice of seamen, indeed there is an obligation upon masters, that they render every assistance within their power in cases where a person or persons are in distress at sea. These obligations are set out in regulation V/10 of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea."
Judy Contacted Princess Cruise Lines:
- "I CONTACTED PRINCESS CRUISES when I read the news articles and asked them what the ship log showed for that day as I was concerned that the ship had ignored our request to check on the boat and that we had seen a boat in distress and that it could have been the Fifty Cents and Adrian Vasquez and his friends. It took several days but Princess got back to me and claimed that they were going through a fishing fleet at the time that we reported it. They told me that they sent my report higher up at Princess and did a full investigation that found that Princess had taken action about the time of our report. That they were in communication with the fishing boats and that the boat waving at us was thanking the ship for getting out of his way, that the ship moved to the west of him to get out of the path of his nets. I just don't know if this is the complete story or if it is true.
- I thought if someone in Panama could follow up on any of it that the truth would be sorted out. So that is why I am asking if it is possible to get a photo of the Fifty Cents or a boat that is just like it. The boat we photographed looked bigger than 10 feet. If it was an active fishing boat and their story is true that is something. If it was a boat in distress, if Adrian saw a cruise ship on March 10th and it went sailing by him, that is important. Cruise ships are supposed to respond to emergencies at sea. Perhaps one of the families has an older photo of the Fifty Cents. If it was a small fishing 10 foot boat without a little roof in the middle then it probably was NOT the boat we saw.
- It just keeps bothering me though, if we saw them and the boat kept going past, one of his buddies died that day and one 5 days later, and he was finally rescued 2 weeks after. I saw that you did two local stories on the boat and Adrian returning and I hoped you would have the time and interest to follow up and that you might be able to contact someone in their village and find out about the boat etc."
So, The Captain Was Lying: It's pretty clear at this point the Captain of the Star Princess lied about his contact with the "Fifty Cent" that day. He was not, in fact, "in contact" via radio with a fishing fleet - because they didn't have a radio. There was no need to maneuver to the West to avoid their fishing nets, because they were not fishing. They were waving their shirts and life preservers up and down, trying to be spotted, asking to be rescued. And, the captain blew them off. He made the fatal assumption that they were "just fishing." He turned slightly to avoid them, and he went on his merry way. Now, I want to know his name...
Thank You, Judy Meredith: This amazing woman did everything she could think of to try to help these poor people. She notified the ship's Captain. She notified the US Coast Guard via email. She followed up with the Princess Cruise Line - who gave her a "corporate" answer, best suited to protect their bottom line. And then she still kept at it, and contacted me. Very, very well done. This might be the first you've heard of this story, but I doubt it will be the last.
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Copyright 2012 by Don Winner for Panama-Guide.com. Go ahead and use whatever you like as long as you credit the source. Salud.