Mexico: Search on for missing US tourists

2011-07-05 11:00

Tijuana - Mexican rescuers scoured the Gulf of California for seven missing US tourists whose boat capsized two days ago, saying they were extending the search because the castaways could still be alive in the warm, calm waters.

One American has been confirmed dead in the accident, which came after a flash storm upended the boat before dawn on 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.

Mexican Navy, army and state officials met late on 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.

Mexican navy Captain 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.

Less than 3km from shore

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

The 35m vessel, the Erik, sank about 100km south of the port of San Felipe on Sunday, the second day of a weeklong vacation fishing trip the group had organised for several years each Independence Day holiday.

The boat capsized less than 3km from shore, but the navy extended its search 100km deeper into the gulf later on Monday after searching the area by helicopter and airplane and finding nothing, Pineda said.

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

"I'm beyond concerned," said Kristina Bronstein, who is engaged to missing tourist Mark Dorland of Twain Harte, California.

She heard about the accident on Monday morning from a trip organiser's wife, who told her Dorland, aged 62, was one of the first people to fall into the water. He wasn't wearing a life vest.

In the water for over 16 hours

The couple are to be married next month.

Charles Gibson, a police officer with the Contra Costa Community College District, said people on the boat were awoken by other passengers and the crew as it began to sink.

Most "were in the water for over 16 hours", said Gibson, who had gone on the fishing trip twice before. "We hope that the information is getting to our families that we are here and that we survived."

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.

Murphy Ikegami said the fishermen made the trip every year but would only make day trips out to sea to fish and stayed in hotels along the coast at night. This year, she said, they decided they wanted to sleep on the boat.

License suspended

Those rescued were in good condition with a few scrapes after bobbing in the intense sun and Gulf waters that were about 25°C, according to the Mexican navy weather analysis. 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 Incorporated It was built in Holland and was equipped with stabilisers to handle the turbulent North Sea.

The California Secretary of State website says Baja Sportfishing's business license has been suspended. It doesn't state a reason or give a date.

"We have been working with Mexican Navy authorities and the US Coast Guard in the search and rescue," Baja Sportfishing Incorporated said in a brief statement e-mailed to The Associated Press. "Right now our main concern is making sure that everyone is accounted for."

The company didn't respond to an interview request. It said in an announcement posted on its website on Monday afternoon that all trips have been cancelled.