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Ferry Sinks Off Guatemala; 68 Killed; Captain Arrested

From Times Wire Services

An overcrowded ferry capsized and sank in shark-infested waters off the Caribbean coast of Guatemala, killing at least 68 people and possibly leaving half a dozen others missing, officials said Monday. Forty-six people were rescued.

The accident occurred about 15 hours after another vessel, a pleasure boat carrying New Year’s Eve revelers, sank off Rio de Janeiro, killing 51 people and leaving about 30 missing. The Brazilian ship, too, was reported overcrowded with passengers.

Guatemalan military and police officials said 46 people had survived after the passenger vessel--built to carry about 90 or 100--sank Sunday in the Bay of Amatique, 180 miles northeast of Guatemala City. Sixty-eight bodies have been pulled from the water, authorities said.

A fire department official said as many as 120 people may have been aboard the 30-ton ferry, which would leave six missing.

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The ferry’s captain, Juan Pablo Esquivel, was arrested and the crew detained for questioning, said Capt. Anibal Giron Arreola, second-in-command at the Puerto Barrios naval base. Navy officials said Esquivel told them by radio that the vessel was carrying 40 passengers.

The vessel, Justo Rufino Barrios, had stalled because of mechanical problems. It was being towed by a navy tugboat when it lurched violently. Passengers panicked, officials said, and their frenzy increased the rocking before the boat capsized about 4 p.m.

The ferry was en route from the town of Livingston, a beach resort popular with young tourists, to Puerto Barrios, about 20 miles to the south, when the accident occurred.

Patricia Ramos, a spokeswoman for the Puerto Barrios fire department, said 65 of the recovered bodies had been identified. All the fatalities were Guatemalan except three Spaniards--Vicente Daudi, an employee of the Spanish Embassy in Guatemala City, and his two children.

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She said up to 120 people may have been aboard the ferry.

Police confirmed an account by one survivor, who said that the ferry had stalled and a navy vessel responding to a radio call for help failed to get the passenger boat started again.

The survivor said the ferry’s passengers panicked after a tow line was attached. He said the navy tugboat’s line caused the ferry to lurch forward and then begin to rock.

The survivor said panicked passengers then increased the rocking and that the ferry capsized after it lurched forward a second time.

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A spokesman for the national police in Puerto Barrios said that most of the boat’s passengers were returning from New Year’s festivities in Livingston. He said the majority were from Puerto Barrios or the capital.

Popular Town

“Livingston is immensely popular with young travelers, and the town was packed full over the (New Year’s) weekend,” said the police spokesman. “It is possible there were other foreigners on board.”

He said there is no road connecting the cities and the regular transport between them is by water.

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A Guatemalan navy officer reported that weather conditions in the bay were rough Sunday, with heavy seas and winds up to 30 m.p.h. The officer said the boat was about 5 miles offshore when it overturned.

Military personnel and Red Cross workers labored throughout the night and on Monday to search for survivors, although the chances were “slim, at best,” the navy official said.

“When you have people in the water five miles off shore, and with sharks all around, there is little room for hope,” he said.

Brazilian Survivors

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Survivors of the Brazilian sinking told Monday of passengers fighting each other to get out of the doomed ship.

“It was terrible,” Toby Sanne, 43, a Norwegian, said. “Grown men were fighting like animals. We were trying to save the women and children, but grown men were throwing children aside.”

People searching for their loved ones shoved and pushed others in their desperation, survivors said. “It was a real fight for life,” Fabricio Calo, 33, said.

Owners of the Brazilian vessel blamed panic-stricken passengers for the disaster, which occurred about 15 minutes before the start of 1989.

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“The disaster was caused by passenger panic, the strong southwest winds and the high waves. Everything indicates that passengers all ran to one side of the boat,” Francisco Chagas, lawyer for the owners of the Bateau Mouche IV, told reporters.

Reading from a statement from owner Avelino Rivera, Chagas said the flat-bottomed boat had been officially inspected and was in perfect order.

Overcrowding Charged

But survivors accused the owners of overcrowding the boat and neglecting passenger safety, and authorities warned that criminal charges may be pressed.

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“It was murder, there were too many passengers,” Brazilian photographer Plinio Donadio told reporters.

Rosaria Leidner, 36, who leaped from the sinking boat’s top deck with her West German husband Karlheinz, said she had pleaded with the crew for life jackets as the boat set out to sea.

“I told them there were too many people and asked them for life jackets,” she said Monday, adding that the crew told her safety equipment was stowed below deck and there was no need to worry.

The official death toll on Monday stood at 51. After seven hours, divers had not retrieved any of the estimated 30 bodies still trapped in the boat’s ballroom.

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Chagas said marine police who intercepted the boat for a spot check made sure it was not overloaded before allowing it to set off again. The boat was licensed to carry 150 people and only 124 were aboard, he said.

But survivors insisted that at least 150 party goers were on the ship when it foundered in 13-foot seas.

Possibility of Bribes

Sheriff Irineu Barroso said he is investigating the possibility that police were bribed into letting the boat carry excess passengers.

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Barroso said he is also checking reports that yacht owners sailed past screaming passengers pleading for help in the rough waters after the boat capsized.

If true, he said, those responsible would be charged with failing to assist victims in distress.

Francisco Garcia, owner of the Itatiaia Turismo tour agency that operated the boat, refuted charges of overcrowding: “The company is not guilty for what happened.”

About 40 people are known to have survived. They said the boat was carrying Americans, Italians, French, West Germans, Portuguese, Danes and Norwegians, although most passengers were Brazilian.

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