Inquiry targets tragedy at sea

Times Staff Writers

What happened that clear, moonless night in the Catalina Channel is still very much a mystery.

A Santa Ana couple were going for a midnight cruise to Santa Catalina Island, and a huge 128-foot barge was lumbering toward the Port of Los Angeles.

Radar shows the two mismatched vessels colliding sometime between midnight and 12:20 a.m. Oct. 2. The impact smashed the small boat, but the pilot of the barge didn’t even know an accident had occurred.

Later that morning, the debris was found.

On Thursday, two bodies were pulled from the ocean. They are believed to be those of Henry Sanchez, the brother of two Southland congresswomen, and his girlfriend Penny Avila, who were described as experienced boaters.

Investigators are still trying to figure out how their small craft collided with the barge and sank to the ocean floor.


“It looks like this was a very tragic accident,” said Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Chief William McSweeney, whose dive teams were involved in the search. “Our hearts and prayers go out to the families.”

Those familiar with the waters between Los Angeles and Catalina said the roughly 22-mile-wide channel can be a congested mix of huge freight ships, fishing vessels, small pleasure craft and tour boats.

During the day, everyone can see each other. At night, boaters can feel blinded.

“It would be like driving without their headlights,” said Rick Roberts, waterfront director of the Long Beach Yacht Club. “It’s not a smart thing to do unless you have to.”

During the day, GPS devices can guide boats precisely to their destinations, said Bob Brown, a spokesman for the Southern California Marine Assn., who also pilots his own craft to Catalina about eight times a year.

After dark, the number of boats clears out, but navigation can be much tougher.

GPS would keep you on course, but not tell you about the obstacles in between, he said. A radar system would help you get an approximate size and speed, but you would not know exactly what was approaching.

“The ability to see exactly what is there, you just can’t replace that,” he said. “There’s no substitute for human sight.”

Since 1997, there have been nine accidents in California’s coastal waters involving boats and barges that resulted in six injuries and the two latest fatalities, said Gloria Sandoval, spokeswoman for the state Department of Boating and Waterways.

Sanchez, 51, was the brother of U.S. Reps. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) and Linda Sanchez (D-Lakewood). He lived with Avila, 48, in Santa Ana, family members told the U.S. Coast Guard.

The couple were heading to Catalina on the 26-foot Bayliner. A family member saw the pair off from Alamitos Bay in eastern Long Beach, shortly after midnight, Coast Guard officials said.

Investigators do not know who was operating the boat.

At that time, the weather was clear and dark, Coast Guard officials said. They are still interviewing other boaters about the water conditions.

The 128-foot barge called Islander was at the end of a 1,000-foot cable being pulled by a 69-foot tugboat named Rebel II, officials with Catalina Freight Line said.

“Obviously, we’re very concerned about the incident,” said Rich Coffey, chief executive of the company, which moves cargo between Catalina and Los Angeles five days a week.

In its 40-year history, the company’s vessels have collided with a pleasure boat only once before, and that accident caused less than $100 in damage and no injuries, said Lynne Doll, a Catalina Freight spokeswoman.

Last week, the tug pulling the barge was on “a routine trip” from Avalon to Los Angeles, piloted by a captain with 37 years of experience, Doll said.

The vessels had left Avalon about 10 p.m., expecting to reach Los Angeles about 1 or 2 a.m. Islander was carrying an empty grocery truck.

“The captain was unaware that there was a collision of any kind,” Doll said.

Sanchez’s Bayliner appeared to be going about 25 knots and slid under an edge that stuck out of the barge, said a source close to the investigation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the inquiry was ongoing. The pilot cabin was torn off as the boat appeared to turn upside down underwater, the source said.

The boat then probably popped to the surface again for about 20 minutes, the source said, before sinking 150 feet.

A passing boater reported a debris field to the Coast Guard about 7:30 a.m.

Authorities immediately began looking for the wreckage and survivors. They suspended the search for survivors the following afternoon.

With the help of sonar and a remote-controlled submarine, searchers found the vessel Tuesday, upside down on the ocean floor. They had surveyed about 350 square miles of ocean.

As the dive teams from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and Los Angeles Port Police were bringing the boat to the surface, they discovered the bodies inside.

Officials took the wreckage to Berth 87 at the Port of Los Angeles for a news conference Thursday. When the wind lifted the blue tarp, a white hull, with its top sheared off, and two mangled motors could be seen.

Although McSweeney, the sheriff’s official, identified one of the bodies as that of Henry Sanchez and the other as “what appear to be the remains of Penny Avila,” coroner’s officials said the bodies have not been positively identified.

On Thursday, Linda and Loretta Sanchez issued a joint statement thanking the public for their kind messages.

“It is with heavy hearts that we learn of their tragic fate,” they said. “We ask that you keep our family and the Avila family in your prayers and also the brave men and women whose job it was to search for and recover our loved ones.”


Times staff writer Richard Winton contributed to this report.