Reporting from San Diego -- Tossed from the capsized boat into the churning sea, Michael Ng clung to an ice cooler and started paddling toward an island off Baja California. But the current was dragging him and two others farther into the Gulf of California, sapping their strength.
That’s when they reached into the cooler and got lucky: It was filled with candy.
“We survived the night on Hershey’s Kisses and milk chocolate bars,” Ng said. “And strength in God.”
Ng was among 43 people aboard a fishing excursion boat that capsized early Sunday, sending all of the passengers and crew overboard and turning a holiday trip into a harrowing ordeal of fortitude and tragedy.
Thirty-five crew members and passengers survived after paddling or swimming 16 hours to shore or being rescued by Mexican fishermen and Navy boats, but seven U.S. tourists remain missing. Another passenger, Leslie Kimwah Yee, 64, was found dead on a desolate beach, according to Mexican and U.S. officials.
Hopes of finding survivors dimmed Tuesday. Search teams from the U.S. Coast Guard and Mexican Navy were scheduled to dive down to the boat, the Erik, to see if the missing people had been trapped on board, according to Mexican officials.
Relatives of the missing spent the Fourth of July and Tuesday trying to piece together their loved ones’ last seconds on the boat. Joellene Bautista of Sonoma County said her husband, Russell, was seen scrambling to get off by his friend, Jim Miller. But he hasn’t been found.
“Jim saw him put on a life vest and inflate it…. He was in the process of snapping the buckle,” Bautista said.
The six-day excursion had become a traditional outing for the passengers, most of whom are from the Bay Area and Central Valley. They set sail Saturday from San Felipe, a scenic town popular with U.S. retirees and sport fishermen who enjoy the rich fisheries in the Gulf of California.
But within hours, a freak storm descended on the boat near Gonzaga Bay, about 80 miles south of San Felipe. Dotted by arid, rocky islands, the area is known as the wind tunnel because of the westerly squalls that whip down from the craggy mountains.
Hector Rubio, one of the boat’s engine room mechanics, said clouds gathered about 1:30 a.m., lightning filled the sky and gale-force winds started blowing. “We call them bull [winds] because they hit without warning,” he said.
Giant waves thrashed the deck, sending streams of water into the open hold and several small skiffs. The passengers were rousted awake as the105-foot vessel started listing. “We sounded the alarms, and I told some crew members to wake up the passengers on the lower and upper decks,” Rubio said. “Then another wave hit and next thing you know, we’re in the water.”
Some people scrambled atop two life rafts, others hung onto ice coolers or stayed afloat on their life vests. Many paddled through the night, morning and afternoon to reach an island sheltered by rocky points.
Ng, a 43-year-old IT manager from the Bay Area city of Belmont, said the storm passed quickly, leaving clear skies and warm waters. The chocolates they found in the cooler gave them a much-needed energy boost to keep fighting the current. Nobody said much as they paddled through the night and morning.
“We tried to keep calm, and didn’t think about anything else except paddling,” Ng said.
Mexican fisherman rescued them Sunday afternoon, Ng said, after about 16 hours on the open sea. Fishermen from nearby villages were the first to encounter the survivors and alerted the Mexican Navy, which sent boats, planes and helicopters that helped rescue many of the others.
On Tuesday, Ng and the other badly sunburned survivors met with Baja California Gov. Guadalupe Osuna Millan and other government officials, whom they credited for mobilizing the large search effort.
Ng said most of the survivors have opted to stay at a San Felipe hotel to await word on the fate of the other fishermen. “Some of my friends are missing, and everybody is pretty concerned,” he said. The waters are warm though, and Ng said his friends could survive if they can stay hydrated.
“I think they’re still alive,” he said.
Rubio, the engine room mechanic, isn’t so sure. He remembers seeing crew members hand out many life vests but doesn’t know if the passengers on the upper decks got out in time. “It was all so fast. Imagine how many tons of water hit the boat,” he said. “And after the second wave hit, we couldn’t do anything.”
He blamed los toros, the bulls in Spanish, referring to the Baja gales: “They are very fierce.”