Monday, August 22, 2011
by Ken Ellis
On Sunday, July 3rd, at 2:00 a.m., a tourist fishing boat, the Erik, went down in the Sea of Cortez approximately 100 miles south of San Felipe and 2 miles off Mexico's Baja coast. There were 43 passengers on board: 27 American tourists and 16 crew members. At this time, seven passengers, all tourists, remain unaccounted for. This is the story of four brothers, one of them still missing, who were aboard the Eric that night.
Glenn Wong and catch, courtesy Wong Family
Alameda, California, July 16th
Gary Wong laughed at the sight of his brother hugging the gargantuan mahi-mahi he had wrested from the Sea of Cortez. “I hooked one like that and he almost pulled me in”. Dozens of photos of fish and sea creatures caught by the four Wong brothers covered the dining room table...stringers of trout and bass, nine inch abalone, and a stunning, two hundred and seven pound tuna the four brothers landed with light tackle on 50 pound test line. That catch had been a team effort.
“It was 100 degrees, so I was spiting on the reel to keep it from overheating, as it was starting to smoke and Brian was wiping the sweat off Glenn’s face, so he could see what he was doing.” “The sea was deep crystal blue,” recalled Glenn Wong. “When the fish come out of the water, they’re beautiful…iridescent. But when they die, the color disappears.”
Craig, Brian, Glenn,and Gary Wong
Craig Wong, the youngest brother, who recruited the others to join the annual Baja expedition, is an Alameda County Deputy Sheriff. Brian, 54, works in Alameda County’s Human Resources Department. He usually wins the family fishing derby. Glenn has been a welder for PG&E for twenty-five years, and the eldest brother, Gary, recently retired after 30 years as a Water Treatment Plant Operator for East Bay MUD. The bond between them has been deepened by decades of shared fishing adventures, like the Baja trip. They were among 27 passengers and 16 crew members who boarded the “Erik” in San Felipe, Mexico on July 3, for what was to be a weeklong fishing trip in the Sea of Cortez. Their voyage ended tragically shortly after midnight, when the boat sank, spilling passengers into the roiling sea without warning, without life jackets, without any distress signal being issued. After more than fifteen hours in the water, two of the brothers managed to make it safely to shore. Another one was picked up by a local fishing boat. The fourth brother is still missing and now, presumed dead.
The Erik, courtesy Wong Family
They had done the Baja trip before aboard the “Erik”, an ungainly, rusting, 115-foot mother ship trailing day boat “pangas” in its wake. After pumping water, diesel fuel and shaved ice aboard, the boat headed out under clear skies and calm seas. “We were all excited,” recalled Glenn. “On the previous trip we caught a ton of fish - 25 pound Yellowtail’s also referred to as “Hamachi” at the local sushi bar. We always got our limit and shared our catch with other guys who didn’t do as well.”
Shortly after the evening meal, Glenn became sick and went to bed, falling onto his bunk in the small, below decks cabin he shared with his brothers. As the evening wore on, the sea turned ugly and the Erik was gradually engulfed by an electrical storm. At 2:30 AM, Glenn was startled awake by screams of his brother, Brian. “The boat is sinking! The boat is sinking!” They didn’t realize it at the time, be they would have less than 45 seconds to escape before the Eric slipped below the surface.
Still woozy from food poisoning, Glenn got up and groped for his lifejacket, as the metal shelving crashed to the deck, blocking the way out. “We got the stuff out of the way, opened the cabin door and we’re not walking out, we’re climbing out because the boat is now at a 45 degree angle leaning to the port side. Craig is in front of me, Gary is behind me and I assume Brian is behind him.” As they reached the passageway to the main deck, their escape route was blocked by a 200 plus pound passenger who was struggling to climb the stairs. “So Craig puts his shoulder into him and pushes him out. It’s like he had super powers - this guy was huge!”
Gary Wong followed Craig and Glenn, scrambling up the port side passageway to the main deck. “I looked for Brian and he had his hand on the support railing and hadn’t made it out yet. I yelled ‘hurry up!’ And as I pulled myself up, the boat tilted again and I heard things crashing down. All of a sudden I hear another voice below me yelling, “Help Me, Help Me!” I look down and, oh god, there was a guy trapped between two refrigerators that had fallen, one on each shoulder. All I could see was the top of his head and his cap. He was pleading for help…but I knew it was too late. Before I knew it, the water was over his head, over my foot and within a second or two, it went over my head.” The force of the water broke his grip from the railing and Gary started floating toward the surface. “I closed my eyes and tried to relax, but I panicked for a second, tried to paddle and took a big gulp of water. Getting to the surface felt like a lifetime. When I got there, I thought, oh I’m alive! Then I started taking in so much water I thought, I’m gonna die again.”
Standing next to each other at the moment the boat submerged, the brothers were scattered by torrents of water. When they surfaced, they were by themselves, facing twelve-foot waves and fifty-knot winds on a black, moonless night. Since the crew had not prepared the passengers to abandon ship, there were no life rafts, life jackets, or flotation devices at hand. A silhouette of something floating caught Glenn’s eye. He grabbed for it and found himself next to two other survivors, clinging to an ice chest. Vomiting and cramping, Glenn joined the others in kicking against the swift current to stay afloat.
At the same time, Gary was gasping for air, desperate to find something to hang on to. He finally saw a life ring attached to the side of a raft, but was too weak to reach it and called for help. A Mexican crew member on the raft shouted a one-word reply, “NO!” A moment later, he plucked a fellow crew member from the sea. Another passenger who had climbed onto the ring pulled Gary up by his feet just before a powerful wave crashed over them. Moments later, he heard Craig’s voice, calling out for his brothers. The two were reunited as they clung to the life ring, joining 3 other passengers, Jim Miller, Bruce Mar and Lee Ikegami, and four crew members from the Erik, all of whom were wearing new lifejackets.
Sitting between two heavy weights, straddling the 3 by 5 foot ring, Craig would be in chest high water for most of the next 14 hours. “I asked one of the crew members if the captain had issued a distress signal. My jaw dropped when he said no. I knew then that we were definitely on our own, and more than 9 miles from shore. I thought, these guys know the waters, so we’ll let them make decisions about where to go. There were 7 crew members on the life raft, and 4 on our ring. And they argued about whether to go toward the island or the mainland. They were yelling at each other, fighting, paddling, and bumping into each other for a few hours. We finally decided to untie the line that held the groups together. Our ring went toward the mainland and their raft went towards an island.”
During the night, a steady stream of flotsam - mostly in the form of ice chests- swirled around the men on the ring. Snagging one of them, Gary opened it and found a bottle of vitamin water, a half-gallon of orange juice and a coke…with his name on it. “I said, that’s MY name. That’s MY cooler! It was like a dream come true.” And he had to laugh when an unsuspecting crew member probed a black bag in the cooler and dredged up a handful of gooey, defrosting squid.
Two crew members left the group and tried to swim to shore, only to return, huffing and puffing, thwarted by the swift current. But just as the grim prospect of spending another night in the water was setting in, they spotted their salvation. A panga, one of the small fishing boats that was towed by the Erik, was floating in the distance. Craig called cadence as the nine men paddled furiously toward the small boat. When they got to it, they found 2 other passengers who were bailing water just to keep the panga afloat. I thought, oh man… this thing is leaking!” Craig recalled. “But now we were 11 strong, and we got a plan together; a few of us would paddle and a few of us would bail. So we make it across the channel. We get about 50 yards from shore and see this makeshift tent. And this couple comes out and the crew starts waving and yelling in Spanish. And I think…they don’t understand Spanish. So I start waving and yelling, ‘Call the Mexican Coast Guard! A boat went down.’ And one of the crew goes, ‘no, no. they’re illegals...Guatemalan.’ And I’m thinking to myself, illegals …in Mexico?! This can’t be real.”
The Guatemalans disappeared before the men reached shore. But the survivors were eventually taken in by locals, who drove them back to their vacation home, and offered food, water and lodging for the night. Craig and Gary were safe, but they had no word on the fate of their two other brothers.
Glenn had been carried several miles further south, clinging to an ice chest and a cushion, along with a crew member and three other passengers, including Charles Gibson, Police Chief of the Contra Costa Community College District. “I’m still cramping and throwing my guts out, but feeling better every time I do,” recalled Glenn. “In the morning we could see land and Charles says he thinks he can swim to shore, but he doesn’t have a life jacket. I’d known Charles from a previous trips and he always made me laugh… always had something good to say. So I gave him my life jacket and I said, ‘Charles don’t say I never gave you anything.’ And I saw that big old smile on that big fat face and I said, ‘Oh Yeah! That’s the Charles I know.’ At the time, I thought it was the right thing to do. Four hours later I was cussing at myself. What do you think you’re doing giving away your life jacket? You’re no Superman! But I would have had a hard time dealing with myself if I survived and he didn’t.”
A few hours after Gibson and the others headed for land, a shark began to circle Glenn and his companion, Warren Tsurumoto. “I saw a fin coming toward us and I told Warren, don’t move, don’t panic. I could see the shark’s eyes, he was that close. I’d heard survival techniques about poking them in the eye. I had a knife, so I was gonna stab him in the eye. He circled a few mores times and I lifted my legs up because I though he’s gonna bite my legs off. Then the fin disappeared and I thought, OK, he’s coming in for the kill. I had the knife in my hand thinking, I’m gonna at least take a piece of him if he’s gonna take a piece of me. We waited for a few minutes and nothing happened. So we started kicking for shore again.”
While Glenn knew their only hope was to reach the mainland or any of the rock outcroppings before 5pm, when the tide would ebb again, he comforted his companion with assurances that they could make it through another night at sea. “I told Warren, don’t worry, we can last another evening. …but I was lying out my ass.” As they approach the island, several boats came within hailing distance. “We see a boat coming straight for us and we start waving our arms and then he turns and follows the shoreline. We could have sworn he saw us, but he didn’t. That happened about 5 times.” Finally, three Mexican fishermen came to their rescue. They spoke English and asked the men if they were thirsty. After slamming down four bottles of water, Glenn convinced them to search for other survivors in the last hour of daylight before heading to Gonzaga Bay. “It was heartwarming to find people who were so giving. Ken Hopper and his wife, Laura, offered us a place to stay and fed me the best tuna sandwich I ever had. I drank 6 more bottles of water and took another one to bed with me.”
The next morning, Glenn, was flown back to San Felipe in Mexican military helicopters where he was reunited with brothers Gary and Craig. Their reunion was bittersweet, since their brother, Brian, was among 7 passengers still missing. The captain and crew of the Erik had all been rescued.
Mexican Navy helicopters and patrol boats, fishing boats and a US Coast Guard C130 joined to search for survivors, while anxious family members, most from the San Francisco Bay Area, monitored news reports and held conference calls with Coast Guard officers, the State Department, local representatives and Senator Barbara Boxer.
As the week wore on without a trace of the missing, one of the brother’s cousins contacted a well-respected Mexican intuitive, and asked him a difficult question: is Brian alive, and if so, where is he? The intuitive’s response was surprisingly good news. He believed that Brian was alive and still at sea with other survivors. He even pinpointed their location, circling an area on a Coast Guard search grid. But he emphasized that time was running out, and that the small, weary group would be difficult to find, due to the movement of the water in the area. The Coast Guard took in the information and rechecked the area, reporting “no signs of distress” there.
Two days later, the search was officially called off.
Before the survivors headed home, officials of the Mexican Navy called them together to take their statements about the incident. Glenn Wong feels a knot in his stomach when recalling that meeting. “As each person spoke, I saw a piece of the puzzle coming alive… the negligence on the part of the Captain, not turning into the waves but running sideways to the waves. There was no “rouge” wave. The captain never sent a distress signal. At no time were we given any warning to abandon ship. But the deckhands all had brand new life jackets on. They may have their side of the story, but, to me, it was very disheartening. To me, it’s like cold-blooded murder. They might as well have put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger on my brother.”
After the meeting, the men were presented with English translations of their statements.
“When I read it, it was nothing like what I actually said,” recalled Glenn. “Not even close.” The survivors refused to sign their statements. The next day, after the others left San Felipe, the brothers hired a boat and continued to search for Brian and the others on their own.
Two weeks later around the dining room table at Glenn Wong’s home in Alameda, Gary sat with fractured ribs and leg wounds and Craig with one broken toe from the incident. But the surviving brothers managed to smile and laugh about some of the details of their recent ordeal and past adventures. Brain’s wife and two daughters were at the table too, thankful to be in the company of loving family members again, still clinging to hope.
The Wongs and other families of the seven missing men have been working with their local Congressional representatives to push for a dive on the wreck of the Erik and continue the search for their loved ones. The Department of Defense denied a request for Navy divers, and the families set up a website (http://http://findourfathers.com) to raise private money for the dive.
“If they find him alive, it would be like winning the lotto,” Craig said. “If it hadn’t been for Brian, none of us would be here,” Glenn added. “He will always be my hero.”
The Wong Family is pressing for a full investigation of the incident by U.S. authorities. They have also established a fund for Brian Wong’s family. For more information, contact the Wong family at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Brain Wong, courtesy Wong Family