SAN FRANCISCO >> By Friday, most of the survivors of a Sea of Cortez fishing trip that turned deadly had straggled home to Northern California, carrying harrowing tales of being lost at sea for hours.
"It is something I will never forget," said Gary Wong of Berkeley. Wong spent more than 15 hours floating on a safety ring and paddling to shore after the 105-foot fishing boat Erik sank after getting hit by two big waves during a violent storm early Sunday morning.
In all, 19 U.S. fishermen — mostly from Northern California on an annual Fourth of July trip — and 16 Mexican crew members made it safely to dry land. One man, Leslie Yee of Ceres, was found drowned on a remote island beach and seven other Americans remain missing.
Pius "Pete" Zuger of Novato said the trouble began at 10 p.m. Saturday, several hours after the fisherman boarded for the weeklong fishing excursion. That’s when the weather began to turn nasty and the wind began to blow hard from the southeast. The locals call it "El Torito" — little bull — because the storm packs such a powerful punch.
Zuger said he was awakened around 2:30 a.m. by cabin mate Jim Miller who was screaming, "The boat is sinking, get out!"
Zuger, 73, jumped out of the top bunk as the ship listed dramatically. He considered putting on his pants with money in a water proof wallet, but put on his swim suit instead.
"I had no doubt that there was going to be swimming involved," Zuger said.
His cabin was on the ship’s deck, and Zuger wasted little time jumping into the 80-degree water of the Sea of Cortez.
Zuger was floating on an ice chest when one of the Erik’s smaller fishing boats known as a panga appeared, listing badly and partially submerged. But Zuger clambered aboard with another fisherman, Joe Beeler. Then they bailed out the powerless 20-foot boat, which would prove to be the salvation of 13 castaways.
Their best chance for quick rescue was if the crew managed to transmit a distress signal before the Erik sank. But Zuger and Beeler hoped for the best and prepared for the worst, collecting seaweed for fishing line and stowing tiny crabs found on the plants.
"The first thing we said to each other after settling in is that we are together. We made a pact to stay together," Zuger said in a phone interview Friday from his Novato home.
When dawn broke and there were no helicopters in the air or boats on the horizon, the pair knew no signal had been given. The captain and crew said later that they had no time to send an SOS because the boat had sunk so quickly after getting knocked on its side by a big wave. A second wave knocked the ship completely over.
Mexican officials said the cause of the capsizing is under investigation, and a report on the accident should be ready in about 10 days.
"We’re reviewing the records of the ship, but I can tell you it had a steel hull, and it had been operating for years in this area," said Jose Luis Rios Hernandez, Port Captain in Ensenada who is helping with the investigation. "The truth is that the weather conditions (the Erik faced) could have done the same to any boat of that size."
Zuger, who spent six years as a machinist in the Swiss merchant marine in the 1960s, and other fishermen complained that the crew didn’t alert the passengers to the sinking and that all the crew had life vests but most of the passengers had to fend for themselves.
Baja Sportsfishing Inc., which owns the Erik, didn’t respond to phone and email messages Friday. Crew members told investigators that the boat sank too fast to sufficiently warn all the passengers.
Alejandro Bermudez, 32, an assistant cook on the boat, said the crew assisted passengers.
"The first thing we did was to open the tourists’ cabins and shout that they needed to get out," Bermudez said. "We helped some of them put their life vests on; others already had them on because they were woken up when the boat got on its side."
Zuger went into the water without a vest. So did Gary Wong of Berkeley, who said his brother woke him up to the peril.
Unlike Zuger, the four Wong brothers’ berth was in the bottom of the Erik and they were among the last to leave the ship.
With the port side sinking fast, Wong made it to the deck. He grabbed a rail on the starboard side and held tight as the water rose.
"Help me, help me," Wong heard from the bottom of the increasingly sloped deck. He could see a fellow fisherman pinned between two cabinets, unable to move.
And then, just like that, Wong was washed into the Sea of Cortez. "I can’t believe I’m going to die a day after retiring," said Wong, a Berkeley resident who retired July 1 from his job as a senior water treatment operator for the East Bay Municipal Utility District.
When he surfaced, Wong made his way to a raft and a large safety ring lashed together. A crew member pulled him aboard the ring, and they were soon joined by fellow fisherman Jim Miller.
Once aboard, he began to get sick and shake from the chills. He said he vomited on the back of Miller, who laughed it off and allowed Wong to bear hug for several hours in an attempt to warm up.
By dawn, the raft and ring were full of crew and passengers. Wong said the crew began to squabble among themselves over which direction to paddle. The crew decided to cut the ring from the raft and they went separate ways.
Wong had earlier fished his ice chest from the water — and it contained orange juice and vitamin water that they rationed. The fluids were rationed throughout the day.
After floating for more than 10 hours, the people on the ring spotted Zuger’s panga and frantically hailed it. The two parties were united.
Late Sunday afternoon, Zuger took command. With the fishermen using cooler lids as paddles, the panga finally landed on a remote beach, and Zuger and Beeler reached a house a mile away.
The occupants, a family from Chula Vista, Calif., rushed down the beach in their jeep and scooped up the rest of the castaways. The family served the bedraggled group "the most delicious ceviche" and water. They offered clothes and shoes.
"They were so gracious," Zuger said. "They were the most wonderful, helping people."
About 90 minutes later, an Army helicopter landed on the beach nearby and the castaways had been rescued.
Two of Wong’s brothers made it to shore while his brother, Brian, remains among the missing.
Associated Press writers Olga Rodriguez in Mexico City and Mariana Martinez in San Felipe contributed to this report.