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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

FEATURE: The Sinking of the Erik

The Sinking of the Erik
by Karri Moser, Baja Good Life Club

For a close-knit group of anglers from northern California, the early morning of July 3, 2011 will be etched in their minds forever, at least the minds of those who survived. At approximately 2:30 am, a freak storm known and dreaded by natives of Baja, called an “El Torito”, or little bull, managed to bring down the 115 ft. fishing vessel that was caught in its path. For this particular voyage on the Erik, there were 43 people total on board, 27 American fishermen, and 16 crewmembers. The annual tour was a much-anticipated 4-night trip for the men to fish, laugh, eat like kings, and tell tall tales of the high sea. Only, the tale the survivors are left with is a story they wish they had never been a part of, a story that ended with one of them washed up lifeless on a sandy beach and the fate of seven others still unknown.

According to survivor reports, the trip began typically enough, just with a slight delay. They had a fantastic meal while waiting; which was always a given when the guys took a trip on the Erik. When the Erik, operated by Baja Sportfishing Inc., did finally venture out, it was immediately called back to dock by the Federales. While unusual, no one seemed alarmed. Speculation has swirled that the authorities were warning the Captain of an impending storm. Some accounts now surface speculating the Captain chose to ignore whatever warning the Federales were imposing on him out of impatience to get the already late trip started. Again, this dismissive attitude and contents of the actual conversation are all speculation by a few survivors. Aside from this out of the ordinary start to the trip, there was no reason for anyone on board to expect anything other than the great time the group had been enjoying for several years together.

According to documented reports, the storm came fast and hard. The winds blew steady at over 50 knots for hours. The waves were epic. Moreover, according to survivors Gary Hanson and Jerry Garcia when they publically told their tale of survival, the Captain made one very huge mistake at the helm. Reports say he drove away from the overpowering and relentless waves instead of into them, which maritime school of thought says would have been easier for the ship to weather. Published official reports say a rogue wave overtook the vessel; but the American survivors and families have come forward with a story that lets the El Torito off the hook as the sole reason seven men never made it home.

As the boat took on water and the bashing of its sides became worse, the Americans began to wake. Chaos was already unleashed as the crew was scrambling to save the ship. Oddly enough, every member of the crew was already fitted with life jackets. Within minutes, the California tourists knew they were in serious trouble. Dave Levine summed up the moment to local papers as pure “pandemonium”. Darkness, confusion and a boat that was quickly losing its battle against the little bull resulted in a mad dash by the men to find life jackets on their own get their bearings straight and try to save themselves. Survivors who saw the Captain in those final moments aboard the Erik describe him as paralyzed with fear and looking “bug-eyed”. The crew and Americans together were all washed overboard by one final epic wave, sending them flying, and gurgling seawater as they were scattered into the dark, deep ocean. Bob Higgins and Steve Sloneker were amazed by the final wave and felt like they were being shot out of a canon. Large ice chests meant to hold the catch of the lifetime for these experienced anglers were now bobbing all around the boat. Men struggled to grasp onto the coolers and the lights went out as the sea swallowed the massive vessel quicker than any witness still could ever believe possible. Some survivors contend the entire ordeal was over in about 3 minutes. The men who made it off the boat went from nervous sleep due to excessive waves crashing while they tried to get comfortable in bunks to getting continuously smacked by the sea while hanging onto coolers dotting the now empty horizon all in a matter moments. Yells to find each other and struggles to stay above the waves soon led to silence as the men realized the gravity of what had happened. They assessed who was last seen where and who was no longer right beside them. They also realized no distress call, no May Day, no SOS, no flares, no tracking device was on board and no call for help was sent. Therefore, no help was coming, only they never would have believed no help at all would come for over 15 hours.

As the men huddled around coolers and debris, the sun rose and started its slow burn into their flesh. Because they had been sleeping, most were in underwear and exposed to the harsh ball of sunlight overhead. Sharks were seen, but luckily none felt. Thirst, delusion, despair, and thankfulness that at least the 85-degree water was comfortable set in as the hours passed. Luckily, for the men, Michael Kalicki would soon know of their plight. Kalicki knew the storm had been fierce the night before; but would find out how fierce when a skipper from the Erik who actually was a neighbor of his came running up from the beach. He swam until making landfall and came ashore right in front of Kalicki’s house. As the skipper desperately conveyed the story of boat sinking and the people still out there needing help, Kalicki quickly verified what he was being told. Using a satellite phone, he was able to alert the Mexican consulate, the U.S. consulate, and military authorities in the area. Kalicki could have left his contribution at that; but that just is not his nature. He knew people out there needed help so he and his father took his 18ft skiff boat out immediately and headed straight toward where they were needed.

Once Kalicki spotted the debris field, he called in the latitude and longitude to help authorities get there quicker. Soon after finding debris, they found the first American to be pulled out of the water. Kalicki says, “He was hallucinating, incoherent and crying ‘thank you God’” .Ross Anderson was severely sunburned and in need of water. Looking for survivors, helping to pull people aboard and directing panga fishermen and rescue boats to pick up survivors he could not fit was how Kalicki spent his day. He says, “We didn’t know what to expect out there. We were zigzagging. It was surreal and we didn’t have time to think.” He was given body bags to have ready in case he needed them. Luckily, he says everyone he found was alive and he feels that was the way it was meant to be. Kalicki swears he never had to steer his boat toward anyone. He says, “They were all right in front of us. We came across survivors quickly and moved on to the next group. It was divine intervention.” He had the distinction of picking up the first survivor and he found himself back out at night steering towards the last American who would be plucked from the sea. Kalicki found Dennis Ledec hanging on to an ice chest and patiently waiting to be rescued. He declared the water fine and said he was just out fishing. Kalicki says he felt an instant camaraderie and soon realized this survivor was more lucid and in a light-hearted mood compared to the others because he was bobbing along with clothes on to protect him from the sun and his life-saving cooler was filled with all the bottled water he could possibly need. As Kalicki drove back with Ledec safely on board, he says he felt an overwhelming sense of peace and knew “We found everybody that was alive that day.” Only after realizing there were seven men still missing did Kalicki question if he had done enough, as anyone would in that situation. When asked if he felt like a hero who saved fellow Americans, Kalicki believes he was just doing what anyone would do. He says all you can do is help when needed and “hope to hell that somebody is there for you to give you a hand up” if you ever need it.

While the survivors gathered calling family and recounting their ordeal, some staying overnight at Kalicki’s house and others being flown out, the extensive search and rescue was underway for those still unaccounted for. Don Lee, Russ Bautista, Mark Dorland, Brain Wong, Al Mein, Gene J. Leong, Shawn Chaddock and Leslie Yee were not picked up by rescuers. Leslie Yee died after trying to swim for shore and was found on a remote beach. The others still have not made it home. Families were grateful for the cooperative and extensive searches by both Mexican and American officials. Even after an extension, the official search was called off on July 15. This left families waiting for a search and recovery mission that meant divers would hopefully enter the remnants of the Erik and bring remains of loved ones. The dive never came. The recovery is stalled. Mexican officials contend they do not have the necessary equipment and gave full permission for the U.S. to recover the ship. The U.S. contends it does not have the financial resources to conduct a recovery. Bureaucratic red tape, unanswered questions about the facts of the sinking, and unanswered pleas for help is what the families of the missing have been left with.

Don Lee, 62, was central to the group and is still out there with his fishing buddies. He knew every one of the passengers and made the voyage annually with a mix of some of these guys. His family and the families of others have been very vocal in their anger over the aftermath. The survivors tell of not enough life jackets, a lack of adequate communication gear, Captain error, and what some have deemed as gross negligence. The families want accountability and want to ensure no other fishing venture ends in tragedy. They all question the safety of the boat, the warning of a storm, the ridiculous amount of time the men waited for rescue and why the crew was outfitted in life vests before any attempt was made to wake and prepare the fishermen. Mourning what they know is the loss of their husbands, fathers, brothers, and friends is difficult beyond words; but for the families the lack of remains and lack of answers is becoming unbearable. Frederick Han, Don Lee’s son-in-law, has created an internet campaign to tell the world about Don, raise awareness of the efforts to bring him home, and raise funds to finance a private dive to do so. Han says Lee would want his friends brought home. If Lee had survived, he would not have given up until all of his friends were home too. Lee was passionate about his fishing trips and the friends he shared them with each year. Han says, “He loved sharing videos and meeting people. He would have more pictures of people than fish. He was looking forward to taking his grandsons out there someday.” To make the Lee family ordeal even more difficult, Don Lee’s mother passed away after a long illness while the search was still going on. She never knew the fate of her son. This compounded loss makes Han and his in-laws even more determined to find Lee. While the Lee family is strong and dealing with the double loss, Han says they are determined to “make sure no one goes through this again. In our downtime we are asking ‘what can we do?’”. Han’s blog about his father-in-law has helped reconnect those who loved him and reminded everyone of what a generous and warm soul was lost in the Sea of Cortez that night. Don Lee’s legendary meals and disarming demeanor will leave a hole in the family; but has propelled them to fight for the truth and take action to fund the dive.

A petition to get the government to fund the dive and resources to raise the funds independently has been coordinated through the site www.findourfathers.org. Family members of the missing point out that two of the missing were veterans; therefore, the American government has no excuse to leave them behind because of the cost of a dive. The estimated cost to bring the seven men home is $300,000. This amount would bring answers, closure, and ability of the families and countless friends to mourn and move on. The group also wants the Mexican government and Baja Sportfishing Inc. to account for discrepancies and investigate whether true negligence led to the deaths of these men. Currently, Find Our Fathers has established several active fundraisers in Livermore to raise the money and help pressure the government for answers. Fundraisers will be held at Melo’s Pizza, Rodrigue Molyneaux Estate Vineyard and Winery, Rigatonis and Casa Orozco. Don Lee’s daughter Mandi Lee-Han has also enlisted the help of the Valley Montessori School she works at.

Frederick Han says after he first had dinner with Don Lee, as a young man courting his daughter, he walked in nervous and walked out hours later thinking “I couldn’t wait to come back.” Don Lee embraced the world around him. He wanted to know everyone, make everyone smile and make sure everyone always had enough on their plates. He and his friends are still out there, more than likely still trapped in the remnants of the boat he loved to spend time on. His family wants him home along with the men he cared so deeply for. They are pleading with anyone who may be able to help make that happen to step forward and donate to www.findourfathers.org . While the survivors are all extremely grateful to the gracious people of San Felipe and Baja as a whole for the care they received, they too want the truth told and to make sure this never happens again.

While safety standards differ between the U.S. and Mexico when it comes to the chartered fishing tours that are so popular between the two countries, certain standards should be held across the board. Certain procedures, training, and knowledge should be part of every chartered fishing trip. Each of these men left behind loved ones and a full life to have a great couple of days together and it ended in tragedy. Whether that tragedy was an unavoidable act of God or a combination of that, human error and disregard for safety remains to be told. Either way, the survivors of the sinking of the Erik and the families of the men who are still lost are not giving up on finding those answers anytime soon.

Photo Credit: Survivors of the capsized fishing vessel, the Erik, and representatives of the U.S. consulate in Tijuana, pose for photos before returning to the US, in San Felipe, Mexico, Thursday July 7, 2011. Seven U.S. tourists are still missing four days after their boat capsized near this town as the Mexican navy and the U.S. Coast Guard expand their search in the Gulf of California. Most of the 27 passengers on board the ship were Northern California men who traveled to the gulf for an annual Independence Day fishing trip. (AP Photo/Alexandre Meneghini)