RIO HATO, Panama (AP) — Three Panamanian men were on their way home after a night of fishing, happy with their success, when the motor on their small open boat rattled and quit, leaving them adrift in sight of land, but too far out for their cell phones to work.
With nothing left to eat but the fish they caught and a few gallons of water, they drifted for 16 days, more than 100 miles from home, before they thought they must be saved.
Adrian Vasquez, 18, saw a huge white ship coming toward them. He waved a red sweater to get their attention, reaching high over his head, and dropping it low to his knees. Though he was near death, the skipper of the little panga, Elvis Oropeza Betancourt, 31, joined in, waving an orange life jacket.
"Tio, look what's coming over there," Vasquez recalled saying in an interview Thursday with The Associated Press. "We felt happy, because we thought they were coming to rescue us."
The ship didn't stop, and the fishing boat drifted another two weeks before it was found. By then, Vasquez's two friends had died.
"I said, 'God will not forgive them,'" Vasquez recalled. "Today, I still feel rage when I remember that."
That same day, March 10, birdwatchers with powerful spotting scopes on the promenade deck of the luxury cruise ship Star Princess saw a little boat adrift miles away. They told ship staff about the man desperately waving a red cloth.
On Thursday, Princess Cruises, based in Santa Clarita, Calif., said a preliminary investigation showed that passengers' reports that they had spotted a boat in distress never made it to Capt. Edward Perrin or the officer on duty.
If it did, the company said, the captain and crew would have altered course to rescue the men, just as the cruise line has done more than 30 times in the last 10 years. The company expressed sympathy for the men and their families.
The fishermen had set out for a night of fishing Feb. 24 from Rio Hato, a small fishing and farming town on the Pacific coast of Panama that was once the site of a U.S. Army base guarding the Panama Canal. There are plans for a new airport to bring in tourists. Vasquez had lost his job as a gardener at a local hotel, and Oropeza invited him to come fishing to make a little money. The night before, they had no luck, so they were very happy to have a load of fish to sell, Vasquez said.
By the time they started to drift, Adrian had eaten his lunch of rice and beef. They only had five gallons of water to start with, and much of that was gone. There was raw fish to eat, but no one liked it very much, and it soon rotted after the ice melted in the coolers. Sometimes Vasquez went over the side to probe passing rafts of debris, and sometimes came up with coconuts for them to eat. At one point, they caught a turtle, but decided they couldn't eat it and put it back in the water. As they were, they found a jug of water that they drank "with tremendous anxiety."
One night they saw a ship far in the distance, and lit a rag on a stick that they waved, but the ship didn't come for them.
On the Star Princess, birdwatcher Jeff Gilligan from Portland, Ore., was the first to spot the boat, something white that looked like a house.
When Judy Meredith of Bend, Ore., looked through the scopes, she could plainly see it was a small open boat, like the kinds they had seen off Ecuador. And she could see a man waving what looked like a dark red T-shirt.
"You don't wave a shirt like that just to be friendly," Meredith said. "He was desperate to get our attention."
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