Cruise ship ignored pleas of tragic pals adrift in fishing boat

Jeff Barnard

ADRIAN Vasquez and his two friends had been drifting for 16 days in an open fishing boat in the Pacific Ocean when they saw a huge white ship. They would be saved, they thought, and Vasquez began waving a dark red sweater.

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.

The cruise 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'," Panamanian Vasquez said as he recalled the encounter in the waters off South America. "Today, I still feel rage when I remember."

Princess Cruises, based in California, said a preliminary investigation showed that passengers' reports that they had spotted a boat in distress never made it to Captain Edward Perrin or the officer on duty.

If they had, 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.

On February 24, the three men set out for a day of fishing from Rio Hato, the site of a former US Army base guarding the Panama Canal on the Pacific Coast. They were on their way back with their catch when the motor died.

Vasquez recalled seeing the ship on the morning of March 10. He remembered jumping up and waving the sweater. He raised it over his head, dropped it down to his knees, over and over and over.

Though near death, Elvis Oropeza Betancourt (31) joined in, waving an orange life jacket. "We felt happy, because we thought they were coming to rescue us," Vasquez said.

Bird-watcher Judy Meredith of Oregon said she could plainly see a small open boat through her scope, 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."

Meredith said she told a Princess Cruises sales representative what they had seen, and he assured her he passed the news on to crew.

Meredith went to her cabin and noted their coordinates from a TV feed from the ship, booted up her laptop and emailed the US Coast Guard what she had seen. She said she hoped someone would get the message and help.

But nothing happened. The ship kept going. And the little boat with the waving men disappeared.

"We were kind of freaking out, thinking 'we don't see anything else happening'," Meredith said.

Oropeza died, along with Fernando Osario. Vasquez was picked up by a fishing boat off Ecuador's Galapagos Islands, more than 600 miles from where they had set out.

Vasquez said he slipped their bodies into the sea after they began to rot in the heat. Before he was rescued, two rainstorms gave him fresh water to drink, and he jumped in the water to retrieve floating coconuts. He said he thought about his eight brothers a lot, and never lost hope.