National/World

In Mexico, US shipmates await word of 7 missing

Tuesday, July 05, 2011
In this image released by the Mexican Navy on Monday July 4, 2011, survivors of a capsized boat are taken away in a vehicle after being rescued by the Navy in the town of San Felipe, Mexico Monday July 4, 2011. A U.S. tourist died after a fishing boat capsized in an unexpected storm in the Gulf of California off the Baja California peninsula and of the 44 people on the boat, seven U.S. tourists remain missing along with one Mexican crew member, the Mexican Navy said. (AP Photo/SEMAR)

In this image released by the Mexican Navy on Monday July 4, 2011, survivors of a capsized boat are taken away in a vehicle after being rescued by the Navy in the town of San Felipe, Mexico Monday July 4, 2011. A U.S. tourist died after a fishing boat capsized in an unexpected storm in the Gulf of California off the Baja California peninsula and of the 44 people on the boat, seven U.S. tourists remain missing along with one Mexican crew member, the Mexican Navy said. (AP Photo/SEMAR)

They are fathers, fiances and experienced fishermen.

The seven U.S. tourists still missing two days after their boat capsized off Mexico's coast went to sea as they had for several years on the U.S. Independence Day holiday: They wanted to fish and have a good time.

At least one American tourist, besides the seven missing, has been confirmed dead and identified by Mexican officials as Leslie Yee of Ceres, California.

On Tuesday, the shipmates who survived the wreck anxiously awaited word as the Mexican navy and the U.S. Coast Guard expanded their search in the Gulf of California, holding out hope that the missing were able to survive in the gulf's balmy waters.

Mexican navy Capt. Ruben Bustos said they are increasing resources and moving their search area south of Gonzaga bay, a coastal town south of the port of San Felipe where efforts concentrated Monday.

Rescue teams are also coordinating efforts with officials across the gulf in the northern state of Sonora because shipwreck survivors in the region sometimes are swept far away by fast tides.

"Every hour he's still missing, hope gets hit with reality," said Gary Wong, referring to his younger brother, Brian, 54, of Berkeley, who is among the missing tourists.

A local TV station in California erroneously reported that Brian Wong, who works in personnel for Alameda County and has two grown daughters, was among the dead, leaving the family to calm his frantic wife.

Survivor Lee Ikegami had to identify the body of his close friend Yee Monday, just a day after being rescued. Ikegami's wife, Murphy Ikegami, was told Yee's body washed up on shore.

"Lee's fine physically," Murphy Ikegami said. "Mentally, he's just devastated."

A sudden storm struck early Sunday, capsizing the 115-foot (35-meter) vessel, the Erik. The crew and the fishermen clung to coolers, rescue rings and life vests for more than 16 hours.

The navy and other fishing boats plucked 19 fishermen and all 16 crew members from the water late Sunday. The vessel sank about 60 miles (100 kilometers) south of San Felipe.

Sunday was the second day of a weeklong fishing trip the group had organized for several years each Independence Day holiday. They had planned to fish for yellowtail.

Gary Wong was celebrating his first day of retirement on the trip with three brothers. He said his brothers, including Craig and Glen, took the trip twice before.

Wong thought he was going to die as the storm tossed the boat.

"I thought, 'Oh my God, my first day of retirement and I go down on a boat," he said. "All that work for what? To be six feet under."

Wong, who was trained as a first responder in his job with the East Bay Municipal Water District, has become the spokesman for the families seeking information about their loved ones.

He has been able to bring good news to some families, telling them that the reason they couldn't reach a fisherman was only because he was asleep in his hotel room.

Don Lee, an experienced fisherman who is also missing, brought all 27 together, Wong said.

"He does everything, he makes everything happen," he said. "He always says 'Don't worry, don't worry, I have everything in hand.' "

Mark Dorland, 62, was reportedly one of the first to go overboard and didn't have a life vest. He is set to get married in a month.

Russell Bautista, 60, of Penngrove, Calif., is also missing. The retired Pacific Bell worker and avid fisherman who often took others fishing or crabbing.

"He's taught a lot of people to fish," wife Joelle Bautista said. "Our son went out with him a lot."

The search was expanded to a wider area and continued with helicopters and aircraft. Divers also prepared to search the wreckage, which is in water more than 200 feet (65 meters) deep, but officials have not confirmed when.

The U.S. Coast Guard sent a C-130 aircraft that can stay in the air longer and search farther than the helicopter it used Monday, said Petty Officer Levi Read.

Three helicopters from Mexico's navy, the state of Baja California and the city of Mexicali were also searching, said Baja California state Civil Protection Director Alfredo Escobedo Ortiz.

Although officials have said the warm weather and water temperature in the Gulf of California may help the missing survive, Mexican navy's Bustos said on Tuesday that normally after 96 hours of search they presume missing people dead. Around sixty hours have passed since the accident.

The aircraft and helicopters have covered around 1,400 miles and boats have navigated around 900 miles in the gulf.

Wong said the survivors were also trying to figure out way they could help in the rescue.

Wearing t-shirts donated by souvenir vendors, they walked around the port city of San Felipe, trying to hire people with boats to go out into the gulf.

The boat company, Baja Sportfishing, once worked out of San Diego, but owner Alexander Velez let the license expire last year, said Roz Cockerham, a San Diego city tax representative.

It was unclear whether the company had moved to another city or relocated to Mexico, where its boats departed.

The Baja Sportfishing website said they could not respond to messages and that all trips have been canceled.

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Associated Press writers Olga R. Rodriguez in Mexico City and Julie Watson in San Diego, California, contributed to this report.

(Copyright ©2014 WPVI-TV/DT. All Rights Reserved.)

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mexico, water rescue, missing boater, missing person, national/world
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