SAN JOSE, Calif. -- As the storm tossed the 115-foot fishing boat in and out of giant swells in the Sea of Cortez, the anchors slammed against the bow of the boat, making it difficult for Dave Levine and his two bunkmates to sleep.
"We had trust in the crew and the ship," said Levine, a 53-year-old experienced fisherman who for years kept his own boat in Bodega Bay.
They shouldn't have. On Wednesday, four days after a chartered fishing boat capsized and sank, the search continued for seven missing passengers, mostly from Northern California, and questions swirled around the crew's decision to sail despite warnings of bad weather.
While some of the survivors' relatives say the captain has been arrested, Mexican authorities contacted by this newspaper on Wednesday insisted there have been no arrests. Divers on Thursday are expected for the first time to search the wreckage that rests roughly 200 feet below.
Levine, who is waiting at the El Capitan Hotel in San Felipe with fellow survivors for word of the missing, for the first time recounted the horror of those hours at sea, the darkness, the screams for help, the lost hope and finally the dawn. "It was pandemonium," Levine said. "There was panic. People said the boat was going over. Everyone had three or four minutes to get out." The storm thrashing the boat is known by locals as an "El Torito," or little bull, a quick moving storm that turns tranquil waters into a raging sea pounded by lightning and strong winds, said Juan Tintos Funcke, secretary of tourism for Baja California. A similar storm in 2000 hit a University of California, Davis research vessel, killing five people.
Levine was dozing at about 2:30 a.m. Sunday when he remembers Shawn Chaddock, on the top bunk, hollering out, "The boat is leaning! Is it supposed to be like this?" "Hell no!" Levine called back. "Get out of the room!" He raced out of Room No. 1 in the bottom of the boat and climbed up the stairs with his other roommate, Warren Tsurumoto of Sebastopol, right behind him. He expected Chaddock was following. "I thought he was with us," Levine said. But he never saw him again.
Levine reached the top of the stairs and ran through the short hallway to the open deck. Someone handed him a life jacket.
As 50-knot winds howled and 15-foot waves crashed over the starboard side of the deck, Tsurumoto turned to Levine. The two had been fishing friends for years and had driven down to Mexico together for what was supposed to be a six-day fishing trip. They didn't make it past the first night.
"I don't have a life jacket," Tsurumoto called out.
"Don't worry," Levine said, trying to reassure him. "There will be a lot of things floating in the water." The crew, however, were all wearing life jackets, Levine said.
In a moment, the boat that had been leaning at a 45-degree angle flopped completely on its side. The stairwell was still congested and as people dangled inside, Levine and fellow passenger Bob Higgins, who didn't have a life vest, pulled people "straight up" to the deck.
"They were all jammed up trying to get out of there. There were arms and hands and everybody was helping," he said. "This is seconds, minutes.
This all happened very fast." He turned to look for Tsurumoto, but he was gone. The next second, "all the lights went out, then a big wave came and took everyone off the boat." The boat sunk immediately, he said. As Levine toppled into the ocean, he heard no screaming. It was pitch black "and for me it was kind of quiet." Then out of the sea, a hand latched on to his left arm.
It was that of the ship's cook. "He had a hold of me. I knew he was panicking. He tried to climb on me, pushing me down." Just then, Levine bumped into a huge white ice chest. It was upside down, with foam-filled sides and bouyant. He grabbed for it, then pried loose the cook's hand from his arm and placed it on the handle of the ice chest. Despite the deafening winds, he heard a voice call out. It was Higgins, who had helped in the stairwell. They paddled toward each other, and Higgins, who still had no life vest, grabbed hold of the ice chest. Two other men in life jackets, Rich Ciabattari, then Ross Anderson, also clutched on.
They bobbed in the water, trying to keep from swallowing salt water as waves crashed over their heads.
"We heard some yelling and voices for the first half hour and from then on never heard another voice," Levine said. "We did not see a soul. All we knew was there were five of us." When dawn broke and he could finally see around him, Levine took a close look at the ice chest. It was his own. His name was on it.
From it, he pulled a spare flotation device for Higgins. A bag of M&Ms he had bought for the trip fell out.
Finally, in the light of day, they could see land, about two miles away.
As a group with the ice chest they paddled toward it.
"We weren't going anywhere," he said. "The current was too strong." The boat had capsized four hours earlier and still there was no sign of any rescue operation. "No boats, no planes, no nothing," he said.
So Levine, a grandfather who had lost 40 pounds over the past couple of years and had an exercise regimen of running, biking and weight training, left the group to swim for shore alone.
And after all that time swimming, he was rescued from shore just 10 minutes after he landed.
But where was Tsurumoto, his roommate who didn't have a life jacket? What about Chaddock, who first alerted him to the leaning boat? Tsurumoto, he learned, had been rescued later Sunday night. "Someone handed him a life jacket while he was still on the boat that saved his life," he said. But on Wednesday, there was still no word on Chaddock or the six other missing men, several from the Bay Area. With the cell phones and wallets of the survivors at the bottom of the sea, Mexican authorities provided phones for the men to call their families. They also brought in psychologists to help them cope.
On Thursday, while the divers search the wreckage, the first of the survivors could be headed home. But some have vowed to stay until they know for sure what happened to the missing.
Reporters Jeanine Benca, Joshua Melvin and Maria J. Avila Lopez contributed to this story.
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