Survivors from Honduras fishing boat sinking tell of fears

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) — Survivors of the sinking of a Honduran fishing boat that claimed at least 27 lives said Thursday they thought they also were going to perish.

"The only thing we could think at that moment is that we were going to die there, but God is great," said Dexin Ordónez, one of the 58 survivors of the wreck of the ship Capt. Waly.

Ordónez was sleeping when the ship rolled at about 2 a.m. Monday, and when he awoke he was in the sea. He grabbed a board to stay afloat.

"Those of us who got out were saved, and those who were (trapped) inside, they all went down," the 32-year-old fisherman told local media. He said he had been diving for lobster in these waters since he was 18.

Despite reports by Honduras' military that the ship set out in bad weather, fisherman Axel Dereth Echeverría said the weather was calm. "But I think a big wave caused us to capsize," he said.

The 27 recovered bodies were returned to port Thursday, while a search continued for six still missing a day after the 70-ton vessel went down in the Caribbean.

Some family members were able to identify loved ones, and the bodies were taken from boats to an area guarded by the military.

"We want a rapid process of handover for the bodies," said Lisandro Rosales, minister of the Permanent Commission on Emergencies.

Earlier Thursday, when the bodies were still at sea, armed forces spokesman José Domingo Meza said some had begun decomposing.

A military plane flew in 27 empty coffins from Tegucigalpa, the capital, to the remote area in northeastern Honduras.

"We deeply regret the shipwreck of our compatriots in Gracias a Dios" province, President Juan Orlando Hernández tweeted. "All our solidarity with their families."

The president added that authorities were coordinating operations of search and aid for victims and their families.

Ana Julia Echeverria, assistant mayor in Puerto Lempira, said the survivors would be transported to their homes and the dead would be turned over to relatives once forensic records were completed.

"To all the families, don't worry. All the sailors who are coming — those who survived and those who didn't — we are going to take them to their homes," Echeverria said.

The Capt. Waly sank near Cayo Gorda, a cay about 75 miles (120 kilometers) offshore. The dead included the vessel's captain, a cook, a crewman, 19 lobster divers and five cay residents.

Merchant Marine chief Juan Carlos Rivera said the cause of the sinking was under investigation.

According to photos, the Capt. Waly apparently put to sea loaded with small skiffs from which the fishermen work.

Authorities said Wednesday that another fishing vessel had sunk or capsized in the same area, but all 49 men aboard survived.

With more than 60 percent of its 9 million people living in poverty, Honduras is one of the poorest countries in Latin America, and its Mosquitia coastal region is one of the most impoverished areas.

Thousands of men in Mosquitia depend on lobster fishing to eke out livings, sometimes spending weeks at a time out at sea.

A boat's sinking is just one of the dangers facing the lobster divers. Hundreds have been stricken with the bends, the decompression sickness caused when nitrogen bubbles form in divers' bodies. Some are paralyzed. Some are killed.

Safe standard diving techniques call for a gradual ascent to the surface to eliminate nitrogen absorbed by the body's tissues during a dive. The number of dives made each day also should be limited.

But many of the divers of Mosquitia dive deeply, surface quickly and then go back for more, racing to collect as much lobster as possible. The boats, where they spend days playing cards and talking among themselves between dives, often have only rudimentary safety equipment and use aging tanks and masks.

Jorge Gomez Santos, a former president of the Association of Disabled Honduran Miskito Divers, said at least 2,200 Miskitos work on the boats. He said 14 have died this year alone and at least 1,300 have been disabled since 1980.

A study more than a decade ago cited by the Pan American Health Organization reported there were around 9,000 divers in the Mosquitia region. It said about 4,200 — 47 percent — had been disabled by decompression sickness.

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