U.S., Mexico blame owner, crew in fishing trip accident that killed 8 Californians

jnsbranti@modbee.comApril 30, 2013 

The U.S. Coast Guard says the owner and crew of a fishing vessel that sank in the Sea of Cortez two years ago were negligent.

Eight California men died, including Albert Mein and Mark Dorland of Twain Harte and Leslie Yee of Ceres.

In a letter sent to Mexico's secretary of communications and transportation, Coast Guard officials agreed with the conclusions of Mexican investigators, according to the Contra Costa Times.

Mexican officials said "major modifications" made the boat unstable. They also blamed the crew and captain for failing to issue safety instructions to passengers. The captain additionally failed to order everyone to abandon ship when it became obvious the vessel was sinking.

"That's pretty accurate," confirmed Robert Higgins of Sonora, who survived the ill-fated fishing trip. Higgins cited several additional safety problems on the 115-foot vessel. "The entire crew had on life jackets, but there were none available for the fishermen."

All 17 Mexican crew members survived, but eight of the 27 U.S. fishermen drowned.

Higgins was on deck about 2 a.m. July 3, 2011, when a freak storm sank the Erik, a former shrimp trawler that had been converted into a sort of mother ship for sport fishing.

"There were nine of these 23-foot-long panga skiffs stacked on the back of the ship. The storm filled those pangas with water," recalled Higgins, who is convinced that extra weight helped sink the vessel.

"I knew we were in trouble," Higgins said. He regrets not taking more action to alert his fellow fishermen, most of whom were below deck in their cabins. "I smelled an electrical fire, so I knew the pumps had failed. There wasn't much warning."

The strong wind and turbulent waves quickly rolled the Erik on its side, and it went under within moments.

As it was going down, Higgins said he helped pull people out from below.

"I saw Mark (Dorland) go over the side. The sea claimed him within seconds," said Higgins. He said Dorland, 62, might have survived had he been wearing a life jacket like the crew members.

Dorland's body never was recovered.

Yee, 63, swam away from the wreck, but later drowned. His body washed up on a nearby island.

"There wasn't even a mayday sent over the radio. We were lucky we were rescued," Higgins said, noting that the ship was not equipped with an emergency position indicating radio beacon.

Long wait for help

Higgins, 66, floated in the Sea of Cortez for 13 hours.

"I had a hold of an ice chest, and (after the sun came up) I found a life jacket floating around in the wreckage," Higgins recalled. He was rescued by a small fishing boat that happened on the scene.

Steven Sloneker of Sonora and Joseph Beeler of Ripon also survived the tragedy.

Initially, only Yee's body was recovered, and exactly where the Erik had sunk was a mystery.

Al Mein's stepson, Joe Jacinto of Clarksburg, organized six expeditions to Baja California looking for survivors, plus three searches on the Sea of Cortez searching for the Erik's wreckage.

Jacinto finally located the sunken ship last summer, about three miles offshore, 75 miles south of San Felipe and 170 feet deep. In September, his divers recovered the remains of three of the fishermen who were trapped in their cabins as the ship sank.

DNA confirmed that Mein's body was among those found.

"He didn't want to be buried at sea," Joe Jacinto's wife, Dena, explained about Mein. She said he wanted to be put to rest in the Sierra.

Dena Jacinto said there's been no compensation for the victims' families: "No one was even sent a sympathy letter (from the Erik's crew or owner)."

The Coast Guard commended the Mexican investigation into the sinking, which was completed in early March. "I applaud your ongoing efforts to hold the master and crew of the Erik accountable for their actions," read a cover letter to the Coast Guard review.

Port official criticized, too

Investigators also faulted the captain of the San Felipe port, which berthed the Erik before its final excursion, for failing to inspect the vessel and bar it from sailing.

"The captain needs to assume responsibility," suggested Higgins, who was interviewed by Mexican investigators about what happened that night.

While Higgins is more cautious now about which vessels he goes out on, he said that accident hasn't ended his passion for fishing: "I'm going back (to the Sea of Cortez) with Steven Sloneker in August."

Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at jnsbranti@modbee.com or (209) 578-2196.

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