Storm Throws Seaman To His Death
For most of today, divers from the Belize National Coast Guard were in the waters around the Port of Belize Facility in Port Loyola, Belize City. They were looking for elderly seaman Leobihildo (Leo-bildo) Varela who went overboard last night. He's the owner of the Varela Tug Boat which transports merchandise and supplies from Belize City to San Pedro Town. Last night he was on his way to the Port of Belize, but he went overboard during a thunderstorm.
All accounts to us are that he and his crew were pulling his barge, "San Vicente" into the waters near port of Belize last night. The crew was caught in a squall which dumped heavy rains and strong winds on them suddenly. It pushed them off-course from the usual barge docking area, and sent them in the direction of the bridge of the Port's pier, where they certainly would have crashed. The crew opted to try to release the barge before they were tipped over, but the tugboat and the barge collided with Varela on deck. That sent him overboard, and it is believed that he may have been injured. Since then, he's not resurfaced, and everyone involved is fearing the worst.
The CEO of the Port of Belize, Arturo "Tux" Vasquez, spoke with 7News about the incident this afternoon, and here's what he had to say:
Arturo "Tux" Vasquez - CEO/Receiver, Port of Belize
"We got a call from our security people between 9:30 and 10:00, that we had an incident where a barge had run into the pier. Obviously we had a similar incident a few months ago and I was very much concerned. So, I came very quickly and what I saw was a barge was lodged against the pier. There was no tug boat insight at the time but my security had told me that the tug was already by the marina. The security told me as well that somebody may had fallen up overboard. so, there are two concerns we have here, obviously the concern for the safety of life and also my concern at the time also was possibly damages to the pier, that could be significant for us, not only in cost the whole inconvenience of importation and we wouldn't want to be going through that again. By that time the police were here. A few minutes after a lot of police and then the BERT ambulance showed up. I've heard interviews that the police were having with the captain and he was saying to them that as they were coming in there's a squall that came around between 9:30/10:00 and I know, I was on the pier and the sea was extremely rough. The barge was heading towards the pier and he was trying to stop that. So he was trying to pull the vessel back which was not possible and he claimed that it was so rough that it was about to tilt - the tug that they were in and the best thing he could have done was to release the barge which he did but after releasing it apparently he tried to still kind of bumped it away from the pier. There was a collision between the barge and the tug and that's when the other crew members told the police that he saw when Mr. Varela went overboard. One of the crew members were saying that he was probably hit. During the collision I understand that... I saw him making gestures to the police which was suggest to me that he was hit against the tug. So he may have been injured before and falling into the water. I don't know and I really don't want to speculate on that."
Leobihildo Varela is a resident of San Pedro Town. Late word to 7News is that the Coast Guard has suspended the search for the day, and they resume tomorrow.
Well-known San Pedro Businessman Believed Drowned Near Belize City Port
Tonight, the family of San Pedro businessman Leovijildo Varela is bracing for the worse. On Thursday night, Varela and his crew were transporting three butane trucks on a tugboat from the island to the Belize City port when he was flung into the dark sea waters near the pier. The downpour in the past twenty-four hours as well as the rough sea conditions has been impeding search efforts. Duane Moody reports.
Duane Moody, Reporting
The search continues tonight for the body of eighty year old Leovijildo Pablo Varela of Varela’s Cargo Services Limited of San Pedro, Ambergris Caye. Sometime after nine p.m. on Thursday, Varela was onboard a tugboat bringing into port a cargo from San Pedro to Belize City and as it neared the pier, the tugboat and the barge collided. The impact sent the elderly man overboard and into the Caribbean Sea. The police, paramedics and the Coastguard were called out to the scene where an investigation followed.
Arturo Vasquez, C.E.O., Port of Belize
“The police was here and they did their interviews, they took statements from the captain of the tug and also some of the crew members that were on the barge at the time. He is claiming that when he came in there was squall. But it was raining last night. And during that squall is when somehow….and it was rough. I was out here and the sea was extremely rough and they were losing control of the barge and they were heading towards the pier. And he tried to reverse to pull it away; that’s what I heard him telling the police. But that was impossible to do, maybe it was too rough, and it got pretty close to almost tipping over the tug. And so at that point, they decided that they needed to release the tug. But they released it in a way where once they release; they were trying to go around to sort of bump it away. And that’s when apparently they had a collision between the tug and the barge because there is obviously damage on the tug that I saw last night and during that impact is when Mister Varela fell over.”
Ensign David Ayala, On-Scene Coordinator for Search Efforts, BNCG
“At approximately nine-thirty-five, we received information at the Coastguard Headquarters whereby a tugboat pushing a barge collided on the king pier at the Port of Belize. Upon receiving the information, Coastguard deployed a vessel to start with the search efforts at the location.”
It’s now almost twenty-four hours since Varela went overboard and remains missing. According to On-Scene Coordinator for Search Efforts for the Belize National Coast Guard, Ensign David Ayala, divers have since been deployed to conduct surface operations.
Ensign David Ayala
“From last night, we kept the coastguard standby team here and this morning; we deployed a team of divers to conduct diving operations. Since last night we started with the surface operations so that has been conducting today. For us, if he did drown on the spot, we would expect him to surface in approximately—the longest time—is seventy-two hours. So between that period, he should surface. Now if he died on impact or whatever, then we expect otherwise.”
“We know that last night, the weather condition wasn’t most favorable. Would that cause you guys to expand your search beyond the port area?”
Ensign David Ayala
“Well if you can notice right now, the weather conditions are not the best right now, as you mentioned, and the currents and winds have an effect on the search that we are conducting. And most definitely we will expand from the immediate area expanding out into the open water.”
This is the second time that a barge has crashed into the pier at the Port of Belize compound, says C.E.O., Arturo Vasquez.
“There was an incident again; somewhat similar to what happened the last time where a barge had run into the pier. Fortunately this time, there was no damage to the pier, but unfortunately I understand a passenger on the barge—I think it is Mister Varela—apparently fell overboard and up to, what I am understanding, now, he has not been found. But what we saw when we got here really was that there was a barge lodged against the pier. I understand from the captain that it didn’t ran into the pier, but actually drifted into the pier so that was good news for then. So that was good news for then. So what we had to do from the Port position was to get the barge removed because it was banging against the pier. So we ended up getting some tugs to pull it away and we finished at sometime this morning. We had our engineer come in early this morning to take a look at the pier and he is satisfied that there was no damage to the pier like we had the last time; it is just minor surface concrete being chipped away and that kind of thing.”
The police have since taken statements from those onboard the tugboat as to what transpired. Duane Moody for News Five.