On Tuesday, October 25th, 34-year-old Japanese national Yutaka Maeda and Americans 38-year-old Nancy Masters and 50-year-old John Bain were recovering at Universal Health Services in Belize City, after having been stranded out at sea for 55 hours.
It all began as a snorkel and dive expedition; six snorkelers and four divers plus the two guides (one for the snorklers and one for the divers), that left Placencia Village at approximately10:30 a.m. on Saturday aboard the Advance One vessel enroute to South Silk Caye, located some twenty miles east of the peninsula.
Although everything seemed to go fine, trouble brewed for the group fairly quickly. The following is a recount of the fateful day by The San Pedro Sun and as described to Keith Swift, reporter for Channel 7 News, by Rebecca Hey, snorkeler on the expedition.
Rebecca Hey: The six of us snorkelers got off with Vance [Cabral] onto Silk Caye and the four divers stayed on the boat and they went off to do their dive [with Henry Tucker]. We were snorkeling for an hour just having fun and Vance was watching the boat with the binoculars and after a little bit he started to say he was getting nervous because they [the divers] hadnít gotten off the boat and they should be coming back in, they should be done with their diving, theyíre just sitting in the boat and the canopy is down, and he was wondering if they were having engine trouble.Ē
Keith Swift: That is when [snorkel] guide leader Vance Cabral jumped in the sea and went looking for the group of divers - leaving his group abandoned on South Silk Caye.
SP Sun: Cabral did not make it to the dive boat but instead managed to swim to Little Water Caye where he called police. Rangers along with the snorkel guide immediately began a search and rescue. As night approached, more assistance was sought from members of the local tour guide association who assembled a search party. Other members of the community sought aerial support from the Belize Defense Force Maritime Wing and the British Army Camp. At 5:45 a.m. on Sunday, the Belize Defense Force Maritime Wing took over the rescue effort.
Rebecca Hey: It got dark and the other four were standing around smoking and Randall and I were more concerned about getting coconuts and fluid and I was more concerned about setting up a shelter for the wind because I figured we were spending the night there. And we started watching the lights off the distance and about an hour and a half after sunset we saw a light coming out from Little Water Caye towards our island and they landed it was Vance and one of the rangers. Randall and Andrew [snorklers] were signaling with the flashes on their cameras to let them know where we were. So it was exciting when the boat got there because I didnít want to spend the night there.
Keith Swift: After that rescue - the second dive master Henry Mark Tucker turned up on Sunday night. He surfaced on Gloverís Reef and told police that when the boat began experiencing engine trouble - they all jumped out of the boat. Unfortunately, so far only he has made it safety.
Brian Young (Dive Instructor who helped in the rescue): The boat is still out there. According to Mr. Tucker, the other four persons [divers], when the boat was drifting between 11 and 12 oíclock on Saturday, he tried to keep them on the boat but they didnít want to stay. Mr. Tuckerís words is that the four of them ganged and decided they could make it to Silk Caye and Mr. Tucker just learnt last night when he called in that we havenít found those four people. He has no idea why they couldnít make that short distance swim.
At approximately 4:00 p.m. on Monday, the BDF search team found the first missing diver 23.5 miles southeast of Gloverís Reef. The other three victims were found shortly after. Unfortunately one of the divers, 28-year-old Abigale Brinkman a medical student who did not have a wet suit did not survive the unfortunate incident. Her body was transported to Karl Heusner Memorial Hospital where a post mortem examination was conducted on Tuesday. As for the other three, according to Dr. Victor Lizarraga of Universal they all suffered dehydration, hypothermia, had ingested a lot of salt water and being fair skinned, had second degree burns.
But, what could have been done different on that day? Weather forecasts for Belize had issued small craft warnings; could that have been an indicator of the hours to come?
Rebecca Hey: We have fault because all the other dive shops didnít want to go out on Saturday and apparently there was a small craft warning. But we wanted to go and Advance Diving was willing to take us and so we decided to go even though the last place we checked said it was to rough. But we know that things happen but weíre upset knowing there was no radio and no backup engine on the boat we went on. And we know now that is something we will never do again, just go out with somebody who doesnít have backup.
Harp Scott: I think things would have happened very differently if the boat had been operational and I also think if they had an anchor they would have been fine. At no point did I feel unsafe on the way out and I didnít feel unsafe while I was on the island and itís unfortunate that they drifted further than would have without the weather conditions but I donít think it was a bad decision.
Interestingly enough, this incident is not the first that Advanced Diving has experienced out at sea; Saturdayís mishap makes the companyís second incident in less than a year. On December 29th, 2004, Advance One capsized in rough waters near South Water Caye, while Vance Cabral was behind the wheel. Although no one was injured at that time, the Belize Tour Operators Committee, a subsidiary of the Belize Tourism Board, suspended Cabralís tour guide license for one month, put him on a one year probation, and mandated that standard safety measures be on board at all times.
On Friday, October 28th, 2005, the Belize Tour Operators Committee to discuss what actions will be carried out against Advance Diving. Abigail Brinkman arrived in Belize on Saturday, October 1st, 2005. Abigail was a medical student from the U.S. state of Indiana and was doing volunteer work to complete her degree requirements at the Jericho Hillside Clinic in Elridgeville in the Toledo District.