The Belize Coast Guard, in conjunction with a few other search organizations, is at press time tonight on a massive manhunt for three Cubans who went missing after their vessel, Helga, capsized just two miles east of Caye Caulker around 11:30 Saturday night, March 19.
The Panama-flagged cargo vessel, which was loaded with salt bound for Mexico, from Honduras, and was carrying a crew of eleven, capsized after running into bad weather.
The three members of the crew who are still missing are Alexis Gonzalez Cune, Nelson Perez Ardao, and the captain Arturo Edrei Garcia, ages unknown. Eight others — Iraelio Mengana Garcia, 47; Armando Garnado Martinez, 47; Humberto Iglesias Hernandez, 49; Antonio Perez Sadez, 37; Alfredo Porta Martinez, 43; Jose Consta Nalia, 46; George Herrera Aldana, 38; and Joaquin Ruiz De Zarate Arribas, 39 — survived the overturning of the vessel.
According to Lieutenant Commanding Operations of the Belize National Coast Guard, Gregory Soberanis, his headquarters received a distress call from the captain of the ship, Garcia, seconds before the vessel sank.
The sinking of the vessel, which was 74 meters (242 feet) in length and 11 meters (36 feet) in width, took place within a few minutes.
At the time of the distress call, the captain, who had contacted the Belize Coast Guard on channel 16, had explained that a lot of water had accumulated in the vessel, causing it to lean on the side, and there was a high threat it would go under. It eventually did go under. The survivors told local authorities that the waves had become aggressive, causing huge amounts of water to enter the vessel.
Meteorologist for the National Meteorological Service, Frank Tench, told us that the weather at midnight for the general area on Sunday was characterized by wind that was blowing east by north at 7 knots, a temperature of 25 degrees Celsius and humidity of 81%.
At 4:55 p.m. on Sunday, the 8 Cubans arrived in Belize City on a water taxi and were greeted by Cuban Ambassador to Belize, Manuel Rubido, who also granted us an interview.
According to Rubido, at that time he did not have full details of what had transpired while the crewmen were on the seas. But he spoke of the search for the three missing members of the crew and expressed gratitude to “the Belizean authorities, [from] the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the head of the armed forces, who have all been doing their best to rescue the remaining members of the crew”.
Soberanis told us that the eight survivors had stayed afloat after losing their vessel via floating rafts. They were located by Belizean authorities about 1:10 a.m., just two hours after the overturning of the boat.
“The first four were found in good shape about 1½ miles east of Caye Caulker; the second set were a little shaken up; they seemed to be suffering from slight hyperthermia, and their raft was also getting water inside, so they were really relieved to see the Coast Guard,” Soberanis told us.
Soberanis explained to us that all such vessels are equipped with a device called the “epirb,” which sends out a signal to the satellites; the satellites then send a signal to American authorities, who then contacted them so that they could be given the exact location of the sinking ship.
According to Soberanis, the search involves the Belize Port Authority, with aerial coverage by the Belize Defense Force, along with assistance from other local boaters from Caye Caulker and San Pedro, who have all donated their time and effort to find the missing men.
We asked Soberanis whether he still has hopes of locating the three men alive, considering deteriorating weather conditions, and he remarked, “We are hoping that they are still alive; we are hoping for the best”.
The eight survivors are currently still in Belize City and have been allowed temporary stay in the country. The search continues for the three missing Cubans.