Crew Abandons Sinking Ship, Leaves Teens

More than 100 teens fought for their lives when their post-graduation boat sank.

ByImaeyen Ibanga and Karen Compton via via logo

June 12, 2008— -- More than 100 teenagers celebrating their high school graduation watched their snorkeling tour turn into a nightmare when the boat's crew abandoned the sinking vessel and forced the teens to swim for their lives Saturday off the coast of Cancun, Mexico.

Kierslyn Kujawa figured out the boat was sinking "just from chaos. Everyone started screaming 'The boat is sinking.' No one really believed it at first," she told "Good Morning America" today.

Kujawa was aboard the catamaran and went downstairs to get a bottle of water when she noticed water splashing on the floor.

"There was only about a foot or two of water, so I didn't really think anything of it," said Kujawa, who eventually had to jump from the boat's second deck to escape.

In reality, the ship was sinking somewhere between Cancun and Isla de Mujeres. Kujawa said "probably over 200" people were onboard the Sea Star to snorkel, which was part of a GradCity excursion package students purchased.

Though the boat had a capacity of 250 people, Mexican authorities said it was authorized to carry only 80. A preliminary report said 220 were aboard when the boat went down.

Some survivors said when the trouble began the ship's crew deserted the vessel, leaving the young passengers to fend for themselves.

"They abandoned ship and basically left just to take care of ourselves," passenger Josh Powell said on "Good Morning America" today. "It was kind of a surreal moment because the people who are there to take care of you are kind of gone now," the Tampa, Fla., resident said.

Both Powell and Kujawa said the crew made no effort to help passengers — not even making an emergency announcement on the intercom that continued to broadcast music loudly — and that the number of life jackets aboard was substantially was less than the number of people.

So because many students panicked, Powell said he decided to help others first before leaving the ship because he had a "cooler head."

"One of my friends had a broken arm, and I knew she couldn't swim. So my first priority was to take care of her," he said. "There were still a lot of people there who didn't have life vests."

Lisa Thang Chung died after she was flown home while in a coma following the incident. The Grand Prairie,Texas, teen, who was the lone fatality from the disaster, was remembered Wednesday night in a memorial ceremony by friends and family.

Chung died Tuesday after being flown to a Dallas hospital. The 18-year-old honor student suffered heart and lung failure after nearly drowning in the picturesque blue water. A rescue boat had trapped her beneath water's surface during the pandemonium.

"I think Lisa wanted to help me, so she got off the rope as well. And the next thing I know is that a boat is on top of us," said passenger Loren Daily.

Authorities are investigating whether the catamaran was overloaded. GradCity, which organized the packaged trip for the students and prides itself on a 20-year safety record, said it was halting all its snorkeling cruises until it determines what went wrong.

"All snorkeling cruises booked through GradCity in Cancun will be suspended until the local authorities, as well as our own independent investigation, provides us with the facts surrounding this tragic incident," the company said in a statement.

A company spokesman told the AP that the Sea Star, a 73-foot catamaran built less than six months ago, "was nowhere near capacity" when it sank.

"We're trying to find out what caused the boat to go under and the series of events following the boat partially sinking," GradCity spokesman Jason Chute said.

GradCity has sent 32 chaperons and nearly 500 high school students to Cancun this summer, Chute said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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