July 5, 2011 -- Just how long can a person stay alive in warm ocean waters was the question experts were debating today about the seven Americans still missing after a holiday fishing boat capsized over the weekend in waters off Baja California.
The 115-foot boat Erik left San Felipe, which is known as the Sea of Cortez in Mexico, on Saturday for a six-day fishing trip with 43 people on board, including 27 U.S. tourists. Its first night out, the sport fishing charter was struck by an electrical storm and sank two miles offshore early Sunday. After searching for almost 24 hours, port and Mexican navy officials found one U.S. citizen dead.
Today, divers and rescue planes moved deeper into the ocean waters, looking for survivors, and bodies. The U.S. Coast Guard was assisting Mexican operations.
"I hate to say that it's going to be very unlikely they survive," said Dr. Henderson McGinnis, a professor of emergency medicine and a fellow in wilderness medicine at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. "But if they don't find them today, chances are pretty slim.
"You certainly could survive, but I tend to paint the bleakest, blackest picture," he said.
The 19 tourists and all crew members who survived the capsizing described clinging to coolers, rescue rings and life vests for 16 hours before they began to swim to shore and were picked up by other fishing boats.
McGinnis said healthy people can withstand the elements for about three to five days -- and that is without exerting themselves by treading water or swimming.
Alfredo Escobedo, director of emergency services in Baja California state said Monday that the rescue operation had turned to "focusing on recovery ... people, but not alive," but others were more optimistic.
Mexican navy Capt. Benjamin Pineda Gomez has said that with good weather and warm water temperatures, they could survive. "That sea is calm," he told the "Today" show.
McGinnis agrees that with ocean temperatures in the 70- to 80-degree range, "there is no limit to the time they can survive in the water.
"Water temperature is the biggest immediate threat, rather than animals in the water," he said. "But this is a pretty temperate area. They aren't off the coast of Alaska or even Northern California or Oregon.
But many other factors are at play, including exposure to sun, dehydration and even the degree to which they are level-headed and committed to their survival.
"How they would die is from exposure, being out there in the water, dehydrated, sunburned, and that happens by sheer time," said McGinnis. "You can go months without food, but water is the main thing you need."
The sun can cause heat stroke and exhaustion. If a person is swimming, rather than floating, they are more prone to both. Some of the men may have not even survived the capsizing and may have been rendered unconscious.
If survivors are level-headed, they can make a "distillation chamber" from parts of the wreckage to trap water from condensation or rain, he said.
Officials said people on the boat were alerted by other passengers and the crew as the Erik began to sink.
"The men were woken in the middle of the night from sleep and came out of their beds to survive, which is always sort of a shock," said McGinnis. "They have to think how they are going to get through this."
As for poisonous jellyfish or sharks, it's less likely they will cause the fishermen's demise. "Unless you are bleeding or have cuts -- sharks are overhyped because of [the movie] 'Jaws,'" he said.
Capsizing Shows Life Jackets Important
But Julie Munger, owner of Sierra Rescue, a Taylorsville, Calif., swift water and flood rescue company, said warm waters were irrelevant unless they were comparable to the body's temperature of 98.6 degrees.
"Eventually, if the water temperature is lower than the body temperature, you can succumb to hypothermia," she said. "It wears you down over time."
The biggest determinant of survival in a boating accident is using a life jacket, according to Munger.
"I have been around water for 30 years," she said. "I've seen friends drown in lakes paddling on flat water. It's an important warning to use life jackets and then your chance of survival increases."
And for those who are on cruise ships or sleeping, "know where the life jackets are so you can grab one," said Munger. "A lot of people don't pay attention to the briefings."
Baja survivor David Levine said that when the boat capsized, the men ran to the deck to help each other. "Everybody jumped into the water," he told the San Francisco Chronicle. "A lot of people went in with no life vest."
Joelle Bautista told the newspaper that her husband Russell Bautista, who is still missing, grabbed a life jacket but, "from what I heard, it was hard to hold on to them if you were running."
Those who did survive were shown in photos Monday in T-shirts and Bermuda shorts waiting to board buses. All were in good condition -- some with sunburns -- and with a few scrapes.
They had paid $995 per person for the six-day charter. The tourists, most from Northern California, had spent the night before eating gourmet dinners of fresh-caught fish.
The accident happened on their second day, about 60 miles south of the Port of San Felipe, a haven for windsurfers and sports fishermen.
Tourist Michael Ng of Belmont, Calif., said that he and another fisherman made it to shore buoyed by an ice chest.
"I'm relieved I'm alive, but I'm scared for the people who haven't been found yet," he told the Mercury News. "We were not very far from shore, so people were beached or stranded on some local islands."
Ng, an avid fisherman, went on the all-male trip last year and had bragged to his wife about coming home with "monster" fish. This trip "was supposed to be another great story," said Ya Ng.
But the families of the seven men who are still unaccounted for worry they might not get to recount those tall tales.
"I'm beyond concerned," Kristina Bronstein, who is engaged to missing tourist Mark Dorland of Twain Harte, Calif., told the Associated Press.
Dorland, 62, was one of the first people to fall into the water, according to the Associated Press. He wasn't wearing a life vest.
His survival may also depend upon whether he was isolated or with a group of other survivors, as it's harder for rescue teams to find a lone survivor.
"With someone else to commiserate with, that can buoy spirits," said McGinnis. "If it's a large group it's easier to spot, but it's still a big ocean."