RIO HATO, Panama (AP) — A Panamanian man and his two friends had been drifting for 16 days in an open fishing boat in the Pacific Ocean when they saw a huge white ship. They would be saved, they thought, and Adrian Vasquez began waving a dark red sweater.
Birdwatchers with powerful spotting scopes on the promenade deck of the luxury cruise ship Star Princess saw a little boat adrift miles away. They told ship staff about the man desperately waving a red cloth.
The cruise ship didn't stop, and the fishing boat drifted another two weeks before it was found. By then, Vasquez's two friends had died.
"I said, 'God will not forgive them,'" Vasquez told The Associated Press as he recalled the encounter in the waters off South America. "Today, I still feel rage when I remember."
On Thursday, Princess Cruises, based in Santa Clarita, Calif., said a preliminary investigation showed that passengers' reports that they had spotted a boat in distress never made it to Capt. Edward Perrin or the officer on duty.
If it did, the company said, the captain and crew would have altered course to rescue the men, just as the cruise line has done more than 30 times in the last 10 years. The company expressed sympathy for the men and their families.
On Feb. 24, the three men set out for a day of fishing from Rio Hato, the site of a former U.S. Army base guarding the Panama Canal on the Pacific Coast. They were on their way back, happy with their catch, when the motor died.
Vasquez recalled seeing the ship — "It was big. It was white." — on the morning of March 10.
Vasquez remembered jumping up and waving the sweater. He raised it over his head, dropped it down to his knees, over and over and over. Though near death, Elvis Oropeza Betancourt, 31, joined in, waving an orange life jacket.
"'Tio, look what's coming over there,'" Vasquez recalled saying.
"We felt happy, because we thought they were coming to rescue us," he said.
Birdwatcher Jeff Gilligan from Portland, Ore., was the first to spot the boat, something white that looked like a house.
When Judy Meredith of Bend, Ore., looked through her scope, she could plainly see it was a small open boat, like the kinds they had seen off Ecuador. And she could see a man waving what looked like a dark red T-shirt.
"You don't wave a shirt like that just to be friendly," Meredith said. "He was desperate to get our attention."
Barred from going to the bridge herself to notify the ship's officers, Meredith said she told a Princess Cruises sales representative what they had seen, and he assured her he passed the news on to crew.
The birdwatchers said they even put the representative on one of the spotting scopes so he could see for himself.
Meredith went to her cabin and noted their coordinates from a TV feed from the ship, booted up her laptop and emailed the U.S. Coast Guard what she had seen. She said she hoped someone would get the message and help.
She sent a copy to her son. When she returned to the promenade deck, she could still see the boat.
But nothing happened. The ship kept going. And the little boat with the waving men disappeared.
"We were kind of freaking out, thinking we don't see anything else happening," Meredith said.
Gilligan could no longer bear to watch.
"It was very disturbing," he said. "We asked other people, 'What do you think we should do?' Their reaction was: 'Well, you've done what you could do.' Whether something else could have been done, that's a bit frustrating to think about."
Oropeza along with Fernando Osario died. Vasquez was picked up by a fishing boat off Ecuador's Galapagos Islands, more than 600 miles from where they had set out.
Vasquez said he slipped their bodies into the sea after they began to rot in the heat. Before he was rescued, two rainstorms gave him fresh water to drink, and he jumped in the water to retrieve floating coconuts.
Vasquez said he thought about his eight brothers a lot, and never lost hope, but now prefers not to think about those 28 days adrift.
Vasquez said he recognized their boat, the Fifty Cents, from the photos Gilligan had taken with his 300 mm lens.
"Yes, that's it. That's it. That is us," he said. "You can see there, the red sweater I'm waving and, above it, is the sheet that we put up to protect us from the sun."
Vasquez mentioned the ship in his first statement to Panamanian authorities when he returned to his country.
Back at home in Oregon, Meredith couldn't sleep, wondering what happened to the men. Reading a news story about a Panamanian rescued off Ecuador in an open boat, she figured that was the boat they had seen.
The company said in an email the investigation was continuing.
Gilligan said he has had trouble coming up with an explanation for what happened.
"My only theory is the people on the bridge have seen a lot of fishing boats," he said. "And they were on a tight schedule and they let the schedule cloud their judgment."