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More Bodies Recovered In Guatemalan Tragedy

January 4, 1989

PUERTO BARRIOS, Guatemala (AP) _ Two funeral parlors ran out of coffins on Wednesday and four more bodies were pulled from the waters by this grieving port town, raising to 83 the number of people killed when a ferry sank on New Year’s Day.

The skipper of the craft has been jailed and President Vinicio Cerezo’s administration has ordered an investigation into the worst maritime tragedy in Guatemala’s history.

The Justo Rufino Barrios II evidently developed engine trouble halfway on a 16-mile run from Livingston to Puerto Barros, 187 miles northeast of Guatemala City.

A navy patrol boat came to its assistance and offered a tow, but survivors said the cable was too short and the patrol boat sank the ferry when it suddenly accelerated.

Survivors, including the captain, accused the crewmen of the naval craft of being drunk and swamping the craft. Navy officials insisted the ferry was overcrowded.

″They are trying to put the blame on me so as to remain blameless themselves,″ Juan Pablo Esquivel, the 22-year-old ferry captain, said in a jailhouse interview.

Esquivel could face up to 10 years in prison for negligence in the disaster.

Over 160 people, including about 40 children, were on the ferry when it went down, according to officials here. Officials said its official capacity was 90 passengers.

Four bodies were recovered from Amatique Bay on Wednesday, raising the death toll to 83.

None of the survivors interviewed alleged malice on the part of navy crew. But Esquivel, who has been arrested on charges of criminal negligence, said he doubted the navy would accept any responsibility.

Esquivel, interviewed Tuesday night, said the patrol boat’s crew was celebrating the new year on deck when it arrived to help the ferry.

″They were in a state of drunkenness,″ Esquivel claimed. He said a navy machinist who came on board the ferry to check the engine smelled strongly of alcohol.

Isaac Acevedo, another survivor, was quoted by the local newspaper as saying, ″They (the navy crewmen) were drunk and gave us a very brusque pull.″

Capt. Anibal Giron, deputy commander of the Puerto Barrios naval base and a graduate of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, denied Wednesday that anyone was drunk on the navy boat.

Esquivel said he asked the patrol boat skipper to take on half his ferry passengers before beginning the tow, but that the skipper denied the request. Giron said the approaching dusk and the difference in deck levels made a transfer impossible.

Grieving townspeople continued showing up at La Milagrosa and Estrada, the town’s two funeral homes. Stands that normally hold varnished wooden caskets were bare and carpenters were building rough-hewn pine coffins to meet the demand.

Rodolfo Lucano, administrator of the ferry service, said 150 passengers was a safe load for the 60-foot ferry.

Esquivel said he was aware there were 100 adults, but said more could have come on board without his knowledge.

″Even if it were overloaded that is not going to make it capsize. What made it capsize was a a bad tow,″ Lucano said.

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