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At Least 17 Killed in Mexican Boat Collision

August 6, 1988

MEXICO CITY (AP) _ Rescuers searched a rain-swollen river for bodies after a loaded barge rammed a ferry boat with dozens of passengers aboard and split it in two, killing at least 17 people, officials said.

A newspaper editor said 54 people were dead or missing in the Thursday night accident near Jaltipan, a remote river town about 300 miles southeast of Mexico City.

The ferry, the Liberty, was taking workers home from the government-owned Azufrera Panamericana sulfur mining works in Jaltipan, said Raoul Torres, spokesman for the Veracruz state governor’s office in Jalapa.

Torres said Friday that the Liberty was carrying 41 workers down the Coachapa River to Minatitlan, 12 miles east and upriver from Jaltipan, when it was struck by the barge Aspa 35 at 11:45 p.m. Thursday night.

A statement released by Azufrera Panamericana Friday said 17 workers drowned and that poor river conditions may have been a factor in the accident.

But Jose Nava Ramos of the Minititlan newspaper La Opinion said 70 people were aboard the Liberty. He said 27 bodies were found, 16 people were rescued and the rest were missing.

Nava Ramos, whose reporters were at the scene, said the Liberty’s captain, Mauricio Vidal, was among those who drowned. He said the barge, owned by Azufrera, was loaded with sulfur.

A Red Cross worker in Minatitlan said about 38 people drowned. He spoke on condition of anonymity and did not elaborate.

Daniel Gavito Castro, an official with the Minatitlan municipal government, said authorities recovered 18 bodies from the river.

He said the Liberty was carrying between 60 and 80 workers but that it was too early to say how many people survived the collision because ″it’s a very remote area.″

The discrepancies in the figures could not be resolved immediately.

Torres said the cause of the accident was unknown, but he said ″strong currents fed by the rains that made it difficult to navigate in the river″ and poor night visibility may have contributed to the collision.

The 66-foot barge struck the 50-foot Liberty, which split in half and sank, taking some workers with it to the river bottom, Torres said. Others jumped into the water as the vessel sank, he said.

″Personnel on the barge tried to rescue those they could,″ he said. ″It is possible there are more people missing.″

Gov. Fernando Gutierrez Barrios ordered the state health department and other agencies to Minatitlan to help, Torres said.

The collision ″probably was not entirely due to human causes and it appears the conditions of the Coachapa River, including the (strong) current,″ contributed to the accident, said the Azufrera statement, read by Pedro Leetch Valcaza, operations director at the Jaltipan facility.

The statement said authorities were conducting an ″exhaustive investigation’ ′ into the accident and that the company ″immediately implemented a program of economic assistance for the widows of the ... workers.″

It said Azufrera would offer employment to relatives of the lost workers.

Nava Ramos said Azufrera Panamericana was in charge of the search operation and had located the Liberty on the river bottom about 60 feet down.

He said workers earlier protested what they called the poor condition of company vessels used to ferry employees. About 1,800 workers are employed at the Jaltipan plant.

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