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Navy Crew Blamed As Being Drunk In Ferry Mishap

January 4, 1989

PUERTO BARRIOS, Guatemala (AP) _ The captain of a ferry that sank on New Year’s Day with the loss of 79 lives claims the crew of the naval patrol boat that was towing his boat was drunk.

The mishap off the Caribbean coast was Guatemala’s worst maritime disaster.

Late Tuesday, the captain of the ferry, who is charged with negligent homocide in the case, blamed the navy crew for the accident during an interview in a National Police jail in this city.

The captain, Juan Pablo Esquivel, said those on the navy ship, which he said included non-navy personnel, were ″celebrating on deck″ during the towing operation. He said he smelled alcohol on the breath of a machinist who boarded his packed ferry from the navy vessel to check the motor.

The ferry skipper said that after eight minutes of towing, the navy vessel ″made a brusque acceleration″ that caused the ferry to flip over.

Capt. Rigoberto Kiste, of the Puerto Barrios naval base, said by telephone that he could not officially respond to the charges because the navy’s investigation was continuing.

But earlier Tuesday, another officer at the local naval base denied that the patrol vessel, No. 654, was at fault and said the ferry captain must shoulder prime responsibility.

A tugboat captain and other witnesses told The Associated Press that the ferry was towed with too short a cable and that the patrol boat did not slow down even after the ferry started listing.

″The wake of the patrol boat was hitting hard against our bow, and our bow was down in the water. You can’t keep a ship under control when its bow is down in the water,″ said Ladislao Ponce, 47, who has worked for 19 years as a tugboat captain and who was a passenger on the ferry.

Capt. Anibal Giron, second in command at Puerto Barrios naval base and a graduate of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, remarked: ″When people are in grief, when they’ve suffered loss, they look to affix blame immediately. Our business is saving lives. We are as upset about this as anyone.″

Giron said the navy was investigating, but the preliminary conclusion is that Esquivel, the ferry captain, was mainly to blame.

Ponce was traveling with his wife and two daughters Sunday when the ferry Justo Rufino Barrios II flipped and sank in Amatique Bay while making the 16- mile run from Livingston to Puerto Barrios. Ponce’s wife and one daughter drowned.

Ponce said the ferry lost power either from lack of fuel or engine trouble and drifted an hour until a naval patrol boat arrived and offered a tow.

″The cable they used to tow us was very short, about 15 meters (49 feet) long,″ said Ponce. He and Rodolfo Lucano, another commercial captain, said the cable should have been at least 165 feet long.

The vessel listed sharply twice, to port then starboard, ″but they did not reduce speed. They must have seen that we were listing dangerously,″ said Ponce. He said passengers were panicked by the second steep tilt.

The vessel flipped over, trapping passengers below.

Rogelio Franzua, an 18-year-old high school student who had been headed home to Puerto Barrios, also estimated the length of the towing cable at 45 feet. He, like Ponce, said no life jackets were aboard the Rufino Barrios.

″Both the ferry and the navy have responsibility. Because the ferry was overloaded and without needed equipment. And the patrol boat should have taken off at least some of us before beginning to tow, and they towed us too fast,″ Franzua said.

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