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Locals are first responders to Baja fishing boat accident

July 8, 2011

Several long-time Eastside residents were the first to respond to the news that a Mexican sport fishing boat, the Erik, with 26 American citizens on board, had capsized off the eastern coast of Baja Mexico on July 3, dumping all 43 passengers into the sea in the midst of a raging storm.

Doug and Peggy Magee have owned a home in Baja for 25 years and have lived there permanently for the past ten. Gloria and Ed Vasquez own a home close to the Magee’s.

When the first survivor of the accident swam to shore some 16 hours after the boat sank, he landed on a beach close to the Magees’ home. His arrival plunged both couples into a world of tragedy and heroism; a world that continues to this day as the search for seven missing passengers drags on.

When the knock on the door came Sunday afternoon, the Magees were perhaps uniquely suited for what came next. Doug Magee was a familiar Reserve Mono County Sheriff’s deputy and a search and rescue leader with 20 years’ experience with the June Lake Mountain Rescue Team. Peggy was the postmaster at the June Lake Post Office and she assisted in many search and rescue operations.

But this was something else; 43 people dumped in the ocean in another country, far from easy communication and help. Time was of the essence and the Magees sprang into action.

Peggy Magee sent this description of what happened to the MT via e-mail Wednesday (phone service from Baja to Mammoth is not reliable).
“The first person to swim ashore in this area (it was the area where most of the survivors drifted and/or swam to) was a local person who was raised in this area and grew up on the beach at Punta Bufeo, which is approximately 10 miles north from the Erik’s position when it sank and from our camp here at Papa Fernandez,” wrote Magee. “He was working as a crew member on the Erik.”

The man’s name is Rodrigo Romero Fernandez. By the Sunday afternoon of July 3 when he crawled ashore, he had been in the water since 2 a.m. When he got to shore and somehow got to a radio, he radioed the Fernandez family who live on the same property as the Magees.

“Somewhere around 4:45 p.m., they knocked on our door with this news,” Peggy Magee wrote. “It was unbelievable, but we had to take action. The fact that he said that the vessel sank at 2 a.m. and that he and other survivors were in the water for that length of time was shocking.

“At that time Doug got on the radio asking for volunteers with boats to launch immediately and head north (toward the capsized boat). Ed Vasquez, who lives nearby, launched within minutes of getting Magee’s call.

“Around 5:00 p.m. we heard Doug McGee calling on our marine radio, asking for anyone with a boat in the water to call him if willing to help with a search and rescue,” Gloria Vasquez, a former Mammoth Middle School principal, wrote in an email to the MT.

“We were the only people on our beach at that time with a boat in the water, so we quickly said yes… We got all the fishing gear out of the boat, extra gas, a backpack of water, extra life vests and took off, under Doug’s orders.”

“They searched the area which was filled with a great deal of debris from the vessel and rescued four survivors plus one deceased person,” wrote Peggy Magee. “One survivor who was rescued by one of our local boats, Glenn Wong, said it was like trying to swim in a rip tide. They could see lights and then the shore as daylight came but couldn’t get there.

“At first they were trying to swim toward the lights and shore but finally gave up and just went with the current. Two of (Wong’s) brothers were rescued or came ashore at another location. The third brother is still missing.”

She wrote that Wong described the hours in the water as “horrifying.”

“A few things that came out in conversations with him that night and then the next morning were that he gave his life jacket to another passenger. He tied cushions together to make a safer haven for himself and another person. He tied two ice chests together, leaving an area between to help the other person. He did not know until late that night or early the next morning the fate of his three brothers. These guys were all asleep in their bunks. They escaped with the shirts on their backs and their lives. It is truly amazing that there were that many survivors.”

“The Mexican authorities were on the way there in patrol boats,” Vasquez wrote. “Then (Ed Vasquez and the people in his boat) saw a flotation cushion floating with something under it. Unfortunately, it was the victim who has now been identified as Leslie Yee. They pulled him from the water and placed him in the boat and radioed Doug for instructions.”

Doug Magee continued to stay in constant contact with the three volunteer boats that he sent to the scene, Peggy wrote. He communicated with them until they were safely out of the water before dark and stayed in contact with the U.S Coast Guard helicopter which was on the scene the next day.

“He interviewed all the crew and anglers who survived and were at his location,” she wrote. “I remained here at our house and was in constant contact with the U.S. Consulate throughout the night. It was our call to the Embassy and Consulate that made them aware of the situation.”

Doug Magee is known for his tenaciousness and his almost uncanny ability to predict where a missing person might be, said his daughter, June Lake resident and Mono County Supervisor Vikki Magee Bauer. She recalled a car accident on the Tioga Pass Road where authorities knew a car had gone off the road.

“Despite repeated flyovers, no one could find the missing car, but my dad kept going back until he finally found it,” she said. “He knew it had to be there, and it was, and there was a survivor in it,” she said.
She said her father was also instrumental in persuading the Mexican authorities to continue the search past the first few days.

“It was his training here with the Mono County Search and Rescue that let him know that people can survive in 77 degree water for a long time,” she said.

Mono County Supervisor Hap Hazard is a retired sheriff’s deputy and a former search and rescue worker. Almost two decades ago, he was with Magee when a bus accident dumped people into the Walker River. He said Magee is one of the best. “He’s very capable, very competent,” he said. “He’s the right man for something like this.”

“Doug McGee did an incredible job of coordinating all the search and rescue efforts until the Coast Guard came on scene,” Vasquez wrote.

“He and Peggy were calm and so professional on the radio. (But it was) a very sad end to a Fourth of July fishing trip for 27 friends.”

When the MT went to press, thirty-five people had survived and seven passengers of the Erik were still missing. One person had been pronounced dead.

Doug Magee was a contractor, Search and Rescue coordinator and reserve deputy with the Mono County Sheriffs Department. He is now a Volunteer Warden for the ACS unit (American Citizens Service) of the U.S. Consulate in Tijuana. His duties are to assist U.S. citizens who may encounter problems while traveling in Mexico.

Peggy Magee was just made a warden as well, following this incident.

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