Video: Boat capsizes, passengers fight to stay afloat

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    >>> we're back now at 7:43 with one family's tragic and gruelling ordeal after their boat capsized four miles from shore. one woman died and several others including a 4-year-old girl survived clinging to the boat for 20 hours. kerry sanders is in marathon, florida , with details. good morning to you.

    >> reporter: good morning, matt. it is a tragedy because one of the passengers did drown but also a story of triumph and a lot of it has to do not only with the boat that capsized but because of a cooler like this. the 40 pound girl was able to hang on and at times get inside a cooler like this floating in very rough seas. these are the keys that draw so many novice boaters, calm seas, beautiful weather, but this past weekend was anything but.

    >> seas were probably five to eight foot, lots of thunderstorms.

    >> reporter: despite that threatening weather, eight people, family and friends from south florida , motored offshore on this private boat anyway, sticking with their planned columbus day weekend fishing trip.

    >> the wind started blowing 30, 35 miles an hour, gusting, it was raining and lightning.

    >> reporter: out near the old tennessee lighthouse, four miles from shore the florida fish and wildlife commission says a rogue wave swamped the back of their boat, submerging the stern. the weight of the water tossed everyone into the water. investigators believe only three of the passengers were wearing life vests . the panicked passengers fought to keep their heads above the water. three of the women grabbed the 4-year-old girl, making all efforts to save if nobody else little fabiana. among the debris a three-foot cooler floating on the surface which became a lifeshift boat for fabiana, the three women clinging to its side. the three men did not know how to swim so they held onto them the boat. with them the 79-year-old matriarch, not wearing a life jacket . the elderly woman 's son tried in vain to keep her head among the violent waves. within minutes he lost her head and she drowned. granddaughter was very upset.

    >> my aunts are not speaking much about it, it's grandmother, their mom. you can tell they're sad.

    >> reporter: for the next 20 hours they treaded water, the two groups drifting farther and farther apart. fisherman david jensen says it was shear luck they spotted the men on the side of their capsized boat.

    >> they were very fortunate. they were lucky. i don't know how they -- they had to be strong willed is all i can say.

    >> for somebody to die at sea, it's sad. it's a sad moment, but i mean, there would have been nobody else out there nobody.

    >> reporter: jensen alerted the coast guard who spotted the others, now drifting seven miles away , exhausted, swollen after countless jellyfish stings, dehydrated but alive, including fabiana now wrapped in a life vest , wedged between her mother and that ice chest .

    >> it's difficult to find, to spot a person in the water, the fact they were on a cooler and the cooler was higher above the water than they were definitely played into it and helped us locate them.

    >> reporter: lynette gonzalez says her 4-year-old niece, fabiana turned out perhaps it was youthfulness to be the cheerleader as she was hanging on to the cooler out there, she is the one who repeatedly told her mother reportedly that "we're gonna make it. they'll find us." matt?

    >> kerry sanders in florida for

Image: Survivors treated
AP
Seaman Kendra Graves, right, and Petty Officer 3rd Class Robert Femia assist EMS personnel in Marathon, Fla., with one of seven boaters rescued after treading water for around 20 hours after their boat capsized and sank.
NBC News and news services
updated 10/11/2011 10:19:49 AM ET 2011-10-11T14:19:49

Eight relatives had set out to fish in less-than-ideal conditions off the Florida Keys for a Columbus Day weekend expedition. It was raining, seas topped 7 feet and winds were whipping up to 38 mph. But neither the rough waters nor the lightning in the sky kept the boaters from venturing out.

Before they knew it, two waves hit, almost instantly capsizing their anchored 22-foot boat and knocking them into the sea about 3 1/2 miles offshore Saturday. Seven, including a 4-year-old, survived by clinging to their capsized vessel and a small blue cooler for nearly 20 hours , suffering exhaustion, jellyfish stings and hypothermia. A 79-year-old woman, the matriarch of the group, drowned, reported the Miami Herald, despite her son's efforts to save her.

"When the will to live kicks in, human beings can do amazing things," Coast Guard Petty Officer Nick Ameen said.

Four miles from shore, the women grabbed the girl, Fabiana, and the 2 ½-foot cooler. One of the men tried to rescue his mother, but she slipped through his grasp and disappeared into the water. The women said the boat turned over so quickly that there wasn't time to grab life jackets for anyone except Fabiana, said Kendra Graves, a seaman with the Coast Guard.

Almost immediately, the two groups — the three women and the girl, and the three men — drifted apart.

Nearly a day later, as the weather improved Sunday, commercial fishing boat captain David Jensen headed out with customers to catch live bait. Off in the distance, he saw a large object floating in the water.

As he turned the boat to get closer look, he saw a man waving. At first, he said, he thought there was only one person holding on to the sunken boat, its bow protruding just a few feet out of the water. When he got closer, he realized there were three men.

Story: 7 rescued 20 hours after being tossed into choppy seas

"I tried to get them to swim to the boat, but they said they didn't know how to swim," Jensen said. "Then I had the mate throw them life jackets. One guy put on the life jacket and swam to the boat. The other two guys wouldn't get off the boat."

One of Jensen's customers jumped in and swam over. He tied the boats together, and helped the other two men, one at a time, back to Jensen's boat.

"They were exhausted. One guy overnight had lost his mother," Jensen said. "He was very visibly upset, which was a little tough because he was the one who spoke the best English."

Mother died in survivor's arms
The man said his mother died in his arms minutes after the boat capsized.

“The man told authorities he tried to keep his mother afloat, but reached a point he could not hold her up any longer,” Robert Dube, spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said. When rescued, he was inconsolable, reported The Miami Herald.

Zaida San Jurjo Gonzalez died. Her son, Jorge Alejo Gonzalez, survived along with his wife, Tomasa Torres, the elderly woman's daughter, Elena G. Gonzalez, and her boyfriend, Juglar Riveras.

"They were very fortunate. They were lucky," Jensen said, reported NBC's Kerry Sanders. "They had to be very strong-willed is all I can say."

Video: Boat capsizes, passengers fight to stay afloat (on this page)

Also rescued were Jorge and Elena Gonzalez's uncle, Jose Miguel De Armas, his wife, Yunisleidy Lima Tejada, and their 4-year-old daughter, Fabiana De Armas Lima. All are from South Florida. The other survivors' ages ranged from 30 to 62.

After the men were found shortly before 9 a.m., the fishermen called the Coast Guard, who found the women. The women were hanging on to the floating cooler and started waving and yelling for help when they saw the Coast Guard boat.

Capsized boat
AP
This Oct. 9 photo released by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission shows a capsized boat in the waters off the Florida Keys.

"It's difficult to spot a person in the water," Coast Guard senior chief Chuck Lindsey told NBC. "The fact they were on a cooler, and the cooler was higher on the water than they were, definitely played into it and helped us locate them."

The survivors were taken to a port, where the 4-year-old girl "wouldn't stop crying," dock hand Wayne Crosby told the Orlando Sentinel. "She was spooked and dehydrated."

Those rescued were taken to a hospital exhausted, swollen from jellyfish stings, and dehydrated, but with non-life-threatening injuries, reported NBC. All of the boaters were soon reunited, wrapped in blankets and treated for shock and hypothermia.

"They were all pretty happy to see each other," Graves said.

Too many people, too few life vests?
A relative, Lynette Gonzalez, told NBC her family is not ready to talk about the ordeal, and are mourning the loss of the 79-year-old.

"My aunts are not speaking much about it," she said through tears. "It's my grandmother, their mom. You can tell they're sad."

It wasn't clear if the boaters were aware of a small-craft advisory that had been posted early Saturday.

Florida law requires children 6 or under on a boat 26 feet or less to wear a life jacket if the boat is moving. If the craft is anchored or docked, they don't have to wear one. It's unclear how many life flotation devices were onboard.

"They shouldn't have been out there," said Florida Fish and Wildlife spokesman Robert Dube, whose agency is investigating. "It was nasty from the get-go."

Overcrowding on the boat will be among factors investigated in the woman's death, Dube told The Miami Herald.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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