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Felix survivors describe being caught at sea

Nicaraguan villagers and lobstermen caught in Hurricane Felix’s grip describe how they survived days in the violent, debris-strewn sea, even being blown into a neighboring country.
Smals Wilfred, a Miskito Indian fisherman from the Miskito Cays, is carried from a Nicaraguan navy ship in Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua, on Saturday. Wilfred was rescued off the coast of Honduras after Category 5 Hurricane Felix hit the area.
Smals Wilfred, a Miskito Indian fisherman from the Miskito Cays, is carried from a Nicaraguan navy ship in Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua, on Saturday. Wilfred was rescued off the coast of Honduras after Category 5 Hurricane Felix hit the area.Esteban Felix / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Cecil Clark and Manuel Vendless could see the lights from land, could see safety, when Hurricane Felix’s waves picked up their boat, slammed it deep into the ocean and spit it out into the darkness again.

Still alive, Vendless clung to a rope and Clark somehow crawled onto what remained of their simple fishing vessel. But it wasn’t long before Vendless looked up at his friend, his face flashing before Clark in the lightning that crashed overhead, and said simply: “I’m not going to make it.”

After he died, Clark lashed the body to the boat, and assumed he was next.

Caught off guard by a monster
Hours earlier, dozens of fishermen diving for lobster in the sea around a cluster of remote cays off the coast of Nicaragua were unaware that miles away one of history’s strongest hurricanes was racing toward them. While the rest of the world, connected to Internet or watching 24-hour news channels, saw Felix’s deadly path through the Caribbean Sea, the remote Miskito Indians who live in jungle villages and on tiny, reef islands along the Honduran-Nicaraguan border had no idea the monster storm’s eye would soon be passing directly over them.

The first word of the storm came on radio and from Nicaraguan sailors who passed by on boats, urging fisherman to return to ports and others to evacuate low-lying islands where they lived. But the Miskito Indians, descendants of Indians, European settlers and African slaves who speak their own language and have a long-standing mistrust of Nicaragua’s central government and President Daniel Ortega, paid little heed to the official warnings. Having spent their lives in stilt homes built over the water, they believed they knew the sea and when to leave it.

It was also the last two weeks of lobster season, the main source of income, and most people took their time pulling in their catches. Then the ocean went wild.

In bustling Maras Cay, 39-year-old Aurora Prada was selling snacks and soda to fishermen and collecting lobster for sale on the mainland when she noticed the darkening sky and the waves tumbling onto land, rising along the beach in a way she had never seen before. She and nine others to rush to a nearby house, seeking refuge.

The wind peeled away the home’s simple, wooden walls, lifted the roof and tossed it into the air like a sheet of paper.

Moving at a snail’s pace
With waters rising all around them, the group found a small motor boat and headed toward a relatively protected swampy area, but the winds were so strong it took them two hours to move 50 yards.

“I thought of my children and how I was probably going to leave them orphans,” said the single mother of five, all of whom who were safe on the mainland.

Narciso Omeli, 36, was in his stilt home on Maras Cay when suddenly the ocean swallowed the island, leaving Omeli in open sea. He grabbed a piece of driftwood and was tossed about. Soon, he was surrounded by others just like him, survivors who were caught helplessly in the storm’s strong currents, none knowing where they would end up or if they would live.

Off Maras Cay, Rogel Calero had to wait for two lobster divers to surface before he could turn his simple, wooden sailboat toward shore. By that time, pounding rain began filling his boat with water. It wasn’t long before a wave capsized the group.

He, his wife, his 21-year-old son, and four other relatives were tossed into the sea, clinging to debris. Calero watched as, one by one, the others disappeared into the water.

He floated for hours, clinging to a tree trunk. He stopped thinking, stopped believing he would survive, even after the storm passed and the sun came out.

Searching for the missing
Back on the mainland, the storm wiped out jungle hamlets and crops, but villagers emerged with few reported deaths. Immediately they began searching for the hundreds they knew were missing at sea.

A few survivors washed ashore, as did bodies, their bloated arms stretched toward the sky. Death toll estimated ranged from dozens to more than 100. An exact count will likely never be known.

Wives and mothers packed a pier and the beach at Puerto Cabezas, crying and waiting for word of those lost. Helicopters clattered overhead, while villagers paddled hollowed out canoes through water littered with broken trees, searching for signs of life — or death.

A private boat found Prada. She and the others were still frantically scooping water from their disabled motorboat, floating amid a few remaining trees that stuck up from the flooded Maras Island.

“As soon as day broke, calm returned and I knew I was going to live,” she said.

‘These lives are important, too’
Back on land, many grew frustrated with the rescue effort. Zacarias Loren, 48, begged a government official in broken Spanish for scarce fuel for his boat so he could search for his 19-year-old son, who was with a group of 18 people diving for lobster off a distant cay when the storm hit.

“These lives are important, too,” Loren said after he failed to get the gas. “They might be floating alive, but they are out there alone.”

Word came of many survivors who had washed ashore or been plucked from the sea along the most remote section of Honduras’ coast. But no one, not even the Honduran government, knew exactly who they were.

One of the first to arrive in Honduras was Calero, who was found Wednesday, more than 30 hours after the hurricane hit. Miskito Indians searching the sea for relatives found him instead, pulling his battered and sunburned body from the water. They then took him back to Puerto Cabezas.

But dozens were still stranded in Honduras.

On Saturday morning, 38 men stumbled off a boat and onto the pier at Puerto Cabezas and were immediately surrounded by people desperate to find their loved ones among them. Cries rang out as wives and children recognized husbands, sons and fathers.

Loren spotted his missing, 19-year-old son, Angel, and wrapped him in his arms. Both cried in joy.

Tale of survival
Clark had perhaps one of the most amazing stories of the storm. He bobbed in the ocean for more than three days until relatives of his dead friend, Vendless, found him in the water near the Honduran coast.

His body was covered with open wounds from exposure to the sun and sea, and he was burned by boat fuel and a rope that he had used to tie himself to his sinking vessel. He was delusional, unable to explain what happened or recognize his friends.

Later, on land, he sat on his couch in Puerto Cabezas, still shocked nearly speechless. When Vendless’ mother, Rosa Miller, came to see him, he told her through tears that he held on to her son’s body until Thursday, when the stench became too much to bear and he let his friend sink.

Miller broke down crying with him, kissing him on the forehead and reassuring him that they would try to find Vendless’ remains.

“We are going to go again tomorrow with a diver to look for my son because even if they find his bones, I want to bring him to me,” she said.