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, , suffering exhaustion, jellyfish stings and hypothermia. A 79-year-old woman, the matriarch of the group, drowned, , 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.
"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, .
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."
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.
"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 . "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.