Boat rescue witness: Stunned survivors had 'thousand-yard stare'

The Coast Guard says eight people were on board the boat when it capsized on Saturday near Marathon, Florida.

Story highlights

  • A charter captain describes coming upon three men clinging to a capsized boat
  • He says one was upset because "he lost his mother," who had slipped away
  • The Coast Guard later rescued four more who'd been on the boat, including a young girl
  • A witness says the girl "couldn't stop crying" when rescuers brought her ashore
The 4-year-old girl sobbed as rescuers rushed her ashore. In the boat behind her, the faces of her fellow survivors were painted with "a thousand-yard stare," one witness said Monday.
That girl and three others spent 20 hours stranded in stormy water after their 22-foot boat capsized off the Florida Keys over the weekend. They were picked up Sunday afternoon by Coast Guard rescuers.
A few hours earlier, David Jensen was maneuvering the Snap Shot, his fishing charter boat, from Duck Key to the open sea when he and others "saw a big object floating in the distance."
"The closer I got, I could see a guy waving," Jensen said.
They found three men clinging to part of what had been their boat. One charter customer quickly jumped in to help, while others threw life jackets to the men, only one of which could muster the energy to swim over, Jensen said.
Once aboard, a language barrier -- the rescued men were Spanish-speaking -- and raw emotions made it difficult to ascertain exactly what had happened. One who did speak English was very upset: "He lost his mother," Jensen explained.
Officer Robert Dube of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said Monday that a son had tried to hold onto his 79-year-old mother in the hours after their ship went down around noon Saturday. But she slipped away into the rough waters, Dube said, before rescuers could reach her.
This victim, later identified as Zaida San Jurjo Gonzalez, and the men had clung to the capsized boat's hull. But four others -- three women and the young girl -- couldn't hold on, and drifted off, Jensen said, based on his conversations with the survivors and authorities.
The charter boat captain contacted the Coast Guard after learning others were unaccounted for, and he took his boat out five miles in the direction where the four had drifted away.
He saw no signs of them. But rescuers did come upon the four Sunday morning, bringing them aboard near Marathon, which is roughly halfway between Key Largo and Key West, according to a Coast Guard statement
Authorities later learned that the three women, wearing life jackets, had held tight to a floating cooler and took turns holding the girl through the afternoon, night and next morning.
"That definitely saved their lives," Dube told CNN. "It could have been a lot worse situation."
Wayne Crosby of Captain Hook's Marina and Dive Center said he watched rescuers bring the four to a dock in Marathon on Sunday. They handed the girl off the boat first, he told CNN affiliate WSVN.
"They had her all wrapped up. ... She couldn't stop crying. She was panic-stricken," Crosby said.
At the dock, rescuers scrambled to tend to all the victims.
"They just had that look on their face, like a thousand-yard stare," Crosby told WSVN.
The group had suffered multiple jellyfish stings over the course of their ordeal, Dube said. And by Monday, the 4-year-old had been treated for mild hypothermia and exhaustion. But the wildlife officer added that, by then, she appeared to be "in very good spirits."
Ernie Perroncello, owner and operator of Sea Tow in Marathon, said weather in the area Saturday when the boat went down was terrible.
"You can get yourself in trouble real quick " on the area's water, said Perroncello, whose company salvaged the capsized boat.