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Survivor describes sinking boat as 'just like the Titanic'

By the CNN Wire Staff
Survivors from the capsizing of the Erik fishing boat fly on a helicopter to safety. Seven Americans are still missing.
Survivors from the capsizing of the Erik fishing boat fly on a helicopter to safety. Seven Americans are still missing.
  • Gary Hanson says he clung to a cooler for hours
  • He was rescued Sunday off the coast of Mexico's Baja peninsula
  • Seven Americans remain missing; one person has been confirmed dead
  • Mexican officials say the search has been extended indefinitely

(CNN) -- Gary Hanson awoke with a start around midnight Saturday to chaos.

Above his bed on the fishing expedition boat Erik, a storm was raging.

He rushed to the deck and drew up short. Almost 25 feet of the boat was under water.

Hanson, 65, spoke through tears Friday as he haltingly described to CNN affiliate KRON-TV in San Francisco how he and others aboard the Erik survived the capsizing by clinging to coolers for hours while they awaited rescue.

Hanson was one of the 43 passengers and crew members aboard the boat when a rough storm capsized it in the Sea of Cortez around 2:30 a.m. Sunday.

The Coast Guard said Friday that a search of an 816-square-mile area in the Sea of Cortez near Isla San Luis turned up no sign of the seven Americans still missing.

Most rescued, but search continues

However, small objects were observed, and they were reported to the Mexican authorities for further inspection, it said. Another search is scheduled for Saturday.

One American killed in the incident was identified as Leslie Yee. Yee's daughter, Lauren, told CNN affiliate KCRA-TV in Sacramento, California that her father, 63, loved to fish and had waited for years to go on the trip with friends.

Mexican officials said the search for the missing passengers has been extended indefinitely.

Quick thinking and swift action saved Hanson's life. After emerging on the deck of the boat, Hanson said he immediately sensed they would need to be rescued and wondered if anyone had notified the Coast Guard.

"I saw the captain standing there and I asked ...'Have you put out any calls to Coast Guard to get us here?' and he didn't say anything, he just stared at me," he said.

Hanson grabbed a foam cooler and jumped off the sinking boat. After swimming about 100 yards from the vessel, he turned just in time to witness its final moments before it was swallowed by the sea.

"In the starlight, I could see the guys running around and the back end was going under," Hanson said. "They got off the boat, and I saw the boat stand up on end. ... It stood there, all by itself ... and then it just slipped under the water, just like the Titanic, it just went straight down."

The Erik was a 115-foot fishing boat registered to Baja Sportfishing Inc., according to the company's website. The boat has traveled the Sea of Cortez since 1989 offering expedition fishing trips to tourists, the site said.

Clinging to the cooler, Hanson, a former Coast Guard member, estimated it would take about two hours for rescue crews to come find them. But by noon Sunday, more than nine hours after the sinking, he realized no one was searching.

Hanson and another passenger decided to swim toward the direction of a nearby island, but he said the tide was too strong.

"After 15 hours, I was trying to yell at people that were on the beach and I turned around and I saw this aluminum boat," he said through sobs.

"I got in and he said, 'Do you want me to take you to shore?' and I said, 'No we got too many guys out here, let's try and find some more.'"

Seventeen people were rescued from a Mexican beach last Sunday.

Officials said the seven missing could have survived, helped by warm water temperatures and calm seas.

The Coast Guard said Friday that it had searched 2,200 square miles of ocean and land since the Mexican navy requested assistance in the operation.

Hanson said he's holding out hope that his fellow passengers are still alive.

"We can certainly go down and check the boat out to see if any of our friends were there ... just to get closure for the families if nothing else," he said.

Missing are Donald Lee, Albert Mein, Russell Bautista, Mark Dorland, Brian Wong, Gene J. Leong and Shawn Chaddock.

CNN's Catherine E. Shoichet and Greg Morrison contributed to this report.