Survivors return to university after harrowing accident
SACRAMENTO – University of California officials flew to San Diego on Thursday to accompany back to campus the survivors of a Sea of Cortez boating accident that killed at least four researchers.
Searchers off Bahia de Los Angeles, Mexico, on Thursday morning recovered the body of the expedition’s leader, world-renowned scorpion expert Gary Polis, 53, chairman of the UC Davis environmental sciences department.
The surviving researchers were expected to return to Sacramento on Thursday evening after being interviewed in San Diego by U.S. Coast Guard investigators, university officials said.
Also confirmed dead were UC Davis postgraduate researcher Michael Rose, 27, and two ecology professors from the Kyoto University in Japan, Takuya Abe, 55, and Masahiko Higashi, 45.
The Mexican Navy and the U.S. Coast Guard continued searching for Shigeru Nakano, 37, also of Kyoto University, who was missing and presumed dead.
The researchers were part of a UC Davis-sponsored expedition of about 20 people studying the spiders and scorpions that inhabit small islands in the Sea of Cortez, also known as the Gulf of California.
San Diego-based Coast Guard investigators planned to interview survivors of the accident as they crossed the U.S.-Mexico border, Petty Officer Jamie Devitt-Chacon said.
At least one of the two boats in which expedition members traveled was brought to Mexico from the United States, giving the Coast Guard jurisdiction to find the accident’s cause, Devitt-Chacon said. No penalties are expected, she said.
”Hopefully, they will find out what happened to prevent it from happening again,” Devitt-Chacon said.
The university chartered a private jet to fly the four survivors of the boat accident, as well as family members and researchers on another boat, back to the campus 15 miles west of Sacramento.
Chancellor Larry Vanderhoef, who flew to San Diego to accompany the group home, called the accident ”the most tragic in the history of the university.”
The expedition was based in Bahia de Los Angeles, on the eastern coast of the Baja California peninsula, 300 miles south of San Diego and midway between the U.S.-Mexico border and La Paz.
The researchers took two small boats to a small island called Cabeza de Caballo about 4 nautical miles from Bahia de los Angeles on Monday. Both boats headed back to port at midday, but became separated when the wind picked up and waves rose to 4 to 6 feet.
One boat returned to port and realized the other one had not yet arrived. It returned to search for the other boat and crew members reported the boat missing Monday night.
Four survivors were discovered Tuesday on two nearby islands, Los Gemelos. They said their boat took on water and flipped over. The nine people in the capsized boat had either life jackets or floation cushions, the survivors said.
The capsized boat was a 22- to 33-foot ”Boston Whaler type of vessel,” UC Davis officials said Thursday. Early reports had described it as a smaller inflatable boat.
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