A Tumalo woman on a bird-watching cruise off the coast of Panama spotted something else entirely: three stranded fishermen in a boat, waving for help. She told the crew she thought they were in trouble, but was told they were fine -- and within hours or days, two of them were dead.
Standing on the deck of a cruise ship between Panama and Ecuador, Judy Meredith gazed out at sea, hoping to see birds. But what she and two of her friends spotted instead on March 10th still haunts her.
"For several weeks we've all been just sick," Meredith told NewsChannel 21 on Tuesday.
Meredith was aboard the Star Princess cruise ship for a 30-day bird-watching cruise. By peering through her binoculars, Meredith unknowingly became one of the last people to see 26 year old Oropeces Betancourt alive.
"We could see him doing this, over and over and over," Meredith recalled, showing how they waved a red shirt and orange life jacket.
Betancourt and his two friends were frantically signaling for help.
"Once you see someone like that, face to face -- if you're human you do what you can," said Meredith.
They'd been drifting in the Pacific Ocean on a small fishing boat with a dead motor for two weeks when Meredith saw them. She and her friends immediately alerted crew members.
"I know I had a sense of urgency and told them it was a boat in trouble," said Meredith.
But Meredith says the crew told her the fishermen were just waving to say thanks for avoiding their nets.
Unsettled but unable to do more, Meredith wrote down their GPS coordinates and sent the information to the U.S. Coast Guard about what she saw.
But she says nothing ever came of it.
"How would you feel?" Meredith said Tuesday. "I have a son. I just can't imagine knowing that they're out at sea and having no information, and knowing someone saw them -- and just kept going."
Two and a half weeks after Meredith watched the boat disappear into the distance, fishermen near the Galapagos Islands came across the same boat. But by then, 18-year-old Adrian Vasquez was alone and unconscious.
"The other two guys had died. He had to roll their bodies into the Ocean because they were decomposing," said Don Winner, a journalist in Panama who has extensively covered this story.
Winner interviewed Vasquez in person after he was brought back to Panama. He says the teen survived on fresh fish, then rotten fish, and rain water from two storms in his 28 days at sea.
Winner says he believes it was a severe breakdown in communication aboard the Star Princess that cost the other two young Panamanian men their lives.
"They're doing everything they can to signal, 'Help, save us!' And somehow that was interpreted on the bridge as, 'Let's go around these fishermen,'" said Winner.
I put in a call Tuesday to the U.S. Coast Guard and have not heard back. Princess Cruise lines told me an internal investigation is under way and the captain is "on holiday."
Possibly the saddest part -- Betancourt died from dehydration the very night Meredith and her friends spotted him. The other fisherman who died was a 16-year-old boy named Fernando Osario, who died five days later.
To read more about this story, visit Winner's website. http://www.panama-guide.com/article.php/20120413184536993