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News / Nation & World

A missing sailor’s last message from Hurricane Otis was to ask his family to pray for him

By MARÍA VERZA, Associated Press
Published: November 14, 2023, 1:50pm
2 Photos
A missing persons sign hangs on a tree in Acapulco, Mexico, Sunday, Nov. 12, 2023. It was 12:20 a.m. on Oct. 25. when Hurricane Otis made landfall in this Pacific port city as a Category 5 hurricane, leaving 48 dead, mostly by drowning, and 31 missing, according to official figures. Sailors, fishermen and relatives of crew members believe that there may be more missing because sailors often go to take care of their yachts when a storm approaches.
A missing persons sign hangs on a tree in Acapulco, Mexico, Sunday, Nov. 12, 2023. It was 12:20 a.m. on Oct. 25. when Hurricane Otis made landfall in this Pacific port city as a Category 5 hurricane, leaving 48 dead, mostly by drowning, and 31 missing, according to official figures. Sailors, fishermen and relatives of crew members believe that there may be more missing because sailors often go to take care of their yachts when a storm approaches. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte) Photo Gallery

ACAPULCO, Mexico (AP) — During the first minutes of Oct. 25 when Hurricane Otis roared into Acapulco Bay with 165 mph winds, sailor Ruben Torres recorded a 10-second audio message from a yacht called the Sereno.

“All things considered I’m alright, but it’s really horrible, it’s really horrible, it’s really horrible,” he said over the howling wind and the boat’s beeping alarms. “Family, I don’t want to exaggerate, but pray for us because it’s really awful out here.”

The Sereno was one of 614 boats — yachts, ferries, fishing boats — that according to Mexico’s Navy were in the bay that night and ended up damaged or on the ocean floor. Of those aboard the Sereno, one person survived, while Torres and the boat’s captain remain missing.

Otis killed at least 48 people officially, most drowned, and some 26 are missing. Sailors, fishermen and their families believe there are many more.

Sailors in the region typically board their boats during a storm rather than stay on land where they’d be safe, so that they can bring the boats to sheltered parts of Acapulco Bay instead of leaving them where a storm could slam them against docks and do damage.

But Otis was no normal storm. When sailors went to sea that day no one expected that the tropical storm would strengthen to a Category 5 hurricane in 12 hours and make a direct hit on Acapulco, leaving no part of the bay safe.

Susana Ramos, the wife of Ruben Torres, heard her husband’s message only days later.

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Torres’ family knew his routine when a hurricane approached: He went aboard to help care for the boat and the crew sailed it near the naval base in an area more protected by mountains that ring the bay. Ramos prepared dry clothing for his return.

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Around 7 p.m. Oct. 24, Torres spoke to his oldest son, now 14. Ramos overheard him describe how it looked then with whole hillsides in Acapulco going dark as the power started to fail. But Torres said he had his lifejacket at the ready and the engines going in case.

Hours later, the family’s home began to flood. Buckets of water were entering. “The walls were like they were crying,” Ramos said. But the really scary part was “the penetrating hissing of the air” like the screeching of a tire over their heads and the creaking of the house.

She remembered that her husband always said don’t fear the water, fear the wind.

When Torres recorded that last message asking his family to pray for him, a dozen members were huddled inside the concrete house.

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Otis’ damage on land was evident at first light. The city awoke isolated, without power, phone signal or water. Tens of thousands of homes were destroyed, entire neighborhoods flooded, luxury hotels were hollowed out without walls or windows. Trees, power poles and debris were everywhere.

Details of the situation at sea have trickled in more slowly.

Alejandro Martínez Sidney, a business leader and member of a fishing cooperative, has been hearing the accounts of surviving sailors. He said they were caught by surprise at the storm’s sudden strength. An alert went out about 10 p.m. on the night before Otis made landfall, telling sailors to beach their boats.

“It was too late,” Martínez Sidney said.

Many, like Torres, had already sailed to what were believed to be more protected parts of the bay. Others, who didn’t want to damage their boats by beaching them, followed suit but ended up trapped in a whirlpool in the middle of bay, he said survivors told him.

It was like a “mega tornado” that devoured them, Martínez Sidney said.

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Ramos was worried. The next day she crossed 8 miles of devastated cityscape – walking through mud, riding a motorcycle, and hitching rides on trucks — to reach the Sereno’s dock.

Seeing boats aground on Acapulco’s waterfront boulevard shook her. Looking out to the bay, the boats looked like old, wrecked toys, she said.

Shouting her husband’s name, she pushed through other families looking for their loved ones. She was taken to see six bodies that had been recovered. None was from the Sereno.

Then she started to check hospitals, lists of dead and missing that began to circulate. She went to the naval base, the morgue. There she had just enough battery on her phone to show them a photo of Torres.

She said that when she heard an official say that if they confirmed anything they would call her, she understood that she would have to be the one to look for him.

Several days later, when power and a phone signal began to return sporadically in some areas, she finally got her husband’s message. It made her feel powerless.

“It’s so heartbreaking for me to have that last message,” she said.

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Sailors and fishermen immediately started searching in whatever craft remained seaworthy. Sometimes they had to siphon gasoline from parked cars for their motors.

Some yacht owners, like that of the Sereno, rented boats and small planes to search while also getting necessities to crew members’ families who had lost everything.

Ramos and her brother-in-law crisscrossed Acapulco on a motorcycle, chasing rumors of survivors. A crew member from the Sereno was found alive on an island in the bay.

The sailor told Ramos through tears how they had all jumped into the water with their lifejackets on, but that he had managed to cling to a floating marine fender, a bumper-like device from the boat that saved him.

Families have protested that authorities should lead the search because they have better equipment.

Enrique Andrade, a teacher searching for his younger sister Abigail who was aboard a ship called the Litos, said he has accompanied the Navy, divers and agents from the state prosecutor’s office on searches. Of the Litos, they’ve only found “a little door,” he said.

Andrade said authorities did not do enough to warn crew members. “The Navy knew what was coming, the sea terminals knew too and they still didn’t share the information” soon enough, Andrade said.

The Navy has recovered 67 small boats, but there are more than 500 more longer than 40 feet, according to Alejandro Alexandres González, a captain who spoke to reporters during one search effort.

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Ramos’ life now consists of a daily visit to the morgue, where samples of her children’s DNA have been taken, and perching her cell phone at a window of her home where there sometimes is a signal, in case of news about her husband’s whereabouts.

Sleeping in her mother’s embrace and thinking of her children has given her strength.

The small grocery she had rented to help her husband pay off their debts and live in a neighborhood with less violence was one of the thousands of businesses cleared out by desperate residents after Otis. She tries to convince herself she will be able to start over.

Showing photos of the 10th birthday of their youngest daughter they had celebrated a week earlier, Ramos said the girl had kept her eyes on the door hoping her father would return.

Ramos hopes that on Nov. 17, when her husband would turn 33, they will have news.

“It would be really great if they told me, at least, there he is; a miracle if they would tell me, he’s hospitalized there, come … and I would carry him back.”

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