under the light of the harvest moon

A blue, wedge flip-flop was floating 2 feet away from the body it recently came off of. I instinctually went to grab it and pull it from the water, but there was no reason to do so.

My first thought was to ask myself: why aren’t we getting in the water to save them? But I knew the answer: they were beyond saving.

The pieces of broken glass and the splintered wooden bench backs were not a result of hitting the wave created by a passing speedboat, but something much bigger. I was jolted from my trancelike state in which I was enjoying a shoulder rub by a sharp sound and a hard slap on the water. Opening my eyes, I didn’t realize what was going on around me for a few seconds. The boat we were in turned around and the bodies we saw floating, resting on their life jackets, we assumed were waiting for rescue. But there were no cries, no shouts, no movement. Sometimes understanding the shouting going on around you can be a blessing, but last night it was a curse. All I could hear were the men up front yelling to each other to call the bomberos and tell them where we were and that we had just hit a boat and there were definitely deaths involved. Those around me were looking past their feet to the bottom of the boat, making sure no water was entering – this thought didn’t even occur to me.  Everyone was ok, right? I called out to my seven and no one was injured, just a bit confused. No glass cuts, no broken bones, and no need to bail out of the boat. We were physically unharmed.

I attempted to ask why we weren’t getting in the water; should we get in the water?; why isn’t anyone in the water?; why aren’t we trying to rescue them?! “Estan muertos”, the man in front of me kept replying, “estan muertos”. We came nearer to the other boat – or what was left of it – to pull a man out who was floating on the wreckage and yelling “Help them! Help the others!” He was laid out on one of the benches and the doctor on the boat (yes, there was actually a doctor on the boat. His name is Charles and he’s Dutch) assessed the situation and recognized that the man had a broken arm. We needed a splint and turned to the dark water beyond, finding a piece of the broken boat floating past. We snatch it from the water (was that me or one of my passengers?) and pass it to him, jerry-rigging a support with the wood and the strap from an unused lifejacket.  One of my passengers grabbed the foot of one of the women and I shouted for him to let go – pulling the dead into the boat might be a risky decision in a Central American country.

We circled the upright section of the boat again and pulled the piece closer to us. I saw blood beyond the white and blue of the lancha and a man, shoved slightly underneath a piece of wood and floating face down, slowly began to sink. As we turned the side of the boat to us, a boy in a red shirt – the same one who helped us load our luggage twenty minutes before – was looking at the registration number. All of a sudden I heard him start to wail. As the man with the broken arm continued asking us where his wife was, the boy in the red shirt started screaming “Mi papa! Mi papa!” He made a phone call and there was no answer. He prattled on about how his father was on the boat and how he couldn’t see the body. I tried calming him by telling him not to jump to conclusions – no one was sure who was in the boat. All we had figured out from the man we rescued was that there were 4 others on the boat. I had seen three: a woman, a teenager, and the man. The other side of the boat was witness to the fourth person, a woman who was floating face down.

There was nothing we could do. For half an hour we waited in our boat, which had the front windows smashed in by impact and the poles supporting the canopy had collapsed. We got away from the wreckage as much as we could, and we waited. Finally another boat arrived to take us the rest of the way to our destination, while the two Dutch people (the doctor and the girl he was travelling with) stayed with the man with the broken arm and accompanied him back to Almirante, where an ambulance took him to a hospital back in town.

What we have been able to put together is this: our boat was on its way to Bocas del Toro when another boat appeared and was going to cross in front of us. In an attempt to avoid the other boat, we started to turn. Unfortunately, at that same moment, so did they. Since they took a sharp turn, the underside of their boat was our target, and we went straight through it, literally cutting the boat in half. We turned back almost instantly, but it wasn’t soon enough: the impact had killed the four people instantly. While there was blood in the water, most likely from the man who was nearest to the wrecked boat, no one saw any major external injuries (though I think I saw one woman with a head wound), leading us to believe that the cause was probably internal bleeding.

We all had strange thoughts pass through our head; from getting ready to jump into the water to check pulses to yelling at the boat driver for driving without lights (we did have navigation lights, but I don’t think the boat we hit did) to making sure we weren’t going to sink to taking photos of the gorgeous, yellow harvest moon lighting the scene. I was concerned for my passengers, and when the kid in the red shirt started crying about his dad, my heart went out to him, imagining my own family or friends floating in the water. My deepest sympathies to the families of the deceased – all of us wish we could have done more.

And so you all know, I am fine. My left arm is a bit bruised and sore, as is my neck, from the impact. Those of us on our boat were all extremely lucky.

My love to all of you.

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