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Oct 28, 2005

American diver tells harrowing tale of being lost at sea

Story PictureAmerican Nancy Masters is lucky to be alive. She and three companions on a dive trip last weekend wound up spending three days and two nights floating in the waters off Silk Caye after their boat developed engine trouble and their guide seemed unable to remedy the situation. Unfortunately, one of the group, Abigail Brinkman, did not make it. Today Masters was finally recovered enough to speak with News Five, but because she is still suffering from the effects of a terrible sunburn and prolonged exposure to the elements, she did not want to appear on camera. But Masters’s voice clearly expresses her fear, strength, frustration, and the exhaustion of the ordeal… not to mention her anger at the man who put them all at risk.

Nancy Masters, Survivor
?I don?t think that Vance Cabral should be allowed to operate a dive company or be involved in one by any means. Somebody?s died because of his negligence basically, not basically, they have. It starts out that he doesn?t take care of his equipment and it?s compounded by the fact that he ignores small craft advisory warnings and he?s not truthful to his customers.?

Janelle Chanona, Reporting
When thirty-eight year old Nancy Masters left on a dive trip on Saturday morning, she had no idea her life was about to change forever. Masters was one of ten people who left Placencia Village and headed for Silk Caye with Advance Diving, a tour operator based on the peninsula. Masters says before they even got to the dive site at Gladden Spit, things started to go wrong…and kept getting worse.

Nancy Masters
?The divers went out and just two or three minutes away from the caye, the motor died again. And after many attempts ?Bee Bee? was unable to fix it at all. And he just kept trying to fix it and kept trying to fix it and in the meantime we are floating further and further away from the caye. I asked him if we shouldn?t throw the anchor and he really didn?t do too much about it and eventually we threw the anchor. And then he noticed that the anchor didn?t seem to be working, so he went and checked on it and pulled it up and it had… it broke. Either it wasn?t tied properly in the first place to actually hold the boat or it simply broke from the chain. I?m not sure.?

?After the anchor broke, ?Bee Bee? went back to try to take care of the motor and still no success, and I had asked him if the radio worked and it assured us that it did. And after a couple more minutes, another man that was on the boat, John, decided, you know we better get on the radio and call now. And the radio did not work. Three of us attempted to do something with it to make it work and that was not successful. So ?Bee Bee? made a comment that we were basically floating to Jamaica because there was nothing else between where we were and Jamaica. And at this point, we could still see the caye quite well and so decided that we would dive it because the swells were somewhat large on top of the water, but diving underneath figured we?d miss. We all knew how to dive, we would just follow the compass and go.?

Janelle Chanona
?Via an official press release from the Belize Tourism Industry Association, Henry ?Bee Bee? Tucker has maintained that: ?Against his persistent advice to stay with the boat and await rescue, the four divers, wearing full dive gear, decided to try and swim for Silk Caye while it was still within sight on Saturday.?

Tonight Masters vehemently disputes Tucker?s claim.

Nancy Masters
?He did not advise us not to go and he does have more information about that than we do, but it just makes me extremely disappointed that he?s now lying about it, especially in the light of the fact that somebody died.?

?Bee Bee? started to helping us get ready, getting our stuff on and at first I had decided to go and John was going to go with me and then the other two other people on board, Abby and Yutaka wanted to go too. And of course, part of the reason, obviously we didn?t want to float out in the middle of sea, but also it was very uncomfortable in the boat, we were all starting to feel very sick. And so ?Bee Bee? started getting stuff ready and he handed over tanks and the B.C. vests as they came up and the first one was the small one, which was Abby?s, so she put that on and got in, and then John and then Yutaka. But prior to that, I asked?we all looked at the equipment and surprisingly there was no compass on any of the regulators or the equipment with the regulators.?

?That?s how we ended up in the water, we decided that we were going to try to navigate by the sun, but due to the wave action, the light was too diffused and we were unable to tell through diving. So at that point we decided to surface swim it, but after that amount of time, the distance of the caye had increased quite a bit and it just ended up being more than we could do.?

Drifting on the endless sea, the four SCUBA divers watched hopelessly as darkness began to fall. More alarmingly, Masters soon found herself all alone in the water.

Nancy Masters
?Throughout the whole thing, even when it was difficult to swim, it never really, I never really believed that we wouldn?t make it. And I just knew that we needed at least one person to make it, because obviously Vance wouldn?t be out there with some form of communication, so somebody needed to make it to the caye. I saw that he had a cell phone, just to get out there to get help, to come help the people in the water and ?Bee Bee? in the boat and I found out later that his cell phone wasn?t charged.?

?As it?s getting dark actually I can?t find Abby anymore because we had been swimming and the swells were getting larger. And so I started to, I wasn?t sure if I should just keep trying to swim for the caye or find Abby. At this point I?m still thinking that one of us needs to make it, but when I realized that I wasn?t going to make it, I tried to find Abby so that neither one of us would have to stay the night out there alone, which was certainly not an option that was preferred. So I actually swam back just a little bit and tried to look for her and never… she had on an orange swim cap so she had been pretty easy to see before that time and I didn?t think that I would lose sight of her, but the sea can be pretty tough so I don?t exactly where it took her from where it took me.?

?The nights were really long, the nights felt like they went on for weeks. The days in comparison were not that bad because you could see. The next day I thought there would be boats and planes all over the place and I just figured, we all have to just get through this night and then we?ll all be found in the morning. The next morning, I didn?t see any of that. During the night your mind plays a lot of tricks on you when you are out there and I honestly, I truly, truly believed that the other three had been found. You kind of nod off for short times and I think I must have dreamed it, but I absolutely believed that they had been found.?

?After the first night, I didn?t think I could handle a second night, but I was sure that all the boats and planes would be out and I would be in found. So I told myself if when the sun sets tomorrow night and you?re still out here then you can freak out, but in the meantime, that?s not an option.?

?I really thought Sunday night that I was going to get picked up by this trawler, I was so close. If I had swam that hard before it wouldn?t have been… it was so close, and it wasn?t moving and it was getting closer and closer and I was about, I?m not really good with, I was about fifty yards or so and it started to trawl…that hurt so bad!?

Masters said she realised she was in a shipping lane and was determined to get the attention of one of the captains. But then suddenly late Monday afternoon, there was the B.D.F. Defender.

Nancy Masters
?I heard it first and it went almost right over me, but gave no indication that it had seen me so I didn?t think it had. And that was right up there with the fishing trawler; that hurt. And it was even more discouraging in some ways because I thought this guy is flying so low and he was almost right over me and he didn?t see me, and if he didn?t see me that close, nobody?s ever going to see me in a plane.?

2nd Lt. Christopher Neal and Capt. Raymond Shepherd had seen Nancy Masters, and within the hour all four SCUBA divers were pulled from the water.

Nancy Masters
?I am so grateful to those people, everybody and the people in Placencia that were taking care of our friends that were back in there, being kind to them and you know, and there boats from Honduras and Guatemala looking for us as well, so you can?t really help but be really touched by what everybody from Belize and the other countries as well, but especially what the Belizean people put out trying to find us.?

Tonight Masters says prior to leaving the peninsula, they were never informed that there was a small craft warning in effect for Belize?s coastal waters.

Nancy Masters
?We have since learned that there was a small craft advisory, a warning, and we were not aware of that. Vance never mentioned to us that there was a warning. We chose Vance because we wanted to go to Glover?s Reef originally and the person we wanted to go with didn?t want to go for a day trip because it?s kinda far for a day and she said that sometimes Vance would go for day, so she gave us his number and his location.?

?We had heard from another couple who talked to somebody at Sea Horse that they weren?t going out that day, but they told us because the visibility was poor and not because of the ocean being too rough.?

?Basically you trust the divemaster, the captain of the boat isn?t going to put a group of people and himself and his boat in danger. So we figured you know it was a little choppy, but we at no point felt that we were in danger when we left. We trusted the person who we’re going out with.?

Tonight as Masters continues her slow recovery from severe sunburn and metabolic shock, she remembers young Abigail Brinkman.

Nancy Masters
?She was just a beautiful person with a great spirit and she really loved Belize. She talked, I think that when we went out on dive, she was the person who was talking the most, just because she loved the area and she loved the country and the people and diving and life so much. She had a lot to give and she really appreciated everything that people were giving to her here. Her loss is so tragic and so unnecessary. Nobody should die because somebody isn?t taking care of their equipment.?

Masters and Yutaka Maeda departed the country today, while John Bain left earlier this week. Abigail Brinkman?s body was flown out of the country today. Before leaving, Masters and Maeda met with the B.D.F. soldiers who participated in rescue.
Today a meeting of the tour operators review board was held at the B.T.B. office to decide what if any penalties would be levied against Advanced Diving. Present at that meeting were various agencies including the Belize Port Authority. According to the Tourism Board’s Anthony Mahler, he cannot comment on the recommendations made today until Advanced Diving owner Vance Cabral has been informed in writing.

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