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Jun 1, 1999

The story of the missing Fantome

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With the start of the hurricane season today, many of us are reliving the anxious days last October when Mitch had us fearing the worst and praying for the best. While we followed the weather reports tracking this fickle storm, trying to decide which way to run, we didn’t know there was a cruise ship in our waters also trying to predict the path of the storm. We didn’t know there were men aboard who had planned to get off in Belize, but were ordered out to sea. Even after Mitch, when word spread that the ship and her crew had been lost, we had no way of knowing that two Belizean women lost men that they cared about. In April of 1997 we ran a story, reported by Arreini Palacio, on the arrival in Belize of the S.V. Fantome, a classic sailing ship which would carry her passengers in luxury to exotic locations in the Western Caribbean. Tonight, to mark the start of the hurricane season, we bring you another story of the Fantome and the series of fatal decisions that have placed the ship and her 31 crewmen at the bottom of the sea.

On Monday, October twenty sixth, 1998 the Fantome dropped its anchor three and a half miles off the coast of Belize City. On board the atmosphere was one of confusion and panic as the crew hurriedly got passengers off the ship so they could catch the next available flight to Miami.

Passenger #1

(Oct. 26, 1998) “We came off of the S.V. Fantome out of Honduras and they are evacuating everybody to Miami.”

Passenger #2

(Oct. 26, 1998) “We left San Pedro Sula last night. Actually Omoa last night, went out, couldn’t get around the storm and so they brought us into Belize City to fly us out. So they are taking the ship back out to sea to ride the storm out.”

Three days later the ship and a crew of thirty-one men were lost at sea.

Nelson Ayala, Investigator, William Huggett Law Firm

“This is a very clear case of gross negligence. Not negligence, gross negligence.”

Nelson Ayala is an investigator for the law firm of William Huggett in Miami. The firm is representing some of the families of the Fantome crew. Ayala says there were several opportunities to save the men’s’ lives but because of corporate greed, these were not taken. The first negligent decision, according to the investigator, was made in Omoa where the cruise started on Sunday. He says that Windjammer Cruise Line and the captain of the Fantome knew that Mitch was in the northwestern Caribbean. The ship should never have left port.

Nelson Ayala

“They know there is a storm out there and that it is coming in their general direction, it is coming into the Western Caribbean. Everyone knew it. The whole world knew that there was a storm sitting out there and we also knew that it was one of the largest and one of the slowest moving storms.”

It took the ship twelve hours to reach Belize. Passengers on board reported that the overnight trip was rough as the vessel rocked from side to side battling high winds and waves. Anxiously awaiting the ship’s arrival was Faith Saunders, the wife of Crispin Saunders, a Grenadian who worked as the assistant steward on the Fantome.

Faith Saunders, Wife

“He called me the night before and he told me that he was coming off. So I went there to help bring his stuff off but when I got on the ship it was something different.”

Saunders recalls she was inside her husband’s cabin when Guyan March, the Fantome’s captain brought bad news.

Faith Saunders

“Well when Captain March came to the cabin, I was putting his things together. He took him outside and talk to him and then he came back inside and he was very sad and he said, “I can’t leave the ship.” And I asked and he said he just got orders that he was supposed to stay on the ship.”

Jerry King, from Guyana was the ship’s Boson’s mate. He was also ordered to stay on board. Teresa Augustus, who has a child for King, says she will never forget that day.

Teresa Augustus

“When I went out there, I thought he was coming off because they were supposed to dock the ship that week here anyway. So when I got out there, it was a different thing.

I told him to come off and sit the weather here with us but he said it would be bad for the ship, it would be like neglecting the ship, so they couldn’t leave it at that point.”

Nelson Ayala says investigations reveal that the ship could have been put in safe harbor somewhere in Belize that day, Monday October 26th. But instead the ship was told to head out again. Ayala believes Windjammer Cruises decided to risk the seamen’s lives because the fifteen million-dollar vessel was not insured.

Nelson Ayala

“You leave the vessel here and you run the risk of losing the vessel. This is the key. The only consideration that the Windjammer had was not to lose the vessel. The storm is getting closer and it is still heading northwest towards Belize. We all know that, so naturally they said we are not going to leave the vessel here, let’s get out of here.”

But even after the Fantome left Belize, there was still time and opportunity, to get the men off the ship. Ayala says Mitch did not overrun the vessel as the company would want everyone to believe but rather the ship navigated right into the eye of the storm. Records from the port in Belize show the Fantome was destined for Puerto Cortes, Honduras but according to investigations the ship changed its route and headed for the lee side of Roatan and then started tacking back and forth.

Nelson Ayala

“When they were tacking back and forth, the storm was in this general direction. It was slightly northeast of them and the winds were already picking up and so forth but it was still calm in their immediate area. They could have still gotten the boys off because I went there and I interviewed everyone. Someone made a decision that the storm would probably head above them so they headed from the island of Roatan to the island of Guanaja.

Even a modernized vessel wouldn’t have survived that type of storm. You are talking about 160 miles per hour winds, fifty foot waves. It just overcame them. Those poor boys never had a chance.”

Teresa Augustus

“It has been very difficult because raising Princess, I have to find everything for her on my own: pay babysitter and take care of her on my own. And the worst part of it is knowing that she will never be able to see her father.”

Faith Saunders

“What angers me is that these people who own the ship they should take care of their workers if you are working for them. It doesn’t matter if you are black, white or whatever; they should

take care of them.”

Windjammer Cruises has maintained that their decision to send the ship toward the Bay Islands was sound seamanship based on reliable predictions by virtually all forecasters that the storm would move north towards Mexico. The families of those lost, do not agree and a class action suit has been filed against Windjammer Cruises and its owner in Dade County, Florida. The only wreckage found from Fantome is a staircase and some life vests. The vessel with its steel hull is believed to have sunk rapidly to the bottom.

Viewers please note: This Internet newscast is a verbatim transcript of our evening television newscast. Where speakers use Kriol, we attempt to faithfully reproduce the quotes using a standard spelling system.

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1 Response for “The story of the missing Fantome”

  1. Melissa says:

    The movements of this ship were ultimately the Captains decision, not the company’s. Three of those lost crewmen were not allowed to land in Belize due to a lack of visas, not because the Captain wanted them to stay on board. Their deaths should be blamed on the Belizian government for its callous disregard. The owner of Windjammer knew most, if not all, of the crewmembers who were lost, but like every “good” lawyer, Mr. Ayala blames “corporate greed” .

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