August 25, 2006

Mexicans come home after months lost in Pacific

By Frank Jack Daniel

SAN BLAS, Mexico (Reuters) - Three Mexican men who spent
months lost and drifting across the Pacific Ocean in a flimsy
fishing boat arrived home on Friday to a heroes' welcome.

The bewildered-looking trio faced a barrage of questions
from more than 100 noisy journalists, including over unproven
allegations of drug smuggling, after they touched down in
Mexico City on a commercial flight from Honolulu.

The men's 25-foot (8-meter) fiberglass boat ran into
trouble off Mexico's Pacific coast last November and drifted
more than 5,000 miles before being picked up two weeks ago by a
Taiwanese tuna trawler near the remote Marshall Islands in the
South Pacific.

The three survived by eating raw fish and sea birds and
drinking rain water in one of the longest recorded cases of
survival at sea.

"It made us appreciate our friends and food," survivor
Lucio Rendon told a news conference.

A brass band blaring out raucous local tunes greeted Rendon
as he arrived at Tepic airport on his way to his home fishing
port of San Blas, where the boat set off. The other two headed
for other towns in Mexico for reunions with their families.

Crying relatives hugged Rendon and stroked his face on the
tarmac. A hotel owner in San Blas slaughtered nine sheep to
make "birria" stew for a party with free beer for townsfolk.

"We had faith we were going to get to land and we got
here," Rendon said. Asked whether he would be scared to return
to sea, he said, "No fear."


The ordeal has captivated Mexico but questions have arisen
in recent days over why they went to sea in the first place and
over two other men who died on board.

A government spokesman this week said the men were to be
investigated for possible links to drug trafficking but
Attorney General Daniel Cabeza de Vaca said later there was no
immediate evidence they were smugglers.

Mexico's Pacific Coast is a corridor for shipping cocaine
and marijuana north to the United States.

The fishermen denied smuggling drugs, saying they went to
sea to catch sharks. Fellow local fisherman backed them up.

"Look at us, we can't afford new boats, engines or tackle.
If there were drugs here we'd have big trucks and good
clothes," said Hilario Sanchez, 45, at the rundown dock the men
set off from more than nine months ago.

Taciturn men from poor backgrounds, the survivors have
charmed Mexico with their tenacity on the voyage and reluctance
to play the role of heroes on their return.

Asked in a television interview if they ever drank their
own urine, Rendon shied away from answering.

"My friend's ashamed to say it, but we did," said survivor
Salvador Ordonez.

On some days, the men lay still for hours to avoid drawing
the attention of inquisitive sharks that circled and thumped
their tails against the boat.

At night, birds came to rest on the boat and would tuck
their heads under their wings to sleep. Ordonez, the smallest
of the three, became an expert at pouncing to catch them for

"My friend here is a cat," said survivor Jesus Vidana.

(Additional reporting by Chris Aspin)