DALILA SURVIVED THE BOAT ACCIDENT – Her Story
The boat left the Santiago Atitlán dock on the fateful November Wednesday with 19 passengers and the captain aboard. As they arrived in Panajachel they were only 15, three of whom were dead.
Dalila Gonzales Sisay brought a daypack with clothes for three days. She was headed to Quetzaltenango to participate in a workshop on chronic malnutrition prevention. The first leg of the journey was to cross Lake Atitlán, a 20-minute boat ride, to meet up with colleagues in the department capital, Sololá. She easily found a seat in the back of the boat next to the man who helped her board. At the time she knew nothing about him, only later did she learn that he was Dr. Adrián Molina Palacios, Hospitalito Atitlán´s only staff surgeon. He was returning home after having performed what turned out to be his last surgery. Earlier that day, he had operated free of charge, as the family of his patient had few economical resources. Dalila dropped the heavy daypack by her feet, next to the doctor.
“As we waited for the boat to leave there was no wind, it didn´t pick up until after we had passed the island,” said Dalila. “But I am used to those kinds of waves, it is normal.”
‘The island’ is at the inlet to the Santiago bay, where on a day when the north wind blows, masses of water are pushed in to a much narrower space.
I met Dalila and her husband Esteban Pacay Culán in a local restaurant. Dalila barely touched the food as she focused on recapping the nightmare. Esteban remained quiet, always encouraging her to tell the story, but without interfering.
The day of the accident, the north wind built rapidly, whipping up the previously quiet water to white crested waves that soon grew bigger and came crashing over the bow. The strong wind that pours over the ridge on the northern shores of the lake, can be both fierce and capricious.
“As we passed Cerro de Oro, almost half way across the lake, the boat started to take on water,” Dalila continued. “At that point, the doctor and the captain called for help, for other boats to come to our assistance. But it took time. Maybe they didn´t believe the captain, maybe they thought he was joking.”
The doctor asked Dalila to help him bail out the water, but they found no containers. People were starting to get frightened. Dr. Adrián tried to calm them down in Spanish, and Dalila spoke in Tz´utujil, “Of course we will make it to the other shore.”
“I am wet,” the young woman in the row in front of the two moaned. Her corte, a multi-layered loom-woven ankle-long skirt, was getting soaked. “There were two pregnant teachers on the boat, one said ‘I don’t want to die, I have a small daughter’.”
The young captain slowed the engine down to control the sea-size violent waves. Water was pouring in and the boat came to a standstill, too heavy to make headway.
In a boat of 19 passengers, there were only two life jackets. Dalila and the young woman were fortunate enough to be next to them.
“I had never worn a life jacket before, and the doctor helped me put it on.” It had no snaps, so she tied the belts together.
The waves were now hitting the boat head on as it crested each wave and slid down again. Until the big wave hit. They were surrounded by a wall of water.
“It turned dark, all I could see were bubbles rising around me, and then the ceiling of the boat hit my head.”
Dalila shaped a rectangle with her thumbs and index fingers, making the size of the air hole where she found a pocket to breathe.
“I pushed my way out of the boat and was floating.”
She watched five men hold on to the bow, it was less than a foot out of water. “The waves came from everywhere and one brought the whole boat under.”
In a distance she saw a passenger boat pass by, ‘maybe it is too dangerous to help us,’ Dalila reflected, while people were literally fighting for their lives around her. “I can still hear their screams. But there was nothing we could do to help each other; the waves took us in different directions. I saw bodies float, they sank and resurfaced. I could not believe that I was part of it.”
Still, Dalila said that she was never frightened.
“God was with me that day. ’I want to see your hand’”, she prayed. “’What do you have in store for me?’ I felt calm in the midst of the powerful waves.”
Finally, a boat with relatives of the captain arrived. The rescuers only had ropes, there were no lifebuoys at hand. A rope rapidly slipped out of Dr. Adrián’s hands.
“He was holding on to my arm, then another wave came. It threw me in one direction, but who knows what happened to him.”
His body has not yet been retrieved. Rumor has it that he went under when trying to rescue another person.
Dalila remained in the water for what she estimates to be 30 to 40 minutes. The people who could not swim or were not wearing life jackets were rescued first. She was the last one saved.
“Three guys tried to haul me in, in the end it took six men to get me on to the other boat. I was so heavy. Until then, I didn´t realized that my backpack was hanging on my arm. Can you imagine? How did it get there, as I had moved away from it? Some people lost their lives, their savings, their clothes. I didn’t lose anything, not even my sandals.”
Apart from the rescuers, the boat arrived to Panajachel with twelve living people, including the captain, and three bodies. Five people disappeared in the water and have not yet been found.
The bomberos (semi-equivalent to EMT in the US) wanted to bring Dalila to a hospital, but she declined. Still in shock, she wanted to go ahead with the day’s plan.
“I felt just fine. I had a bit of hard time breathing, that was all, and my co-workers were waiting.” A friend lent her dry clothes and she found a way to reach her colleagues, who first were in doubt, but soon arrived at the shore.
“I got in touch with my family and realized that they were crying, so I said no, I better not go to Xela (short for Quetzaltenango). I was ready to get on the next boat and head back to Santiago. But all boat service had been suspended. I acted as though in a dream.”
Esteban is quiet most of the time, but when asked how he felt, he said:
“When I heard that the boat that my wife was on had sunk, I moved so swiftly as though I had wings.”
He immediately left the workshop where he makes tie-dye patterns for cortes. Dalila´s brother-in-law owns a car and drove to Panajachel to get her back home. But most of the victims were left without assistance.
“Each of us had to find our own way to go to where we were headed. Even the ones that had lost everything,” Dalila said. “One man lost Q10,000 in the lake, someone had to let go of a drowning person in order to save his own life. Some were really traumatized and still are. I was the only one who for some reason came out whole. I cannot swim, I carried weight, but I didn’t lose a thing.”
Dalila slept well in her own bed that night. But the following morning she was hurting all over – her arms, her legs and her head. She was bruised and beaten but forced herself back to life. Two days after the accident, she met with a psychologist. Three days after the accident, she sang in church. Three weeks later she returned to work and crossed the lake for the first time, together with a friend, who spoke to her calmly during the ride. For weeks, family and friends stopped by to wish her well. Dalila told her story over and over again, until she was hoarse and didn’t want to continue. But Esteban asked her to keep going, to get the story out. To protect herself, she turned off the internet.
Three months after the accident her right tibia is bruised and sore and the memories return when a strong north wind howls, or when there are no life-jackets on an overloaded boat. Anxiety finds her when life gets too slow. Dalila longs to go back to her work as an educator at the Department of Agriculture, Livestock and Nutrition, but the 2019 budget is still pending.
“I feel anguished at times and I pray. I have been crying a lot and feel sad when I think of the people who are not here anymore, but I was given a new life and am very grateful. I have many blessings and will live a long life. God´s hand protected me when I was on the verge of death.”
As of early March, authorities are still investigating the accident. Three people are confirmed dead. Five are missing, among them Dr. Adrián Molina Palacios, staff surgeon at Hospitalito Atitlán, and Gaspar Sosof Quiejú, father of a Hospitalito Atitlán lab technician.