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Wrecked vessel's crew wants investigation into sea strike


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POSTED: Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Hawaii crew members from the wrecked Princess TaiPing are calling for an investigation into a freighter striking their vessel and leaving them in the ocean more than 30 miles from Taiwan.

“;They hit us and left us out there to die,”; said Hawaii resident Larz Stewart. “;It was morally wrong, and the captain and company should be punished by the international community. ... It is truly a miracle that we are all alive.”;

The crash left the 11 crew members, including one seriously injured, clinging to wreckage in the dark for about 2 1/2 hours before being rescued.

Thomas William Cook, who lived on Okinawa but is originally from Humboldt, Calif., suffered a cracked vertebra, a head injury and a broken arm and is in intensive care at a hospital, crew members said.

“;Everyone else is OK,”; said crew member Elizabeth Zeiger. “;We are just really shaken up.”;

Other Hawaii crew members were Jason Arnold, John Hunter and Jack Durham.

The 53-foot Princess TaiPing, designed as a replica of a Chinese vessel built hundreds of years ago during the Ming Dynasty, crossed the Pacific to the western United States last year to prove that vessels of this kind could make long-distance voyages.

It was on its way home to Taiwan when it was struck by the freighter at 2:45 a.m. Sunday (Taiwan time).

The Hawaii residents were recruited for the voyage as the TaiPing made a stopover in Honolulu from Dec. 22 to Feb. 16 during its return voyage.

Stewart said the crew members joined the TaiPing because they believed in the mission of the project to promote traditional sailing, culture and international good will.

The final leg had crew members from Taiwan, China, Hawaii, Japan, Okinawa and the mainland U.S., he said.

“;For nearly 5,000 nautical miles, we were like this little international family,”; Stewart said.

He said the TaiPing was in a gale system with strong winds and large waves in short intervals and heading toward the port of Suao when the crew saw off its port side the freighter Champion Express.

Stewart said that about 15 minutes before the collision, the crew on watch noticed the freighter change direction and head toward the TaiPing.

Stewart put a spotlight on the mainsail to make it more visible in the dark, but that and urgent radio calls proved fruitless, he said.

“;He continued to head straight for us, and that's when we realized we had no escape,”; Stewart said.

“;To see a massive 300-foot, up-lighted, black cargo vessel rocking backing and forth, heading towards you at 20 nautical miles per hour (23 mph) was a complete nightmare, but it was real. I think at that time we realized that we were probably going to die. I remember thinking, 'This is it.'”;

Stewart said most of the crew ran to the stern to grab onto something and “;hold on with their lives,”; as the freighter struck the TaiPing, breaking it apart and pushing everyone underwater, splitting the boat in two.

Stewart said one of his hands was trapped between two boards, and he was trying to tear off his thumb to surface when it broke free.

“;I was scared when I surfaced of what I would see, but so thankful when I realized that so many were so close,”; Stewart said.

While in the water, Arnold found a small emergency position-indicating radio beacon, and then Stewart found a larger one floating nearby, he said.

“;Someone was definitely watching out for us,”; he said.

The crew members clung to the wreckage, and 20 to 30 minutes later they saw Cook swimming on his back and learned he had cracked a vertebra in his neck and had a broken arm.

Stewart said despite what happened to the TaiPing, he still feels the voyage was a success, and enjoyed the challenge and adventure of stormy nights, lightning, big waves, sheets of rain and fishing, along with the dolphins and stars.

“;I'd do it over again in a second,”; Stewart said.