A quick review: on June 9, 1974, just days after Caspers’ reelection to the Board, he and seven (?) others flew down to La Paz, Mexico (in the gulf, on the eastern coast of Baja) and from there south to Cabo San Lucas, for a trip up the Baja coast in Harber’s yacht, the “Shooting Star,” an expensive converted Navy boat. It appears that, in Mexico, the group were joined by two of Tommy Klein’s younger brothers, John and Tim, who had flown to Mexico(?) months earlier evidently to serve as caretakers of the boat, which was docked at La Paz. (It had been used in early May by Caspers, Harber, and friends for a four-day fishing trip in the gulf. That's when the plan for the June trip was hatched.)
|One of three Klein brothers lost|
with the Shooting Star
Very late that night (a Thursday), the SS called for help; it was taking on water and needed pumps. A few minutes later, it issued a MAYDAY and a message which some heard as saying that nine (not ten) men were on the boat. Owing perhaps to another poorly received transmission, the Coast Guard sent a helicopter and a plane to the SS's location—or at least where they thought it was in those shark-infested waters just west of Cedros Island (at about the San Benito Islands).
(Naturally, later, people wanted to know what was actually said in these transmissions. According to Wayne Clark, the all-important tape-recording of the SS’s MAYDAY was inexplicably lost!)
By the morning of the 14th, two Coast Guard aircraft had been searching (for flares) already for two hours, but they had found nothing. Low on fuel, they headed east to the Mexican shore (the coastal town of Guerrero Negro), where international red tape stopped the search cold for eight hours!
Eventually, the snafu was overcome, and the search continued, soon with more planes and more advanced equipment. By early on the 15th (Saturday), a Coast Guard cutter, Venturous, had arrived in the area to control the search, but, by then, chances of survival of any crew in the drink were slim.
Owing to currents, the search was adjusted southward, but, again, nothing was found. The search area was expanded.
On Sunday, June 16, the SS’s cabin top and some furniture were found—50 miles to the north of the original search area! The search was redirected northward.
Eventually, part of the search effort focused on the two thirteen-foot boats carried by the SS, including a whaler, which, of course, would likely head to the Baja coast to the east. These efforts yielded nothing.
|13-foot Boston Whaler (contemporary). They are unsinkable, but pretty small.|
* * *ANXIOUS, PEEVISH ORANGE COUNTIANS. Naturally, friends and relatives back home in Orange County (and San Diego) grew increasingly anxious. Numerous callers to Supervisor Caspers’ office called for a volunteer civilian effort. When, by Saturday, the Coast Guard’s search had yielded nothing, the volunteer effort lurched into existence. It was a vast effort, comprising many private planes and boats. Including the Coast Guard, Navy, and Air Force’s efforts, this search was, according to some, the biggest such enterprise in West Coast history.
|San Diego's own|
their effort was extended far to the south by professional tuna spotters who were hired to fly the lonely ocean mission after the military and civilian volunteers had abandoned hope.Long after that, Mexican villagers were paid to search the Baja coast for bodies. None was ever found.
Writes Clark, this increasingly quixotic (and expensive) search
was spurred by the determination of rich and politically powerful friends of the missing men and by the slim hope that survivors might have managed to board or cling to the Shooting Star’s “unsinkable” 13-foot whaler.FLASH FORWARD: twenty-one days after the June 13 MAYDAY, the whaler was found by a Swedish freighter, drifting about 350 miles to the south of the original search area. The damaged and empty craft revealed no sign that survivors were ever aboard.
|Click on graphic to enlarge.|
* * *ROGUE RESCUERS. Clark writes that, on the day after the MAYDAY, anxious friends back home held back from launching a civilian effort on the grounds that the Coast Guard was very capable and already on the scene, but that sentiment was not strong, and some, including Harber crony Dr. Louis Cella, Jr. (he of the soon-to-unfold political/financial scandals), prepared to fly to Mexico already by early on the morning of the 14th (Friday). In Orange County, no one knew about the absurd international snafu and they were under the impression that bad weather hampered the search. But, once in Mexico, Cella was soon in the air where he was surprised to find relatively good weather and visibility. Seeing only inaction in Guerrero Negro, he quickly printed and distributed handbills to alert local fishermen and recruit them in search efforts. When the Coast Guard was forced to remove one of its C130s from the search on Saturday (to accompany a distressed airliner), Cella finally called for the civilian volunteers, waiting anxiously and annoyedly back in Orange County.
An ad for Orange Empire National Bank
in the October 1964 issue of the Orange
County Illustrated magazine, which
published Wayne Clark's "Shooting Star"
articles in late 1974
The Coast Guard balked at the proposed or threatened civilian effort, citing various hazards (e.g., planes running into each other), but they eventually relented. Civilians could search as long as they stayed out of the way of Coast Guard equipment.
The OC planning commissioner quickly took charge of organizing the civilian search. Five twin-engine planes were selected, each manned with a 3-4 man crew, including pilot, navigator and spotters. Special survival equipment was loaded onto the planes. By mid-afternoon on Saturday (the 15th), the planes headed for Tijuana for customs clearance. That went smoothly. Then the squadron headed south, but upon closing on their destination, they encountered encroaching fog and haze, and so they landed at Guerrero Negro (the coastal town to the east of the search area; see maps). It was late afternoon.
|Louis Cella, Jr.|
Then the fog lifted, and they had time for a one-hour search of the bay, but they found nothing. When it grew dark, they headed back to Guerrero Negro, landed, and then headed to the El Presidente Hotel, which housed the Coast Guard team, with whom they confabbed.
Evidently based on the calculations made by the DIY crew back in OC, the civilians and the Coast Guard agreed to a new search strategy according to which the Coast Guard would search to the north while the civilians would scan the waters between Guerrero Negro and Cedros Island—where, they hoped, the whaler might be spotted.
|Islas San Benito|
At 8:30 a.m., the fog cleared a bit, and the civilians took off in their twin-engine planes. By then, the Coast Guard’s helicopter and C130 (fixed-wing aircraft) had already headed to the area north of the San Benito Islands (which are 25 miles to the west of Cedros Island), out past Vinzcaino Bay.
The civilians spent the morning scanning the northern waters to the east of Cedros Island. They returned for refueling at about noon.
|James B. Utt's successor|
The first sighting was of the cruiser’s cabin top. Then a variety of items was found, including furniture, life jackets, the capsized snark sailboat and other debris. All were from the Shooting Star. Hope glimmered, waned, then glimmered again. There were no signs of the “unsinkable” Boston whaler, survivors or bodies. But, ominously, many large sharks lurked about the debris. A Coast Guardsman, sent over the side of the Venturous in a wet suit to lash ropes to the cabin top, was quickly returned aboard when a large shark was spotted directly under the debris….The civilians got in their planes and flew toward the action, but when they made radio contact with the Coast Guard, they were encouraged to return home.
By Sunday evening, they were back at Orange County Airport—perhaps, with an optimism unwarranted by a full understanding of the somewhat elusive facts (sharks, etc.).
In the meantime, the Coast Guard recalculated the likely location of the Shooting Star disaster: it was almost 50 nautical miles from the initially supposed MAYDAY site: 29° 06N; 116° 01W.
(Before the debris was found, interviews at Turtle Bay [where the SS had refueled midday, Thursday, the 13th] established that the SS had indeed taken a course to the west of Cedros Island.)
|Click on graphic to enlarge|
* * *
Back in Orange County, impatient, long-distance observers speculated that the ten men could have used the whaler, with five on board and five clinging to the side—taking turns in the drink. Maybe they were now stranded on a lonely beach?
By Tuesday, media reports of the disaster had generated considerable public interest, and there were calls for a second volunteer search effort.
*** to be continued ***
SEE Part 5
SEE Part 5
SEE ALSO What sank the "Shooting Star"?