NEW BEDFORD, Mass. (WPRI) — Ernesto Santos says minutes turned into just seconds as the commercial fishing boat he was aboard took on water and began to sink south of Martha’s Vineyard.
“I never have seen water rush in on a boat that fast in my life,” he recalled. “There was a lot of water, a lot of force. There was nothing you could do but hold on.”
“We had no time to get survival gear on, not even a life vest,” Santos continued. “It happened in just a split of a second. There was no chance for nothing except maybe holding your breath.”
The U.S. Coast Guard rescued Santos from the water about an hour and a half after the New Bedford-based Leonardo went down Sunday afternoon. Search and rescue teams spent more than 24 hours looking for his three fellow crew members – Gerald Bretal, Mark Cormier and Xavier Vega – but were unable to find them before suspending the search Monday evening.
Santos said gusty winds paired with a series of strong waves caused the boat to sink and forced the four men into the frigid water. He said he and Cormier tried to grab a lifesaver but it couldn’t support them both as they were overcome by the waves.
Santos described feeling helpless, saying he wishes he could’ve done more.
“He basically died in my arms,” he said. “I tried helping the kid. That’s what hurts me the most is that I couldn’t help him.”
Santos is now recovering from hypothermia at the hospital.
While the Coast Guard has stopped searching, Cormier’s sister tells Eyewitness News that other boaters are still out there looking.
“It’s been hard hearing that they are not going to be searching for him,” Alisha Marques said.
Marques described her brother as honorable and passionate. She said for him, fishing was more than a job – it was a calling.
“He passed away trying to support his family,” Marques said.
“It’s been really hectic and chaotic,” she added. “I can honestly say that it’s moving us closer as a family.”
Cormier’s and Santos’ families have since spoken and shared the story of those final moments, according to Marques. Now, their effort turns to healing.
“To be honest, his words were like a quarter of the closure we need,” she said. “Getting his body back will be the full closure.”