The tricolor flew at half-staff Monday as Costa Rica observed a national day of mourning for the nine Costa Rican tourists who drowned Saturday in a boating accident off Nicaragua’s Corn Islands, in the Caribbean. Four Costa Ricans are still missing.
President Luis Guillermo Solís with first lady Mercedes Peñas and Foreign Minister Manuel González received survivors of the shipwreck and the bodies of the deceased Sunday evening at Juan Santamaría International Airport in Alajuela. Costa Rica’s Air Surveillance Service served as an honor guard, escorting caskets off the plane. Survivors tearfully embraced family and friends on the tarmac and President Solís gave his condolences.
U.S. Southern Command is reportedly set to provide Nicaragua with aerial assistance to help search for the four missing Costa Ricans. The Nicaraguan military dispatched six helicopters and several navy vessels to the area on Sunday.
The boat “Reina del Caribe” sank Saturday 7.5 km (4.6 miles) off Little Corn Island with 37 people on board. The bodies of nine Costa Ricans were recovered; four are still missing. The rescued included two U.S. citizens, two Britons, one Brazilian and one Nicaraguan, as well as the captain and his crewmate.
Following the accident and rescue, the Nicaraguan police arrested the boat’s captain and first mate under suspicion of reckless homicide and endangerment. The tourism boat was owned by Roger Blandón, a 52-year-old Nicaraguan captain. The captain previously served five years in prison for drug trafficking, according to Nicaraguan police.
The police said Blandón ignored high wind warnings from the Nicaraguan Navy and left port despite the danger. One survivor, a Costa Rican man, disputed the Nicaraguan authorities’ claim that the ship’s captain defied a storm alert.
“There have been false reports that the weather was bad,” he told AFP, declining to give his name.
But other survivors reported huge waves that eventually capsized the boat, trapping some underneath.
Costa Rica’s Foreign Minister, Manuel González, told daily La Nación that several survivors reported that not everyone on the boat had life jackets.
The Corn Islands, made up of Big Corn Island and Little Corn Island, are located around 70 kilometers (45 miles) off the coast of the southern Nicaraguan town of Bluefields.
The tragedy provided a brief respite from the animosity between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega ordered expedited autopsies so the deceased could be returned to Costa Rica Sunday. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega spoke with President Luis Guillermo Solís to express his solidarity and support.
The accident comes just a year after a catamaran carrying some 100 tourists off Costa Rica’s Pacific coast capsized, leaving three dead. That accident brought renewed calls for updates to Costa Rica’s maritime law designed to increase safety on the seas. However, no changes have yet been made.