Local residents on vacation help spot refugees on cruise of a different kind

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By LOREN GENSON
Gazette Staff Writer

Chillicothe resident Jon Ekvall didn’t know what he was taking pictures of last week when he snapped photos of a speck on the water’s horizon aboard the Carnival cruise ship Triumph.

When he zoomed in on the digital photos on his camera screen, he realized the speck on the horizon was a boat full of people afloat in the Caribbean Sea.

“When we saw it was people, we told some stewards and they told the captain and we turned around to pick them up,” said Ekvall, who was traveling with his wife, Michon, and daughters Erica, 15, and Carly, 11.
“Everyone was grabbing binoculars and trying to see what was going on,” he said.

Beyond just gawking at the scene, Ekvall said the spectacle turned out to be a learning moment for the entire family.

“It put things into perspective for us,” he said. “Here we are sitting in a fine dining area waiting for our food to come and then there’s these people floating out on a boat to escape their country. It was sad to see people so desperate.”

Seventeen Cubans were aboard the tiny ship, which was headed to America, according to Miami news reports. Ekvall said he could see their tiny boat was in rough shape after days out on the ocean.

“It was just a small, wooden, man-made boat,” he said. “You could tell they had been at sea for a while and their ship was taking on water.”

The refugees stayed aboard the cruise ship for two days before they were picked up by U.S. Coast Guard officials. During that time, Ekvall said they did not see the group aboard the ship, but the captain had said they would be fed and taken care of. The occurrence, although a once-in-a-lifetime event for the Ekvall family, was a usual occurrence for the crew of the ship.

“They said it happens once or twice a year that they run across something like this,” Ekvall said. “They were real professionals about it.”

The 11 men and six women rescued by the ship were dropped off with U.S. Coast Guard officials about seven hours off the Florida coast. Because they did not make it to U.S. soil, the refugees will be returned to Cuba, according to Miami news reports.

There was great sympathy for the Cubans as they were turned over to Coast Guard officials, said Ekvall.

“Everybody was pretty somber and there were actually some people booing the Coast Guard when they took them,” Ekvall said. “I talked to an elderly gentleman on board who was Cuban, and he had teared up, because he said he knew they’d be shipped back and he was so sad.”

(Genson can be reached at 772-9369 or via e-mail at lgenson@nncogannett.com)

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