02 November 2005

Cozumel Update: 17 struggled for survival

When vicious hurricane winds and massive waves pounded Mexico's Caribbean island of Cozumel, 17 people ran from one improvised bunker to another as the Hotel Barracuda collapsed in bits around them.

They first tried to ride out Hurricane Wilma in their rooms but then took refuge in a first-floor corridor as doors flew off, windows exploded and the churning ocean tore back and forth through the shattered lobby below.

The 12 American scuba divers, two Dutch tourists and three Mexican hotel employees tried to make extra walls with packs of building tiles but gave up when water poured in from above.

So they hid out in another room and then crammed inside toilets before Mexican navy officers finally broke in and pulled them out at the height of the storm.

They were lucky, because now nothing is left of Hotel Barracuda.

"You could feel the waves banging at the wall, the water was coming over the three-story hotel," said Hans Van Erp, a 40-year-old Dutch bookseller. "Every time we thought, 'It can't get any worse,' it did."

Cozumel, a popular scuba diving center and cruise ship destination, saw hotels, seafront stores and restaurants shattered. Its streets were left deep in water and debris.

"I thought we're not going to make it," said Ad Kolster, a 38-year old shipping agent who abandoned the coral island yesterday with Van Erp on the first ferry out since the storm.

Still shocked, the two clicked through photos and video-clips on a digital camera that showed the wind howling and sea crashing against the hotel as debris flew about. Water gushed in through the windows and the corridors flooded.

The low point was when one guest managed to make a cell phone call out and was told that even fiercer wind and rain was on its way. "We thought it was the end. Nobody would say it, but everyone was thinking it," Van Erp said.

Cozumel, made famous by legendary French scuba diver and documentary maker Jacques Cousteau, could be out of business for months. One of its three piers for cruise ships was pulverized, massive chunks of concrete torn away and thrown onto the beach, and another suffered substantial damage.

Source: www.signonsandiego.com


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