Posted on Sun, Apr. 13, 2008
Missing reggaeton star's mom details trip
By JENNIFER LEBOVICH
A few hours into a trip that promised to bring them to the shores of South Florida, the boat carrying Cuban reggaeton star Elvis Manuel and 18 others started to take on water.
They started bailing water furiously, trying to keep the boat afloat under a dark sky.
Mother and son were separated as the rain pounded down and the wind roiled the sea.
'My son yelled at me, `Mami!, Mami!,' and I called back, 'Elvis, come to me,' '' said Irioska María Nodarse.
She lost sight of him in the choppy water -- he is presumed missing at sea.
On Sunday, Nodarse gave The Miami Herald the first detailed account of the ill-fated effort to escape from Cuba so her son could ''realize his dream'' of musical stardom.
In a telephone interview from Havana, Nodarse said the boat capsized in choppy seas in the Florida Straits, dumping all 19 people into the water.
Nodarse, who was rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard along with 13 others, was returned to Cuba on Saturday where she is desperate for news about her son's fate. She holds out hope that he is still alive somewhere, either on a boat or an island. The Coast Guard said Sunday that it has no new information on Elvis Manuel's whereabouts.
''I don't really know what happened, but my heart tells me that my son is alive,'' she said, speaking in a calm tone in Spanish.
The voyage began on the evening of April 7, a week ago Monday, she said. The group left on a 25-foot boat, organized and paid for in Miami.
TURN FOR THE WORST
According to Nodarse, the trip proceeded uneventfully at first. Then the engine broke down and the boat began filling with water. Someone lifted what she described as a lid, only causing the water to come in faster. Everyone was bailing out water, including her son. Then the boat overturned, throwing everyone into the cold water.
Nodarse said she saw a big shadow, something she thought was either a wave or a boat. That's when she lost sight of her son.
The 14 survivors managed to cling to the overturned catamaran. They ate gasoline-soaked crackers and drank from water bottles that had packed while they waited to be rescued.
It wasn't until Wednesday morning -- two days later -- that the crew of a passing cargo ship spotted the group about 50 miles south of Key West. Elvis Manuel and four others were still missing.
The ship's crew rescued the migrants and summoned the U.S. Coast Guard, whose helicopters then searched the waters.
It's unclear how quickly the survivors told authorities that Elvis Manuel and four others were missing.
The Coast Guard says they gave officials conflicting stories.
Nodarse admits the group lied to the Coast Guard, saying two boats were initially involved.
On Sunday, she said they withheld information from the officials on the Coast Guard cutter because of pressure from the two suspected smugglers on the boat.
She said the pair wanted to create the impression that they had rescued the group. As a result, she added, they told officials their original boat had capsized, and that they had been rescued by another boat -- the vessel they were found clinging to.
''It was a lie due to pressure from the pilots,'' she said.
Coast Guard officials on Sunday expressed regret that the migrants misled searchers because they lost valuable time. ''If there was an opportunity to say 19 people were on the vessel, they should do it when we are talking to them,'' said Chief Petty Officer Dana Warr, a Coast Guard spokesman.
Nodarse, 43, said her son is 18. Friends in Miami had said that Elvis Manuel is 19. His full name is Elvis Manuel Martínez Nodarse, but he is known as Elvis Manuel.
His mother said the voyage was a smuggling operation, designed to bring her son to the United States to expand his music career.
Elvis Manuel is a recent addition to the Cuban reggaeton scene. He had two hits in Cuba last year, La Tuba and La Mulata.
CHASING A DREAM
''We were leaving Cuba not because we have any political problems with the government,'' she said. ``We were leaving Cuba because he wanted to realize his dream.''
She claimed to have a lot of information about who helped arrange the trip but she wouldn't discuss the details until she knows what happened to her son.
''It was a trip organized and paid for in Miami,'' she said.
While Nodarse and 11 survivors were repatriated on Saturday, the two crew members who are the suspected smugglers were turned over to Border Patrol officials, the Coast Guard said.
Nodarse said that Elvis Manuel's fellow musicians Carlos Rojas Hernández, who goes by ''DJ Carlitos,'' and Alejandro ''DJ Jerry'' Rodríguez Lopez, also were returned to Cuba.
Although the search for Elvis Manuel has been suspended, the Coast Guard has asked crews on cutters and aircraft that patrol the Florida Straits, the Gulf of Mexico and other waters to be on the lookout for him and any others.
''There's the possibility they're alive,'' Warr said. ``We don't know where they are or where they could possibly drift to. It's unfortunate they've taken their lives into their own hands.''