KIRIBATI COUPLE RESCUED AFTER 35 DAYS AT SEA

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By Oyaol Ngirairikl

HAGÅTÑA, Guam (Pacific Daily News, Feb. 28) - After drifting across the south Pacific Ocean for more than a month in their 19-foot wooden boat, a husband and wife will be reunited with their 10-year-old son in Kiribati.

On December 30, Taate Toakai Betaia and her husband Botara Betaia, both 52-year-old residents from the Republic of Kiribati, started out on what should have been a one-hour journey to an island 30 miles away.

The couple left Tarawa, the capital of Kiribati, for the outer island. The South Pacific republic of Kiribati consists of 32 low-lying atolls and one raised island scattered over an expanse of ocean equivalent in size to the continental United States.

"We were on our way to one of the outer islands to pick up our son who was with our relatives for Christmas," said Taate Toakai Betaia. She said they completed about three-quarters of the journey when the boat's engine died and her husband couldn't restart the engine.

For 35 days, the couple drifted in their boat surviving on prayers, raw fish, and rainwater.

"My husband caught fish ... (and) we tried to get the rain water using the raincoat my husband kept on the boat," Taate Toakai Betaia said. "But there was a time for three days when we went without food and drink. That was really hard."

The boat had no canopy or shelter to protect them from the sun or the heat reflected off the ocean.

"There's plywood. We used it during the daytime as a sort of shelter." Taate Toakai Betaia said, but noted that it was no match for the winds and waves that threatened to bury the boat in the middle of the ocean.

"When it was getting rough, there were big waves (and) strong winds. I (was) really afraid but I prayed to God," she said.

On February 2, her prayers were answered when a helicopter of a fishing vessel that was nearby spotted the couple and the crew from the fishing ship picked them up.

The couple had drifted more than 1,000 miles west and was near the Kapingamarangi Atoll in the Federated States of Micronesia when the helicopter spotted them.

The Kapingamarangi Atoll is roughly 500 miles southeast of Chuuk in the Federated States of Micronesia and more than 1,000 miles west of Tarawa, Kiribati.

It took about a week for the fishing ship to bring the couple to Chuuk. Once there, Mason Fritz, director of the Chuuk Visitors Bureau, made sure they received medical care and food.

"When I first received word they were coming, I was expecting the worst," Fritz said. "But they were still cognizant and were doing really well for people who were lost at sea for more than a month."

Fritz said just days after the Betaias had gone missing, the Kiribati government organized a search and rescue, but searching such a vast area of water had not been easy and the search was unsuccessful.

After several days of rest and processing paper work for the couple, a Continental Micronesia jet will fly the couple back to their home in Tarawa. The regional airline operates a Pacific hub from Guam.

"The couple has traveled a long distance from their home and we're glad to reunite them with their 10-year old son," Mark A. Erwin, Continental Micronesia president and chief executive officer, said in a written statement.

"We fly these long distances across the Pacific, and how they survived the vast Pacific [ocean] is nothing short of a miracle," he said.

The Betaias have spoken to their son and family back in Tarawa and are eager to return to their home.

"They probably thought we were lost forever," Taate Toakai Betaia said. "But thanks to God ... we're going home."

The Betaias said while she could have done without the month-long hardship, she's made friendships with the people of Chuuk who treated her and her husband like family, and to the people on the ship who plucked them out of the ocean and brought them to safety.

"There's just so much kindness and we are so grateful to everyone," Taate Toakai Betaia said.

March 1, 2006

Pacific Daily News: www.guampdn.com

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