Footage shows pontoon going straight into river in Panamá after collision with nearby boat during dry season
A boater who ploughed his speedboat into the Pacific at more than 220 kph (136mph) fled to safety after fellow passengers “used their arms to save him” and steered the pontoon back to shore.
Footage showed the second-hand vessel, previously owned by the inventor of the famous 100kph boat race single-hand drive, going straight into the Canica river after the failure of a clutch, emergency call records reveal.
The incident, on Friday in the central Panamanian river system, brought to mind how during the dry season in the semi-tropical South American country, people build rafts with special rubber pads to make them float when rain is on the way.
A wounded passenger emerges from the boat after the collision. Photograph: STRDEL/AFP/Getty Images
Eyewitnesses said passengers struggled to get out of the water as soon as the 13-metre boat overturned at the mouth of the Canica.
Panama’s emergency services reported that a total of 17 people were taken to hospital after the crash but none were seriously injured.
Hervés Gómez, a social worker, spotted the boat in its overturned position and called his wife, a reporter at a local newspaper, to alert them to the accident.
Gómez told Panama’s Tribuna Valle magazine: “They were struggling to save the man, he was throwing up. I and some other people sat on the top and tried to pull him out, but the pontoon would not budge.
“We called to him but he didn’t answer and tried to keep moving. Then people began using their arms to save him.
Gómez, a social worker, said people helped pull the man from the sea. Photograph: STRDEL/AFP/Getty Images
“I don’t know why it happened, it was a miracle.”
Speaking to the BBC, Helena Muñoz, 35, who survived the crash, described the boat disappearing around a bend and surviving the torrential downpour.
“There was a loud noise and we realised it was not sinking,” she said. “We thought maybe it was flying higher.
“Then we saw it, on the other side of the river … and saw the water.”
The boat driver, identified as Oscar Chéjos, 36, was transferred to hospital after suffering head and facial injuries, Panamanian newspaper Hoy reported.
News of the near disaster spread quickly among Panama’s wealthy elite and amid the growing tide of internet jokes online.
One commentator jibed that “a certain Mariano Escalona, inventor of the 100km race” had denied him the wingspan of a natural pontoon after this latest calamity.
Escalona invented the speedboat in 1952 and ran from Puerto Plata in Panama to Santiago de Turbo, on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, at record speeds of 112mph.
The Panama 100kph race has been held every other year since, although it was suspended for several years following a series of mishaps in 2010 and 2011.