Rotary network helps family attacked by pirates

It isn’t just what we do as Rotarians, it’s who we know and the influence we have.
LeAnn Mobley

LeAnn Mobley

Grants Subcommittee Chair

By Vince DiCarolis, president of the Rotary Club of Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA

We all have various reasons for joining Rotary – to give back to our communities, to experience fellowship, or to help people in other countries. But these things come and go. I recently experienced a situation that confirmed for me why I will always remain a member. The Rotary network came to the aid of a member’s family after they were attacked by pirates on their way to the Caribbean.

In late March, I got a call from Bob Baranski, a good friend and leader in our club. I could tell right away that he was upset. He told me how his daughter Cory and her husband, Chris, who live and work off their sailboat, had been attacked by four men with guns and machetes as they were anchored at Panama’s Pearl Islands awaiting passage through the Panama Canal.

The pirates had approached silently in a small vessel shortly after sunset and stormed aboard. Cory locked herself in the aft bathroom with a VHF radio to attempt to send a distress call. But the attackers broke down the door with their machetes, silenced Cory’s radio, and cut cables to all the other radios and the autopilot display.


Assault aftermath

Chris was hit on the head several times with the butt of a pistol, while Cory was choked and forced into a closet with a machete held to her throat. Two friends who were also on board were pushed into the forward bathroom. Chris was forced to lay face down at gunpoint while the pirates ransacked the boat for an hour and a half.

The thieves took all cash, wallets, jewelry, phones, foul weather gear, lifejackets, clothing, and jugs of gasoline, as well as ripping out the boat’s electronic gear. They also took Stella, Cory’s and Chris’ six-month-old puppy. After they were gone, Chris was able to contact police and determine the boat was safe to sail to Naos Marina near Panama City to await repairs.

I was horrified by the story. Bob asked if we could connect them with some local Rotarians whom they could trust, as both Chris and Cory were seriously shaken up.

I began using Rotary’s extensive network to arrange for help. Through a call to Rotary International, I reached the Rotary Support Center. Johanna Martinez put me in contact with the Rotary Club of Panama Este and Nick Taylor, a Club and District Support supervisor. He listened with empathy and promised to try and connect Chris and Cory with local people who could help. (He then reached out to Gregory Franks, a CDS senior supervisor for the Americas, who contacted zone and district leaders.)

Marco Austin, president of the Panama Este Club, contacted Javier Juarez, a member of the Rotary Club of Balboa less than two miles from the marina. Javier immediately visited Cory, Chris, and their friends, and helped them get basic supplies to replace items that had been stolen. He also contacted friends in the marine supply business and set up a work group to examine the boat and begin repairs.

I was amazed that it took less than three hours from my initial phone calls for help to arrive. Javier continued to visit the group daily, assisting them in finding resources and places to shop and eat (as they still couldn’t cook on the boat).

Rotary creating ripples

Meanwhile, Allan Sellers, a Rotary District Coordinator for Zone 25a, began to use his connections to various agencies including the Panama Coast Guard, the Canal Authority, and the Ministry of Tourism. In Bob’s words, “the Rotary connection sent ripples (more like waves) through the agencies.”

Thanks to these efforts, once repairs were done, Chris and Cory were escorted through the canal by the Coast Guard. The authorities even found Stella on an uninhabited island nearby. The group went on to Miami via the Cayman Islands to make further repairs, having received an unbelievable amount of “boots-on-the-ground” support.

A few days after the incident, Rotary came to the rescue in yet another way. Chris was having difficulty getting an emergency replacement passport, and at Bob’s request I contacted our U.S. Congressman, who has a copy of The Four-Way Test on his desk. Within 30 minutes, the issue was resolved.

Reflecting on the incident, Bob said, “It isn’t just what we do as Rotarians, it’s who we know and the influence we have. When people ask me how they can help, I tell them (if they are members of Rotary), ‘just keep being Rotarians.’”

To all those involved – Javier Juarez, Marco Austin, Nick Taylor, Allan Sellers, Gregory Franks, and Johanna Martinez – thank you for all your help. When I tried to personally thank Allan, he told me, “No need to thank us, this is what we do.”

And that is why I will always be a Rotarian.

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