New Zealand steps up in search for sailors

A U.S. congressman from Lafayette said Tuesday the New Zealand government is committing more resources to finding the Niña and her crew of seven sailors, including a Lafayette teen, after a volunteer examining satellite images spotted an orange object that could be a lifeboat from the 70-foot schooner.

“We’ve gotten word back that we’re getting a greater level of cooperation on the part of the New Zealand Coast Guard,” U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette, said.

Danielle Wright, a 19-year-old University of Louisiana at Lafayette student, is among the crew of seven who departed New Zealand on May 29 on a voyage to Australia.

No one has heard from the crew since radio transmissions sent during back-to-back storms June 4 and 5. On July 5, the Rescue Coordination Center of New Zealand called off its aerial search after 10 days.

But hope grew over the weekend when a volunteer looking at weeks-old satellite imagery spotted what could be a lifeboat from the Niña floating in the Tasmin Sea, which lies between New Zealand and Australia. Search planes that departed Norfolk Island on Sunday found nothing. On Tuesday the search took another hit when privately funded planes were grounded by 30-knot winds.

“Our faith is in God, and we believe they’re there,” Robin Wright, Danielle Wright’s mother, said. “We just need to find them.”

Many have helped. Some have donated money, others have used their influence.

Boustany and U.S. Sen. David Vitter have lobbied the U.S. government to pressure New Zealand into providing help, Boustany said.

“We’re continuing to push on this, and hoping to get a good result,” he said.

The families of the missing sailors and a Texas organization enlisted to lead the search meanwhile are scheduled to hold a news conference and fundraiser Thursday in League City, Texas, south of Houston.

Ralph Baird, who is with search firm Texas Equusearch, said the Niña search fund has enough money for a few more days of paying planes.

“We’re going to need a big check writer,” Baird said.

Baird said the effort needs more than the U.S. exerting its influence on another government. He said the U.S. could lend its space satellite technology to Niña searchers, who now are forced to work with images that are weeks old.

For instance, he said, the image of the orange man-made object that planes started searching for on Sunday was from Aug. 3.

Baird said that by the time searchers see the images, relentless currents have carried away whatever was floating.

Ricky Wright, Danielle Wright’s father, said New Zealand’s latest contribution to the search was the one-time use of computer-generated drift models, not government planes.

Wright and Baird said the search needs the latest U.S. technology, namely satellites that can relay up-to-the-minute images.

“People’s lives are at stake,” Baird said. “It affects the safety of mariners everywhere in the world. There’s new technologies that can be used for search and rescue that’s not being used.”

State Rep. Nancy Landry, R-Lafayette, said the search for the seven sailors is as relevant now as it was when the boat disappeared in early June.

“Hope is not lost,” she said. “There is a possibility and a probability that they did survive and they are still out there.”

She said that spotting what could be a lifeboat from the Niña has reinvigorated the search.

“Since that raft-like object was spotted, that’s really generated a lot of interest,” Landry said. “I think people now realize that they could be still alive and that these people need our help.”

The news conference and fundraiser will begin at 11 a.m. Thursday at the South Shore Harbour and Conference Center in League City, Texas. For information, go to www.evxx.com, or the Bringing Home the Niña and Her Crew Facebook page.