LAFAYETTE — Their savings depleted and their Lafayette business put on hold, Ricky and Robin Wright have taken the search for their missing-at-sea daughter to an Australian port city near the Tasman Sea. That’s where Danielle Wright and six other sailors aboard the schooner Niña disappeared seven months ago on a trip from New Zealand to Australia.
“It’s easier being here and away from family and friends (in Louisiana) in a way because I don’t feel like doing much for Christmas, and it’s going to be especially hard for family members this year,” Robin said from Port Macquarie, Australia, where the Wrights are staying until early 2014.
Christmas in Lafayette, Robin Wright said, “would not be the same without Danielle.”
Danielle was an only child, home-schooled and raised in Greenwell Springs. A psychology major at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, she completed final spring 2013 exams in May and joined six colleagues in Opua, New Zealand, in May to celebrate her 19th birthday and to board The Niña. On May 29 in Opua, which was May 28 in Lafayette, The Niña set sail from Opua to traverse the Tasman Sea and South Pacific Ocean until the crew docked in Sidney, Australia.
The trip was supposed to take 20 to 40 days, but two strong storms in early June knocked out the radio and sails. The crew managed to get two radio transmissions out before the maddening months of silence settled in and left the families with nothing but hope and questions: Did they survive? Where are they? Why aren’t the governments of Australia, New Zealand and the United States doing more to help?
The families are taking solace in their memories of their strong-willed family members they believe could survive months on the open sea and also because there’s been no sighting of a broken-up and empty Niña.
“The only thing you have when you don’t have evidence to the contrary is hope,” said Bob Baird, with Texas EquuSearch. “Hope that the crew could survive the worst of this ... They need fresh water and shelter, and they need food. And that’s all available to them.”
Texas EquuSearch is a nonprofit based in Houston that helps look for missing people.
In July, Baird was running the search for The Niña from Australia. He’s since returned to Houston. Baird said Texas EquuSearch remains involved in the search for The Niña but its role was reduced as the funds dwindled.
Meanwhile, the Wrights, whose bank account has flattened, have become participants.
They left for Australia in early November, leaving their Lafayette business to a trusted friend. Ricky Wright is taking pilot lessons in Australia, an effort to reduce the costs. And both Wrights have boarded search planes since they arrived in early November, using binoculars to scan the ocean in hopes of seeing what from the air would appear as a tiny cork bobbing on the waves. Robin said they flew seven days with Australian pilots hired to fly from Norfolk Island, which lies hundreds of miles to the north of New Zealand, to search the South Pacific and the Tasman Sea.
“Ricky loves flight school,” Robin said. She said he’s passed preliminary examinations and is awaiting his student pilot’s license.
The experience of looking for Danielle and the others has included the maddening exercise of banging heads against government walls, the Wrights, Baird and others said.
From the first days of the search, the families have not been happy with the governments’ responses. The victims’ families said they’ve gotten nowhere in their requests to use government satellites to look for The Niña. No access to state-of-the-art satellite equipment has hampered the search from the start. Asking the Rescue Coordination Centre of New Zealand to resume search flights has proved futile.
“We still aren’t getting any help from any governments,” Robin Wright said. “... Ricky and I are holding up as well as can be expected.”
Hopes soared in August when a volunteer looking at non-military satellite images spotted an object that might have been The Niña. The image was turned over to the Rescue Coordination Centre of New Zealand and the families waited, and waited.
“We counted on the word of RCCNZ that they would reopen the search if substantial evidence were presented to warrant their efforts in resuming the search of Niña’s crew,” the Wrights wrote to the RCCNZ Nigel Clifford in October. “Now we’ve lost four valuable weeks waiting for RCCNZ ...”
The letter said the RCCNZ replied that it was “extremely unlikely that the images are of the Niña” and that “survival of any persons at this extended time ... is most unlikely.”
The latest effort to recruit influence to the effort was a letter last week to a former presidential candidate and Navy flyer.
“We are writing you because you may understand our frustration with our misinformed U.S. Department of State in that they have interfered with our search for seven mariners (our family members) in the Tasman Sea,” Baird and EquuSearch wrote in a Dec. 17 letter to U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. “We also are writing to specifically request the immediate assistance of the U.S. Geospatial-Intelligence Agency to aid in the search.”
Family members of others in the crew have written the RCCNZ to express beliefs that the crew remains alive and that RCCNZ should resume the search that was called off after a few days in early July, almost one month after The Niña was last heard from.
“They all know how to survive in extreme conditions, and as long as no one was injured during the storms that they encountered, they will be OK,” stated a letter written to the RCCNZ by the family of The Niña’s lone British sailor, Matthew Wootton.
A website has been set up to disseminate the latest information on the search and also has a place where donations can be made. To learn more, go to: Niña7.com