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Obituaries

Luis Velasco; 'Shipwrecked Sailor' Was His Story

August 06, 2000|JUANITA DARLING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BOGOTA, Colombia — Luis Alejandro Velasco, the shipwrecked sailor who was the main character in the slim volume that confirmed Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez's reputation as a journalist and launched his career as a book writer, died Wednesday of cancer at age 66.

In announcing his death, Velasco's family pledged to fulfill his last wish: to scatter his ashes over the sea that gave him his life back 45 years ago.

Velasco became a celebrity when he appeared barely alive on a beach in northern Colombia on March 10, 1955. He and seven shipmates had been declared missing after they were reportedly thrown off the deck of the Colombian navy destroyer Caldas in a Caribbean storm 10 days earlier.

Search parties had given up hope of finding any survivors a week before Velasco washed up on shore. A month later, the respected newspaper El Espectador began publishing a series of articles based on the adventure that the young sailor recounted to 27-year-old reporter Garcia Marquez during 20 six-hour interviews.

Thus began what the writer called "The story of a shipwrecked sailor who was lost for 10 days on a raft without eating or drinking, who was proclaimed a hero of the fatherland, kissed by beauty queens and made rich by publicity and later rejected by the government and forgotten forever." The title is usually shortened to "The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor."

Publication of the series, a minute-by-minute reconstruction of Velasco's adventure, "led us to a new adventure," Garcia Marquez later wrote. "It cost him his glory and his career and it nearly cost me my hide."

Ironically, El Espectador had accepted Velasco's offer to tell his story as a way of attracting readers without getting into trouble with the censors of Gen. Gustavo Rojas Pinilla's dictatorship. The young sailor was a national hero--polish for the tarnished image of a regime that had fired on a peaceful student march, killing several demonstrators.

On the fourth day of interviews, however, the young reporter realized that the censors were not going to like the series.

That was the day Garcia Marquez asked Velasco about the storm.

"There was no storm," the sailor replied.

In fact, the destroyer had been carrying so much contraband on its deck that when the eight sailors were thrown overboard after a sharp turn, the ship could not maneuver well enough to rescue them.

Readers were well into the 14-part series before they learned the truth.

The government denied Velasco's version.

El Espectador countered by finding Caldas crew members who had taken pictures of the contraband on the deck. The photographs illustrated a special supplement that reprinted the entire series.

Then the book was published. But the triumph of press freedom was short-lived.

El Espectador named Garcia Marquez its correspondent in Paris as a way of helping him live in exile. But censors shut down the newspaper a few months later, leaving the writer without a paycheck.

The first edition of his first novel, "Leaf Storm," was less than successful. But the novel and "The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor" were the first of more than 20 books by the author who would also write "One Hundred Years of Solitude" and "No One Writes to the Colonel."

Velasco, as Garcia Marquez noted, was forgotten. He was forced out of the navy and worked for a bus company and as a buyer for a factory.

His children said he became a great storyteller. The tale he told best was of his 10 days at sea.

He also was active in charity work in the poor neighborhoods in the southern part of this capital city. And he never retracted the story that Garcia Marquez made famous.

"Life," Garcia Marquez once wrote of Velasco, "has left him the serene aura of a hero who had the courage to dynamite his own statue."

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