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Fisherman happy biggest catch gets away

The not-so-famous boater who rescued Elian from the Atlantic toasts the boy's return to Cuba.

By BILL DURYEA

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 29, 2000


POMPANO BEACH -- As the little boy waved from the door of the jet, the fisherman smiled.

Not that fisherman, not El Pescador, not the one who was hiding in the closet, not the one talking with Barbara Walters. The other one, the quiet one.

On Wednesday afternoon, while Little Havana wept at the sight of 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez bound for Cuba, Sam Ciancio smiled, knowing that the biggest catch of his life was going home.

"I want him to be with his daddy," Ciancio, 41, said. "That's the bottom line. You kind of wish you could keep this child under wraps, but you've got to let go. This is the day of letting go."

And with that the man who unintentionally bestowed upon the Cuban exile community a living symbol of its 41-year battle with Fidel Castro opened a Miller Lite and raised the can toward the television.

"To my little buddy," he said. "I hope some day I can see you again."

On Thanksgiving Day, Ciancio and his first cousin, Donato Dalrymple, were just a couple of recreational fishermen, drinking early morning beers and trolling for mahi-mahi.

If Ciancio, the owner of a roofing company that he says has put more than a million dollars in his bank account, had an attitude back then toward Cuban refugees, it was not an entirely sympathetic one.

"I was kind of a typical guy," Ciancio said. "I thought, "Oh here's another bunch of freeloaders coming into the country.' But that's because I'm a taxpayer."

That was before he jumped into the ocean and saved the life of the most famous refugee of all.

That was before he severed relations with Dalrymple, who he refers to in profanely unflattering terms. He is angry that his cousin cannot say no to a talk show, angry about the $100-million lawsuit Dalrymple has filed against the federal government.

Dalrymple, who could not be reached Wednesday, has said Ciancio is jealous of his celebrity.

"The whole thing could have been a great miracle in my life," Ciancio said. "And it's turned out to be a disaster. The little miracle in my life, they ruined it. This was mine. This was my little miracle."

If Ciancio sounds possessive about a story that had the world's attention, it's because he learned the hard way that reputations are not always made by the facts, but sometimes by the facts available.

In the beginning, he says he ceded the brightest spotlight to his cousin. When Elian was reunited with the man who had saved his life, it was Dalrymple the boy embraced; Ciancio was not there. Dalrymple, a non-Spanish-speaking house cleaner, became "el Pescador," the fisherman, hailed by strangers on the streets of Little Havana.

Tuesday evening, knowing that Elian might soon be gone, Ciancio stood in the living room of a $400,000 home he is remodeling for resale and attempted to refurbish the truth.

Ciancio believes God led him to that place in the ocean; he knows that the origin of the fishing trip could not have been more mundane.

He had not anticipated having company, but he knew his wife disliked him venturing miles out to sea alone. It was coincidence, he said, that Dalrymple called the night before Thanksgiving, wanting to talk about some personal problems he had been having.

"I said if you want to talk, be here by 5:30 (a.m.). The boat's leaving," Ciancio said.

The two had never fished together before, indeed they were not all that close, Ciancio said. "I didn't think he'd show up."

They cracked the first Miller Lite before the engines were warm. Soon the 25-foot Mako was bucking against 5-foot swells.

"We were supposed to go out 25 miles," Ciancio said, "but the seas were too rough."

With Dalrymple at the helm, Ciancio put out three lures, trolling them 30, 40 and 50 yards behind the boat. He pointed to a piece of black debris and told his cousin that kind of debris usually attracts smaller fish and the much larger ones that prey on them.

As the boat passed by what turned out to be a black inner tube, Ciancio saw numerous mahi mahi, also known as dolphin, thrashing around and underneath the inner tube.

He didn't see the small boy inside the inner tube. His attention was on the bent rod tips that signalled they had hooked two fish.

"We slapped each other five," Ciancio said.

If they hadn't lost one of the fish, they might not have trolled by a second time a few minutes later, Ciancio said. It was on that pass that they saw a hand from inside the inner tube.

Ciancio stripped off his shorts, dove in the water and swam frantically toward the inner tube. When he grabbed the child by the waist he felt a small arm wrap tightly around his neck.

"I had to pry him off to get him on the boat," he said.

Later, Ciancio watched as the facts changed to suit the growing myth of Elian's rescue. Dalrymple told people he had leapt into the water, too. The dolphin fish became dolphin mammals and soon murals were painted depicting the miraculous intervention of Flipper's cousins who held the boy out of the water.

"The mahi-mahi were miracle enough," Ciancio said. "If it weren't for them we wouldn't have been there."

Ciancio radioed his wife, Nola, from the boat, and from the frantic tone of his voice she thought he had caught a fish larger than the boat. She called 911. The dispatcher offered the first clue of what was to come.

"This is going to be big," the dispatcher said to Mrs. Ciancio.

The Ciancios are spiritual if not church-going people and they have held tight to tokens of the rescue as if to safeguard their own connection to the saga.

The orange jeans Elian was wearing that morning, the hooded orange sweatshirt and the Montreal Canadiens T-shirt are preserved in a clear plastic bag. A brass-colored Dominican peso that was found in Elian's pocket is still there.

When Ciancio and his family visited Elian in Washington, D.C., several weekends ago at the request of Juan Miguel Gonzalez, Ciancio asked Elian's father if he would like the clothes back. Gonzalez said no.

Over that weekend, Ciancio's two children, 4-year-old Juliana, who the couple adopted in Romania, and 17-year-old Brandon, played with Elian and his Cuban classmates. The Ciancios expected to feel Castro's looming presence.

"There was none of that," Mrs. Ciancio said.

Gonzalez, reviled in parts of Miami as a Castro puppet, a wife abuser and an uncaring father, seemed just the opposite to the Ciancios.

"He's got him in line," Mrs. Ciancio said. "Elian was getting to be a little brat. His dad said it took him two to three weeks to bring him down to the ground because Elian thought he was so cool."

The people in Little Havana, who had adored Elian for so many weeks when he lived in their midst, had little to cling to Wednesday. Just a memory of when he would play in the tiny yard and wave to them.

"God is not here physically, but he is a presence," Nelson Fagundo, a janitor, said in between trying to stand behind TV reporters during their live shots.

As the day wore on and the news from Washington got worse, the crowd grew only slightly and often was outnumbered by the media. Some hectored the reporters they said had misrepresented them to the world. Others draped themselves in despair over the fence they had festooned with slogans of bitter government distrust.

Late in the afternoon, with Elian well on his way to Havana, the Miami family's advisers held a news conference in Coconut Grove, a few miles south of Little Havana. It was a somber affair, but with so many thank yous to the people who had battled to keep Elian in Miami it resembled an Oscar acceptance speech.

In Pompano Beach, a fisherman opened another Miller Lite and got his boat ready for another day on the water.

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