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Don Francisco had promised his television audience a once-in-a-lifetime story of love and adventure during this July 1991 taping of his show, Noche de gigantes. Two years earlier, a pair of Miami sailors, Bill and Simonne Butler, had been rescued off the coast of Costa Rica, having survived 66 days adrift in the Pacific Ocean in an inflatable rubber life raft. Now the Univision variety-show host had invited the Butlers to appear on his popular Spanish-language program.
Out they stepped into the enveloping applause and glaring klieg lights, an ordinary-looking middle-age couple, he dapper in a beige suit, she smiling in a print dress and navy jacket. Both were barely recognizable as the gaunt, tearful survivors who faced international TV cameras hours after their rescue in August 1989. A neatly clipped moustache had replaced the white beard Bill Butler grew as a castaway; his wife Simonne's wavy light brown hair had grown back to her shoulders after she had snipped off matted handfuls on the raft.
The Butlers, who both speak Spanish, told Don Francisco how they'd made it a third of the way from the Panama Canal to Hawaii on the first leg of an around-the-world voyage aboard their 38-foot cutter. And how on a breezy and cloudy moonless night, a school of pilot whales had converged on the boat in an inexplicable fury, gashing the hull and sinking Siboney within 30 minutes. The Butlers described how they had salvaged all the supplies they could before cutting loose their life raft and embarking on a voyage that would test and terrify and ultimately transform them.
It would make them stars, too, at least for several months. While recuperating in a Costa Rican hospital, they had spoken with broadcast and print reporters from around the world, and had greeted families on Today and Good Morning America. Back on U.S. soil, they were sought as news and talk-show guests; they'd even flown to Chicago in October 1989 to tape a segment of The Oprah Winfrey Show alongside other survivors of sea disasters. Bill Butler had assembled a thick scrapbook filled with newspaper and magazine stories written in English, French, Spanish, and Italian, as well as videotapes of the TV appearances.
Between conversations with the Butlers, Don Francisco and his cohost, musical director Valentin Trujillo, interspersed lighter diversions: impressionist Julio Zabala turned wittily detailed imitations of singers Juan Luis Guerra, Rafael, and Julio Iglesias; and Serapio, a Salvadoran folk singer, or dicharachero, bustled out in short, ragged pants roped to his waist, kissed his guitar, and sang clever ditties about men, women, infidelity, and serendipity. Then Don Francisco and Trujillo came back to the Butlers, and the tale picked up where it had left off.
They recounted their prayers at dusk before the long terrors of night began, nights when sharks attacked for hours and storms battered them with violent waves and rain. How they caught fish and ate them raw when their food supplies ran out. How dozens of freighters A some of which were as large as a football field and passed within a few hundred yards of their raft A churned by without seeing them. How their supplications to Nuestra Se*ora de Los Angeles, the patron saint of those in danger at sea, were finally answered on August 19, when a Costa Rican Coast Guard patrol boat spotted their raft thirteen miles offshore. By the time they were picked up, the Pacific currents had carried them 1150 miles from the point where Siboney sank, back toward Central America. They had never given up hope, they told Don Francisco, though several times they had been convinced death was imminent. Both cried as they told of the rescue and of their newfound religious faith. Once Simonne carefully reached out a hand to wipe tears from her husband's cheek. He pulled his head back slightly, as a reluctant child might do at the approach of a mother's washcloth.
Near the end of the Butlers' story, Trujillo looked over at his boss from his piano bench and said thoughtfully, "You know, Don Francisco, I believe she's willing to share the luck of her husband out on the sea again."
"You think so?" the Don asked.
Simonne laughed and shook her head no; she'd had enough adventure.
What she didn't say was that she and Bill Butler had separated a month earlier, that she had returned to their Kendall home one Sunday after Mass, to find her husband in the garage, surrounded by boxes. She asked him why he was cleaning the garage. He told her he was moving out. A year later Bill Butler remarried.
So their lives diverged after fifteen years and a major miracle. They had been swallowed together by the sea and returned together to life, but they had returned to different worlds.
Two months after their rescue, the Butlers signed a contract with the William Morris Agency in New York. From his first few hours back on dry land, when walking still felt like treading water, Bill Butler had felt compelled to write about the experience he and Simonne had shared. The management firm wanted to publish a book as soon as possible, the agents wanted the Butlers to work with a ghostwriter. The couple interviewed several. "Most of the interviews were light and superficial," Bill says now. "Yet we felt our story was so intense, with so much detail that only we had lived." And indeed, when he'd read samples based on experiences he and Simonne had described to potential writers, Bill decided they'd write the book alone. "Writing it myself may be amateurish, but that way it has more of a true ring to it," he explains. "I want to put the reader in the raft and live it."