Fire, disease, and piracy
This is part two of a three-part series that follows Orlando resident Mickey Grosman as he journeys across South America to inspire cancer patients.
Kyle Ver Steeg slept soundly in his hammock despite the noise of the roaring diesel engine in the belly of the riverboat a few decks below him. After two weeks in the South American rainforest, Ver Steeg was used to sleeping through loud noise, a stark contrast to the peace and quiet of his home in Iowa.
It was the cutting of the engine that jolted him awake.
Ver Steeg knew that a boat this big, roughly 100 feet, wouldn’t stop unless something was wrong, especially on the Amazon River. That was when the upper deck where he and his group slept began to fill with smoke.
The boat was on fire.
Ver Steeg scrambled out of his hammock and ran over to wake up the group leader, Orlando resident Mickey Grosman. They needed to get off the boat.
After waking up Aaron Sheldrick, the third and final team member from Minnesota, the team rolled up their hammocks and rushed down to the lower decks of the riverboat. They were about to jump overboard when they spotted another riverboat coming their way.
The captain had managed to send out an SOS signal and another boat happened to be just down the river.
The boat came alongside the smoking vessel, and Grosman’s team and the boat’s crew jumped onboard, turning to watch as flames rose through the Mark Twain-style riverboat as it started its slow descent into the Amazon River.
Watching from the side of their rescue boat, Grosman wasn’t yet halfway finished with a grueling journey from the Pacific to the Atlantic coast of South America to benefit cancer research.
By then Grosman had spent almost five months in the South American jungle and had traveled more than 2,000 miles.
Grosman had backtracked west up the Amazon by riverboat in late September to shepherd Ver Steeg and Sheldrick back to Iquitos, Peru, the closest city with an airport. The two Americans had finished their portion of the seventh leg of the expedition, as far as they would dare before escaping back to the United States.
Ver Steeg can still recall the hectic night when the riverboat they’d hitched a ride on went up in flames because of a complication in the engine room.
“As soon as we smelled smoke, and as soon as the engine stopped, we knew there was a problem and we had to get the heck off of that boat,” Ver Steeg said.
Ver Steeg knew from the beginning that the journey would be difficult. He was also well aware of the cause that it was supporting, Grosman’s background with cancer and how every cent donated on the expedition’s website would go to cancer research.
As a plastic/reconstructive surgeon, Ver Steeg had seen his fair share of the disease, performing several surgeries like the one Grosman had done on his face.
Ver Steeg decided to join a part of the expedition because he wanted to make a much more intimate contribution, an undertaking not only special for him, but for his patients.
“I deal with people with cancer every single day, so I see what people go through,” Ver Steeg said.
“This was a real unusual sort of fundraiser. Most people go to a dinner and buy some auction items. Obviously they’re raising money, but this was a way to do something that was, for me, even more personal than just writing a check.”
After getting Ver Steeg and Sheldrick back to Iquitos, Grosman met with his group of six indigenous team members and continued forward with his expedition, traveling east and traversing the treacherous swamps of northern Peru.
With neck-high waters and no dry land to rest on, Grosman and company were forced to sleep on the branches of mangrove trees.
“Over there, the swamp will swallow you,” Grosman said.
Two hundred miles later, Grosman and his team reached the border of Brazil, where the rest of their journey would ultimately take place.
The group was ready to push forward, but hit a roadblock in late October when Grosman came down with Dengue fever, a tropical disease transmitted by a mosquito bite that causes headaches and muscle pains.
For two weeks Grosman’s adventure hit the stop button, as he pondered his own fortitude in a clinic in Tabatinga, Brazil.
Grosman’s wife Noga was shocked when she heard the news, considering her husband’s knack for survival.
“Here he is falling ill and almost dying in Tabatinga,” Noga said.
“I said to myself ‘If he says that he is sick…that’s never happened before.’ He was always energetic, and then suddenly he was very, very sick.”
Grosman eventually fought off the illness, and the team continued to follow the Amazon River farther into Brazil.
At that point the team was carrying around 500 pounds of gear all together, and they were feeling the weight more than ever. Grosman decided to split his team up into two smaller groups, with three team members coming with him to walk on land and the other three forming a support team, taking half the supplies and riding down the river on a makeshift raft made of balsa wood.
The two groups would rendezvous once a week, or every 100 miles.
The travelers followed this routine through the month of November, until Dengue fever struck Grosman again in early December. He knew it was worse than before when he started vomiting blood.
“If you got sick with a very bad flu, multiply that 20 times more,” Grosman said.
“All of your bones are one big pain. You can’t even walk; I lost balance every time.”
Though Grosman was seriously ill, what happened next would prove to be perhaps the most jarring challenge of the entire expedition: an attack on the support team by Brazilian pirates.
The support team was looking for a location to set up camp along the river while Grosman received treatments at a nearby military hospital.
Outside the city of Manaus, at the checkpoint marking the beginning of leg 11, a speedboat carrying four to five men armed with high-caliber machine guns stopped the support team, ordering them to jump into the river and give up the supplies on the raft. The team members cooperated, jumping off the raft and treading water in front of the speedboat. The pirates beat the travelers over their heads with butts of their guns, while threatening to shoot them if they resisted.
After taking machetes, food and money, the pirates fired shots into the water near the travelers, toying with them as they struggled to stay afloat.
At that moment, a riverboat appeared downstream and drove the pirates away. One team member was almost struck by the speedboat’s propeller, which the pirates aimed at them as they fled.
The support group made their way to a small town afterwards, where they were able to reach Grosman through Facebook at an internet café.
Grosman had recovered at this point, and set a destination for the team to regroup.
The seasoned adventurer realized that it was not the harsh conditions or the potentially deadly diseases that made South America a dangerous place; it was mankind. People were the greatest danger they had witnessed.
“The people, that’s the only dangerous animal that exists,” Grosman said. “Like the pirates and the thieves.”
After the run-in with the pirates, four of the six team members accompanying Grosman quit the expedition and headed back home.
Grosman decided that the best way to keep the remaining members of his group safe and avoid further conflicts with pirates was to avoid the Amazon River altogether. The team turned northeast toward Guyana, leaving the river behind.
“I was very upset,” Grosman said. “I decided to change my expedition route and to not take a chance that somebody from my crew will get killed. It was a big responsibility on my shoulders.”
Despite Grosman’s hardened military background in the Israeli Special Forces, the expedition had left him barely standing. The responsibility of protecting the lives of his group members, the unforgiving terrain and the Dengue fever pushed Grosman to his very limits.
But through all the struggles, Grosman never forgot the reason why he was there.
“Even in the hardest moment, I always knew that the people who are fighting cancer are fighting harder than me,” Grosman said. “That kept me going.”
Grosman knew his journey was not over. He had to press on.