Coast Guard says its response to Patriot sinking was too slow

The following is the text of a press release issued by the U.S. Coast Guard:
(PORTSMOUTH, Va.) — The commander of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Atlantic Area here released Thursday the final action memo detailing the results of an administrative investigation into the Coast Guard’s response efforts during a January search and rescue case off the coast of Gloucester, Mass. Matteo Russo and John Orlando died when their 54-foot commercial fishing vessel, the Patriot, sank about 14 nautical miles southeast of Gloucester, Jan. 3.

“Our review of this case showed that we were slow to launch search and rescue assets because of poor collection and analysis of information, and decision making regarding the Patriot’s status,” said Vice Adm. Robert J. Papp, Jr. “The remedial actions I’m requiring are designed to ensure that our people have the right tools, experience and training to be able to act quickly and decisively when emergent and unpredictable cases happen.â€

A copy of the Final Action Memo, which includes all of Papp’s opinions and required actions, can be downloaded/viewed at:

The Coast Guard was first notified at 1:35 a.m., of a possible problem aboard the Patriot by a phone call to Coast Guard Station Gloucester from Josie Russo, Matteo Russo’s wife and co-owner of the Patriot, who had been notified by a monitoring company that the Patriot’s fire alarm had remotely signaled. After several hours of investigation by Coast Guard Station Gloucester, Sector Boston and the First District command center watchstanders to ascertain the Patriot’s location and possible nature of distress, SAR assets were launched at 3:58 a.m.

A Coast Guard MH-60 rescue helicopter from Air Station Cape Cod was the first asset to arrive on scene around 5:05 a.m. and at 5:17 a.m. located Orlando’s body, which was recovered shortly thereafter by the Coast Guard Cutter Flyingfish. Russo’s body was located and recovered by the helicopter later that day at 12:14 p.m.

Neither victim was recovered with any survival gear, and no distress signals, such as a Mayday radio call or 406 Mhz Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon, had been received from the Patriot before it sank or before the Coast Guard launched SAR assets.

In January, the Coast Guard’s 1st District in Boston initiated a Search and Rescue Case Study to review the Patriot case. But by April Papp was becoming anxious to know what issues had been found.

“A Coast Guardsman never wants to lose anyone while on watch, and I wanted to know what issues had been found so we could begin to implement any needed changes to operations in my area of responsibility,†said Papp. “I asked for a working copy of the case study and when I noted the extent of the 1st District command center’s involvement in the case I made the decision to convene an administrative investigation. Assigning an independent, third-party investigator to maximize the amount of information available and ensure there was an additional, independent level of review, gave us a broader look at all aspects of our response to the Patriot case,†added Papp.

The administrative investigation was convened May 6, with Capt. Patrick Brennan, Chief of Response for the 8th District in New Orleans, appointed as the investigating officer. The work already completed on the case study was incorporated into the investigation.

“We are committed to providing the best service possible to the maritime community, and reviewing unusual cases like the Patriot helps us to improve our search and rescue operations,†said Papp.

The Coast Guard’s investigation also concluded that the Patriot sank quickly and with little advance warning, sometime between 1:17 – 1:30 a.m. With the Medical Examiner’s opinion that neither victim appeared to have suffered from hypothermia before drowning, and that drowning occurred within seconds, the investigation concludes that it appears likely that their deaths occurred before Station Gloucester was first informed of the fire alarm activation at 1:35 a.m.

“I have personally spoken with Mrs. Russo to pass on my condolences for her family’s loss, and to express my regret for the length of time this investigation has taken,†said Papp. “I also sent a team earlier today to personally share the final report with them and answer any additional questions. The Russo and Orlando families have my commitment that this review of our response will help us perform more effectively and decisively, even during uncertainty, and may one day help to save someone’s life.â€
A separate Coast Guard marine casualty investigation, focused on determining the cause of the sudden loss of the Patriot, remains ongoing.

By Professional Mariner Staff