NTSB testing tug’s towline for links to fatal sinking of trawler

Federal investigators have confiscated a tugboat’s towline to determine whether the vessel was involved in the sinking of a trawler near Gloucester, Mass. Two fishermen were killed in the incident.

   The U.S. Coast Guard is reviewing its own rescue response in light of the fact that difficulties accessing Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) data may have delayed the launch of a search for over two hours.

  The bodies of the two fishermen were found floating in a debris field after their 54-foot stern trawler Patriot sank Jan. 3 at Stellwagen Bank, between Cape Cod and Cape Ann. Whatever caused the accident was catastrophic and instantaneous enough that the men were not able to issue a distress call or don their survival suits, the Coast Guard said.
   The Coast Guard said a tug and petroleum barge were in the area at the time. Investigators caught up with the vessels in Baltimore, and they questioned six crewmembers. Personnel in sectors Houston and Puerto Rico were attempting to reach three other crewmembers who were potential witnesses.
   “We have taken into custody the cable associated with the tug and barge that was identified as a vessel that was operating in the vicinity," said Capt. Gail Kulisch, commander at Sector Boston. “The tug and barge have been gone over for evidence, and the tug and crew and the companies have been highly cooperative."
   The tug is 120 feet long, and the barge is 370 feet long, said Coast Guard spokeswoman Petty Officer Lauren Jorgensen. The towline is a wire rope 2.5 inches in diameter. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) will inspect the 2,000-foot towline for traces of the fishing boat’s paint.
   The deceased fishermen were identified as Capt. Matteo Russo and his father-in-law, John Orlando.
   The Coast Guard is reviewing the Patriot case to determine why a delay occurred in launching a search, said the First District Commander, Rear Adm. Dale Gabel. In a letter to local newspapers, Gabel said he is “100 percent confident" that the responders “were not held hostage to a mindless bureaucratic process" while trying to locate the trawler.
   “My search and rescue experts on staff are conducting what we call a •case study’ of our response," Gabel said. Jorgensen confirmed that the use of VMS is part of the review.
The incident happened between 0030 and 0117, 15 miles southeast of Gloucester. Russo’s wife reported to the Coast Guard the men had suddenly ceased cell-phone communications and she was informed of a remote fire alarm activation.
   Gabel said something “prevented them from donning their survival suits, making a mayday call via marine radio or activating their EPIRB."
   Because there was no distress call, a Coast Guard watchstander attempted to use the VMS to determine Patriot’s location. VMS, which is operated by the National Marine Fisheries Service, is used primarily for enforcement of fishing regulations, but is available to emergency responders.
   The watchstander was unable to access VMS, and it took a while for any Boston-region personnel to obtain the correct password. Finally, they did learn the position of Patriot’s final ping, and two search boats and a helicopter were dispatched around 0400, the Coast Guard said.
   Cmdr. Erin MacDonald, chief of the policy division in the Coast Guard’s Office of Search and Rescue, said all command centers are supposed to have instant access to VMS passwords.
   “A qualified watchstander … should be able to log on and access that information," MacDonald said. The process “should not require outside assistance."
   The suspected mishandling of VMS that morning has left the Massachusetts commercial fishing community rankled. At a press conference, fishermen said federal officials had emphasized the search-and-rescue benefits in convincing them to accept VMS, called an “electronic bracelet" by some.
   “All of the safety seminars that we’ve had in the past, to me it seems none of it was used, and I think the Coast Guard knows this," said Gloucester fisherman Joe Orlando. It’s unclear if he is a relative of John Orlando.

By Professional Mariner Staff