GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

September 30, 2009

Federal hearing focuses on search for F/V Patriot

By Richard Gaines

Click here to read Rear Admiral Brice-O'Hara's statement

A congressional subcommittee today begins hearings into the efficacy of Coast Guard search and rescue missions, and focused on failures highlighted in response to the sinking fishing vessel Patriot.

The Gloucester boat was lost with its family crew of two 14 miles from port last January.

The circumstances of the tragedy remain uncertain, the subject of a Coast Guard investigation and litigation by the crew's family centered on a tug pulling a barge — the only known vessel that passed near the Patriot in its final minutes.

The hearing by the Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Staff of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee will be webcast. To view the hearing — which begins at 10 a.m. from the Capitol — go to the House committee Web site and click on the yellow "view Web cast" block.

A background paper released yesterday identified two cases that will be examined in detail by the subcommittee.

One is the search and rescue response to the disappearance of the Patriot, which sank during an overnight fishing trip to Middle Bank on Jan. 2 and 3. A theme of the Coast Guard's review of the case cited inexperienced personnel in key roles during the workup to a call for search and rescue.

The second case to be studied involves a collision between a motor vessel and a fishing vessel outside San Fransisco Bay in 2007. A confluence of errors and decisions called off search and rescue on the assumption that the collision did not occur; it did, and one person who had been on the fishing boat died.

The failures in the uncertain and delayed response to the distress of the Patriot were examined and reported on by the Coast Guard last June.

Signed by Vice Adm. Robert J. Papp, commander of the Atlantic area, the Final Action Memorandum noted that the case was "particularly difficult to process and classify as one involving distress" because the "usual indications of distress were not present."

Many details of the tragedy point to the Patriot's sinking as a fast-moving calamity: Both the captain, Matteo Russo, and his father-in-law, John Orlando, were found dead in the water without any survival gear.

The tragedy struck hard at a community that, more than any other, had inured itself as much as possible to the inevitability of losses at sea.

Josie Russo, who co-owned the Patriot with her husband, was pregnant. Her second son was born in the spring.

According to the subcommittee summary, the hearing was called to "review the Coast Guard's search and rescue programs as well as lessons learned from recent search and rescue cases." The paper notes that the Coast Guard is acquiring and installing a new command, control and communications system for search and rescue. But Rescue 21, which will replace a system installed in the 1970s, "has been plagued by cost overruns" and is expected to cost $1.1 billion and is projected to be fully installed by 2017.

"Rescue 21 represents a significant enhancement in technology," the subcommittee wrote, "because it can more quickly plot the location of calls from mariners in distress than previous technologies could; the system can also provide instant replaces of distress calls."

There were no distress calls from the Patriot. The fire alarm triggered a radio signal to the alarm company, and Josie Russo was called. She in turn called Coast Guard Station Gloucester. But after that notice, the lack of typical signals from a boat in distress led to excessive chatter among the local station, Sector Boston and District Boston, and time wasted in recognizing the site and magnitude of the incident.

The chairman of the subcommittee is Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland. He was also instrumental in highlighting defects in the Coast Guard administrative law judge system that is used by federal fishery regulators to try cases challenged by members of the fishing industry.

Richard Gaines can be reached at rgaines@gloucestertimes.com

Background on House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Coast Guard search and rescue