As president of the Gloucester Fishermen's Wives Association, Angela Sanfilippo has dealt many times with tragedy at sea. It never gets easier.
"This is a shocker," she said Saturday, referring to the loss of the Patriot and the lives of two local fishermen. "This was the perfect boat. Gloucester has one more time been stricken."
The two members of a Gloucester fishing family — the husband and father of Josephine Russo — were lost at sea early Saturday when the family-owned Patriot, a modern, 54-foot, steel-hulled trawler fishing alone on Middle Bank, about 15 miles from port, sank after an apparent catastrophic failure.
The Coast Guard recovered the bodies of Matteo Russo, 36, and his father-in-law, John Orlando, 58, after an air and sea rescue effort. Neither were wearing survival suits that the Patriot, which had been inspected a month ago, was carrying.
"When I look at the boats in the Gloucester fleet," said Peter Prybot, a Times columnist, fishing author and lobsterman, "this is the last one I'd ever dream would go down."
At the center of the tragedy is Matt Russo's wife, Josephine, who is pregnant, and their three-year-old son Salvatore.
Matteo Russo's parents were returning from vacation in Florida, and, in the Saturday afternoon news conference at Gloucester's U.S. Coast Guard station, Sanfilippo asked the media to be respectful of the family while it grieves.
News of the tragedy, however, moved rapidly throughout the struggling and tight-knit fishing community, both here and in centers of the "Ocean Nation" to the north and south.
"We've heard from New Bedford and the South Shore people," Sanfilippo said. "They're totally heartbroken."
"This is a tough one," said Mayor Carolyn Kirk, who added that "all Gloucester fishing families that have been touched by tragedy share the pain."
The deaths are believed to be the first of Gloucester fishermen at sea since a Russian freighter struck the Starlight in 2001, also killing two men. In all, more than 5,000 fishermen have been identified as lost at sea from the nation's oldest fishing port.
Coast Guard Commander Nathan Knapp, chief of response for Boston Sector, said the cause of the sinking of the Patriot was under investigation and not obvious. Knapp said that "speculatively," the incident occurred "quickly."
The debris field that the Coast Guard helicopter spied, leading to the recovery of the bodies, consisted entirely small deck items, Knapp said — adding that no parts of the boat itself were found in the immediate search. The search began after an onboard fire alarm, connected to the Russo home, was activated.
Knapp said the search began in the harbor — the Patriot, which was refitted and put to work since last summer was docked at the Jodrey Fish Pier — and eventually shifted to Middle Bank, a groundfish-rich sector of Stellwagen Bank. There, both bodies were found and recovered.
Knapp said the EPIRB — or "Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon" device that the well-equipped Patriot carried — was working but its signal was weak, and was picked up only by the helicopter that first sighted debris from the boat's deck in the early morning hours.
He declined to speculate on possible explanations for that aspect of the incident. The water depth on that part of Middle Bank is about 90-100 feet, he said.
With two boats involved in the search, the Coast Guard put the time of the fire alarm at about 1:40 a.m. Saturday. The debris was not located until 5:15 a.m. The bodies were found and recovered soon thereafter.
State Rep.-elect Ann-Margaret Ferrante, a lawyer who grew up in the fishing community with Matteo Russo, described him as a "kind-hearted teddy bear" with rosy cheeks and a gentle manner. She appeared with Knapp, Mayor Kirk and Sanfilippo at the 3 p.m. news conference at the Coast Guard station.
In his May 23 column in the Times, Prybot explained that Matteo and Josie Russo bought the stern trawler Danielle Marie and refitted it to give Matteo and his mate — father-in-law Orlando — a boat large and solid enough to go farther and stay at sea longer than the day boats that have come to largely define the Gloucester fleet since regulators have limited opportunities and catch volumes in recent years.
Russo and Orlando apparently went out to Middle Bank for cod at 6 p.m. Friday night and planned to stay out through Saturday.
"It was the only boat out on Middle Bank, and it was out from the previous day," said Vito Giacalone, a fisherman at the center of the community, who operates a nonprofit bank that has acquired and leases federal permits.
"Matt didn't spare expenses," Giacalone said in an interview. "The boat was well-maintained. Weather shouldn't have been a factor.
"It's as bad as it gets," he added.
In their interview for the May 23 column, Russo had told Prybot that, "with the new boat, I can get my cod limit inshore and then move elsewhere to catch other species during the same trip. Besides a greater range, the Patriot will allow me to fish in rougher weather, especially in winter."
He said he planned to make trips up to five days.
"My father-in- law has been very helpful too," he said. "He did a lot of the woodwork changes," including cabinets, boxes for the computes and split the staterooms.
"None of this would have even happened without my wife, Josie. I can't thank her enough," Russo told Prybot in May.
Richard Gaines can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org