Coast Guard Station Gloucester, on its own, was not allowed early Saturday to launch a search for a missing fishing boat.
Instead, the Coast Guard command in Boston decided not to even begin searching for the Patriot until more than two hours after Station Gloucester was informed that its two-man crew had taken it fishing, and that communication between the boat's co-owners — the captain and his pregnant wife, who was onshore in Gloucester — had ominously ceased, except for the remote radio signal from a fire alarm.
By that time, the Patriot had gone down, with two Gloucester fishermen, Capt. Matteo Russo and his father-in-law, John Orlando, aboard.
It was the fire signal to a private alarm company that, at 1:17 Saturday morning, triggered the start of due diligence by the Gloucester Fire Department. Engine 4 with a crew of five, headed by Gaetano LeGrande, a fire captain who happens to have a commercial fishing background, was dispatched to the waterfront and in 20 minutes reported back to the central station that the Patriot was not in port.
Dispatcher Clint Carroll, who was on Engine 4, said that, within minutes, a worried Josephine Russo, who with her husband Matteo had purchased the 11-year-old, steel-hulled, stern trawler early last year, called the Fire Department.
She had already spoken to Coast Guard Station Gloucester, noting that cell phone calls to her husband Matteo on the Patriot were defaulting to voice mail, and that Matteo's brother Sal, a commercial fisherman too, had been unable to contact Matteo. With Josie's father, Orlando, working the Patriot as mate, Matteo Russo had left Friday with plans to fish Middle Bank overnight and into Saturday.
The Coast Guard's decision to begin search-and-rescue would not come until 3:52 a.m., more than two hours after Josie Russo had told Station Gloucester she was convinced that her inability to reach her husband meant something bad had happened.
What befell the Patriot is not known, and is the subject of Coast Guard and state police investigation.
But the Coast Guard found the bodies shortly before dawn Saturday — more than an hour after the command decision at 4 a.m. to finally launch a full search-and-rescue operation with a helicopter, and two vessels moored around Cape Ann.
The bodies showed no sign of fire, said Nathan Knapp, the Coast Guard's regional search and rescue chief. The Patriot itself lies today on a sandy bank known as China Beach, its nets extended behind about a quarter mile, as if the boat, while trawling normally, simply settled to the bottom, according to reports from the fishing industry.
Speculation centers on a collision or possibly a rollover.
"It is as big a mystery as you can get," said Vito Giacalone, a fisherman, businessman and the manager of a nonprofit bank that owns and leases federal fishing permits. "No one has come up with a plausible explanation."
As required by the National Marine Fisheries Service, which regulates and polices commercial fishing, the Patriot's whereabouts were tracked and recorded in a computer that received radio transmissions periodically from the boat.
The last transmission — or "ping" — from the Patriot came in at 12:30 a.m. Saturday, from a position near the northwest corner of Stellwagen Bank, according to Capt. Craig Gilbert, the Coast Guard district's top search and rescue officer.
But the information was not obtained until 2:38 a.m. — more than an hour after fire Capt. LoGrande's conclusion that the Patriot was not in port, and Josie Russo's plea urging action from Station Gloucester.
Instead, Sector Boston directed Station Gloucester to double-check the Fire Department's conclusion that the Patriot was not in port. That assignment, given to Station Gloucester, took an hour, according to a chronology provided by the Coast Guard.
Cmdr. Knapp described the situation as the Coast Guard knew it — with interrupted telephone and radio communications with a fishing boat sending a remote fire alarm system — as "an anomaly."
"The (fire alarm) alert tells us virtually nothing, and gives us no positioning data," he told the Times.
Knapp also noted that no mayday call was issued from the boat.
He added that the Coast Guard was getting no signal from the EPIRB or "Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon" system that the Patriot was known to carry, based on a recent inspection.
"We did the harbor search, there was nothing; that kicks it up," he said.
At 2:30 a.m., Knapp went up the chain of command to request that the district tap into National Marine Fisheries Service' VMS or "vessel monitoring system" to find out where the Patriot was or had been most recently.
He told the Times launching a search without at least a rough sense of the target position risks wasting resources.
"The difference between Jeffreys (Ledge) and the northwest corner of Stellwagen is a huge difference," Knapp said.
"We were back to them in eight minutes," said Gilbert.
"Finally, when we get the VMS, we launch our resources," Knapp said.
But according to Gilbert, the search and rescue operation was delayed again, while the sector continued to try again to raise the Patriot, by telephone and now e-mail, continuing to search for the EPIRB signal. The device activates automatically in the water and can be activated manually.
During this time, the sector was also trying to reach the boat via the e-mail using the Boatrac's system Web link. The Russos had equipped the Patriot with a radio tracking system required by National Marine Fisheries Service made by Boatrac, a marine electronics company.
At 3 a.m., 22 minutes, and after Knapp got the VMS fix, the sector — which outranks the local station but is outranked by the district ¬�—¬� was making calls to the person listed in its files as the owner of the Patriot. But the files were outdated. Instead of getting Josephine or Matteo Russo, the sector reached Michael Walsh, the former owner of the Patriot when it was still the Danielle Marie.
"He told us the vessel ha d been sold," Gilbert said.
"About 3:45," he said, "the district command center recommended the launch of the station boats. Meanwhile, we tried to contact the Wayne Security System."
He said the reason for the call was to determine the strength of the radio signal from the fire alarm system on the Patriot. He said the purpose of the call was to "find out if it did work offshore.
"If it doesn't," Gilbert said, "that would take away a reason for using assets."
At 3:52 a.m., he said, the Cape Cod Air Station was told to launch the first of its "assets" — a helicopter — toward the last known position of the Patriot as set by the VMS signal from the Boatrac transmitter.
"About 4 o'clock, we decided to launch everything," said Gilbert.
A 47-foot motor life boat dispatched from Station Boston and the 87-foot coastal patrol boat Flying Fish, which had been moored off Rockport, were dispatched to the scene.
About an hour later, they came upon a debris field and the bodies — not far from where the Patriot had settled to the bottom of the bank in the midst of one of the East Coast's busiest shipping lanes.
Richard Gaines can be reached at email@example.com.