GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

January 9, 2009

Coast Guard investigates second boat

Crew being questioned about fatal sinking of trawler Patriot

By Richard Gaines

Hours after a funeral Mass and burial of the father and husband of Josie Russo, the Coast Guard revealed last night it had made a potential break in the investigation into the mysterious sinking early Saturday of the men's modern, well-equipped fishing boat, the Patriot.

At a Boston news conference, Capt. Gail Kulisch announced the investigation has come upon "the possibility of another vessel in the area at the time of the sinking."

The commander of Sector Boston, Kulisch revealed little about this other boat but said it is possible the second vessel was "directly involved" or a witness to the demise of the 54-foot, steel-hulled Patriot, which Josie and Matteo Russo purchased last year and then converted it into a model for the modern Gloucester trawler.

All signs of the sinking pointed to a lightning fast catastrophe.

Investigative officers were on board and interviewing the crew of the second boat, said Kulisch, who earlier had scheduled meetings in Gloucester today with the political leadership and the mourning families of Matteo Russo, 36, and John Orlando, 59.

They went out fishing Friday night.

At her news conference, Kulisch deflected questions about the command decisions that effectively and collectively put off launching the search and rescue operation for more than two hours after the Gloucester Fire Department, responding to a remote fire alarm signal from the Patriot, reported that the vessel was at sea.

Josie Russo said she pleaded with Sector Boston to launch a search for the Patriot. "When my sister called and said the fire alarm is going off on the boat, isn't that a distress call?" her older brother Dominic Orlando asked.

He and family members spoke to the Times about their uncertainties about how and why Russo and Orlando died. Both were considered first-rate boatmen and fishermen, and had reputations for giving safety top priority.

"We responded immediately," Kulisch said at the news conference at Sector headquarters in the North End of Boston. She and Nathan Knapp, the regional search and rescue chief, earlier described the circumstances they had to analyze — a fire signal without a mayday and without a known location to search — as "unusual."

The Times reported yesterday that the Coast Guard did not tap into a computer system that collects legally required locational radio signals from commercial fishing boats until more than an hour after it had been informed that the boat was at sea and the fire alarm was detected by a private firm on shore.

According to a Coast Guard chronology, it was not until more than an hour after honing in on the last position delivered by the radio beam that the order went out to send a helicopter from Cape Cod and rescue boats from Cape Ann waters to search for the Patriot.

By then, Matteo's brother, Sal, who is also a fishing captain, was at sea looking for the Patriot and getting directions from the Coast Guard, family members told the Times.

Josie Russo, her older brother Dominic and her younger sister Grace were gathered together with their mother, Anna Orlando, and family members including the toddler Sal, the not-yet 3-year-old son of Josie and her late husband, when they learned of the announcement from Kulisch in Boston.

Josie Russo, who is pregnant with her second child, said her efforts to raise her husband on the Patriot, including text messaging, proved futile and that was a very bad sign. The business partners and husband-and-wife team were known to talk and communicate frequently sea to shore.

"I wasn't shocked" over the news that another boat might have been involved, said Dominic Russo, who works for Sea-White Marine Construction and Salvage.

He said the most likely theory was that the Patriot was hit by another boat. The Patriot sank so quickly sometime after midnight Saturday that no mayday signal was issued on the radio and neither fisherman had been able to don the survival suits the boat carried.

Although a fire alarm had gone off, the Coast Guard has said the bodies showed no sign of fire.

While acknowledging no flaws in the response to the Patriot's mishap, Kulisch also said the Coast Guard is conducting "a case study of all aspects of its response to this case," adding that the step is "standard procedure for all search-and-rescue cases involving the loss of life or a vessel sinking."

Mayor Carolyn Kirk, who was accompanied to the funeral Mass at St. Ann Church by two officers from Station Gloucester, advised the service to "take any lessons that can be learned to improve their operations in the future. It's not enough just to review the things that are spelled out for them to normally do in terms of a response."

In a telephone interview with the Times last night, Kirk said, "I want to be sure to know that these two men didn't die in vain, (and) that will come if there are lessons that can be learned that can help the next search-and-rescue mission."

She added, "The questions and rumors need to be squelched. Sometimes, the questions and rumors can put the family through more anguish. The questions need to be answered and the information has to be forthcoming as the Coast Guard becomes aware of it."

Kulisch also announced that while the investigation continues, the Coast Guard was securing the wreck, in about 100 feet of water on a sandy bottom of what is known as China Beach on Middle Bank inside the Stellwagen Bank Marine Sanctuary.

Correspondent Nancy Gaines contributed to this report. Richard Gaines can be reached at rgaines@gloucestertimes.com.