GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

January 22, 2009

Photo project cleared: Coast Guard OKs underwater exam of Patriot

Coast Guard OKs underwater exam

By Richard Gaines

The Coast Guard yesterday approved the first underwater photographic examination of the Patriot. The demise of the Gloucester fishing boat and the deaths of both its crew members remain a mystery 20 days after it was seemingly swallowed by the sea.

Bill Lee, a commercial fisherman and noted underwater photographer, said he would take a small team, including an insurance adjuster and a Coast Guard official, to the site of the wreck today. The Patriot rests in about 100 feet of water, about 15 miles southeast of Gloucester.

A Coast Guard spokeswoman said Sector Boston has formally requested permission from Coast Guard headquarters in Washington to do its own official photographic study of the wreck.

"Our request is still (pending)," Petty Officer Lauren Jorgensen said.

She said the approval of Adm. Thad Allen, commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, is required because the service as a policy does not do underwater work on wrecks.

Lee said he planned to leave in his fishing boat The Ocean Reporter from the Gloucester harbormaster's dock adjacent to the Coast Guard station at 7 a.m., and return in mid-afternoon with photos and video. He promised to make them available to all interested parties.

Lee said the Coast Guard agreed to his condition that his findings would go into the public domain.

Coast Guard Capt. and Sector Boston Cmdr. Gail P. Kulisch, assigned to manage twin investigations into what happened to the Patriot and into the Coast Guard's delayed response, authorized Lee's expedition.

In a letter, Kulisch said she found the plan "acceptable" and authorized Lee to photograph the wreck "without disturbing it."

Frustrated by the pace of the inquiries, the families of the Patriot's lost crew — Matteo Russo, 36, and his father-in-law, John Orlando, 59 — commissioned the Lee expedition to the wreck.

Stephen Ouellette, an attorney for the Orlando family, wrote to Kulisch on Wednesday, seeking permission to send Lee to the scene for the first photos of the Patriot. On Tuesday, Ouellette, state Sen. Bruce Tarr and state Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante had all pressed the Coast Guard to get photos of the wreck.

"I'm hoping that (Lee) can come back with some facts," said Dominic Orlando, brother of Patriot co-owner Josie Russo. It was her father and husband who were both lost after the Patriot, operating in a recently fruitful and well-fished section of Stellwagen's Middle Bank, sent off a fire alarm around 1:17 a.m. the morning of Jan. 3. A final ping from its vessel monitoring system had come about 12:30 a.m.

Dominic Orlando said the family retained Lee to photograph the wreck, looking for clues to what took the Patriot down after Josie Russo, her mother and siblings became impatient waiting for the Coast Guard to launch its own underwater photographic study of the boat.

Dominic Orlando said the family would give Lee a wreath to leave on the water above the boat, a 54-foot-long, 11-year-old steel-hulled vessel that Matteo and Josie Russo had bought and re-outfitted about a year ago.

Lee, who designed and built The Ocean Reporter and began doing underwater photography as a hobby, said he believes his cameras — encased in stainless steel housings fabricated in Lee's shop — would provide clues to what happened.

Considered a quintessential modern fishing family, the Russos in the Patriot created a vessel heralded locally as a model of 21st century fishing technology.

"I'll learn and see if there appeared to be a fire, or whether it was hit by another vessel, or whether there is catastrophic damage from a ship strike," Lee said in an interview.

No "obvious" sign of external stresses on the exterior of the Patriot would imply that the cause of the sinking might be contained in the vessel itself, he said.

Coast Guard Sector Commander Kulisch came to Gloucester six days after the sinking and recovery of the bodies to announce that a tug and barge connected by a 2,000-foot-long, 21รขÑ2-inch thick steel towing cable were believed to be in the vicinity of the Patriot's last known position and was under investigation for possible involvement. A National Transportation Safety Board has assigned a metallurgist to examine the cable.

That examination apparently had not been done as of yesterday. The Coast Guard has interviewed the three-member crew of the tug and the men who were on the barge when it passed by the Patriot while it was trawling the sandy bottom after midnight Jan. 3.

The Coast Guard was unable to retrieve the EPRIB, the Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon, which all boats carry. These devices activate automatically in the water. The Coast Guard did retrieve the emergency inflatable raft, which had only partially deployed, according to Ouellettte. When their bodies were found, neither Russo nor Orlando were wearing the survival suits that the boat was known to be carrying.

Sector Boston public information officer Jorgensen told the Times there were no new developments in the investigation into the cause of the sinking. Jorgensen has said the Coast Guard has not decided what, if any role, the tug-cable-barge train had in the sinking of the Patriot.

"There is no direct evidence of interaction between the tug, cable or barge (and the Patriot)," said Ouellette who is representing the Orlando family. Attorney Joseph Abromovitz is representing the Russos as the boat owners. Both are considered parties of interest in the investigation, and are therefore privy to information into the probe about the cause of the disaster.

Richard Gaines can be reached at rgaines@gloucestertimes.com.