GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

January 23, 2009

'You could look through the windows'

Photo crew's 'sobering' exam finds Patriot undamaged on its side

By Richard Gaines

The mystery surrounding the sinking of the Patriot and the death of its two crew members only deepened yesterday.

The first photographic examination of the wreck, involving four hours of video and stills taken by Bill Lee working from his fishing boat, revealed no apparent clues.

"It was very, very sobering," said Lee, a commercial fisherman and noted amateur underwater photographer. He was working for the families of Capt. Matteo Russo, 36, and his father-in-law and mate John Orlando, 59, who died in the sinking three weeks ago today.

The Coast Guard has been investigating the sinking and looking into its own response, which lagged by more than two hours after Josie Russo, co-owner of the vessel with her late husband, deduced from aberrant indicators — a remote fire alarm signal, no cell phone responses, a boat gone strangely silent — that something was amiss.

The fishing team, her husband and father, left port around 6 p.m. on Jan. 2; at 12:30 a.m. Jan. 3, the VMS, or vessel monitoring system, sounded a "ping" from the Patriot for the last time.

"There is absolutely no apparent sign of fire, there is no apparent sign of a strike, and there is no apparent damage to the boat," said Lee, who was accompanied on the research expedition by Stephen Ouellette, lead attorney for the Russo and Orlando families, along with representatives of the Coast Guard and the insurance company that wrote the policy on the Patriot.

"You could look through the windows," Lee added. "The propeller and rudder were in place, and both trawl doors were on the boat."

"We know a lot more (about what didn't happen)," Ouellette said. "A boat is in a constant battle with gravity, and sometimes gravity wins."

This boat had a steel hull, was only 11 years old and had been modernized and refitted with an array of modern technology after the Russos acquired it about a year ago.

Both fishermen came from fishing families and were considered astute and exceptionally careful boatsmen. Yet, whatever befell the Patriot, the men apparently did not have time to don their survival suits or to send out a mayday call.

Lee and Ouellette said they hoped to glean clues about the cause of the wreck from careful examination of the stills and video over the weekend.

"It's nice when the answer is readily apparent," said Ouellette, who added, while his shaking head, that this isn't one of those instances.

Lee said more than 20 fishing boats were working in view of the Ocean Reporter as they worked. The boats' crews were calling often, he said, and always with the same question: "What happened?"

Based on what could be learned monitoring the recording and still photography of the wreck laying on its "starboard (right) side in 104 feet" of water, Lee said that question still has no answer. Not a scintilla of the untoward emerged from the long day of remote examination, with the video and still cameras dropped over the side and down 104 feet.

One still camera, encased in a stainless steel and made by Lee, was lost when it became entangled in the netting of a fishing boat that snagged the wreck of the Patriot in the first 48 hours after it vanished.

In its official investigation, the Coast Guard has provided little new information since Boston Sector Cmdr. and Capt. Gail Kulisch came to Gloucester two weeks ago to announce that a tug hauling a barge on a nearly half-mile-long cable had been identified in the vicinity of the Patriot's last known position. The boat was lost on the popular fishing grounds of Stellwagen's Middle Bank.

Since then, all six crew members of the tug-train have been interviewed, and a metallurgist from the National Transportation Safety Board has been assigned to examine the 21รขÑ2-inch thick cable that connected the tug with the barge. But the Coast Guard has not indicated whether the investigation has helped de-mystify the sinking.

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