GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

January 27, 2009

Patriot fouled; security too late

Owner asserts tug not involved

By Richard Gaines

Five days after the Patriot was mysteriously lost with its crew on popular fishing grounds 15 miles out of Gloucester Harbor, the Coast Guard moved to secure the area and keep the wreck site free of contamination.

But by then, damage had already been done to the wreck and the site.

On the day after the bodies of the Patriot crew, 36-year-old Capt. Matteo Russo and his 59-year-old father-in-law, John Orlando, were taken from the water, a New Hampshire boat trawling the popular fishing grounds where the Patriot was lost and more than a dozen boats had been working in past days had its gear snagged and lost on the Patriot.

The fouling of the Patriot by the heavy industrial fishing components — including steel trawl-doors, chains and cables — that got caught on its superstructure on the bottom and were ripped from Capt. Bud Fernandes' Rhianon Rae potentially contaminated the site in a way that could complicate efforts to understand what brought the Patriot down.

"Not until yesterday did I think about why (the Coast Guard) didn't put out a warning (about the creation of the hazard immediately after the recovery of the bodies)," Fernandes said in a telephone interview.

It wasn't until a Jan. 8 Boston news conference that Capt. Gail Kulisch, commander of Coast Guard Sector Boston, announced a no-trespass safety zone around the site, a cylinder above the wreck 1,000 yards in diameter.

The problem for the Coast Guard, Patriot family interests and insurance investigators posed by the snarling of the Rhianon Rae's gear emerged in the more than four hours of videotape shot Friday by commercial fisherman and amateur photographer Bill Lee.

He was commissioned by the lost fishermen's families and given permission by the Coast Guard to do the first underwater examination of the wreck, which lays on its starboard (or right) side in 104 feet of water.

The videotape, examined by the Times together with the Russo and Orlando families over the weekend, shows what seem to be areas of scraping along the rub rail at the top of the hull and also at the prow. The intermittent scraping-like imperfections show as bright white against the jet black hull.

The Russos painted the boat last October, putting black paint on top of the preexisting black paint that was on the boat when it was acquired last spring. They also painted over the white railing or rub line at the top of the steel wrap to the deck.

The cause of the scraping, if indeed that is what the tape shows, is unknown, as is a viable theory for what events or conditions conspired to bring down the Patriot. Sources close to the case agree that the lost trawl gear on the wreck will make it difficult to definitively tell whether scars on the hull of the boat played a role in its sinking, or were inflicted afterward.

There are also new questions regarding the Coast Guard's investigation into what forced the Patriot down, in an accident so sudden that neither Russo nor Orlando were able to don the survival suits they had on board.

Until the snarls of the heavy trawl gear off the Rhianon Rae showed in the videotape, the only suspected source of external impact with the Patriot was a mysterious tug and barge.

At the same news conference on Thursday, Jan. 8, at which Kulisch announced her intention to secure the site where the Patriot had gone down five days earlier, she also revealed that the Coast Guard had taken an interest in the possible involvement of another vessel, which had been somewhat proximate to the Patriot at its last known position, about 12:30 a.m. on Jan. 3.

A day later, at a Gloucester news conference, Kulisch described the vessel as a tug with a barge in tow, and said she intended to have its crew members interviewed and a metallurgist examine every inch of the cable looking for paint from the Patriot.

For 21รขÑ2 weeks — until yesterday — the Coast Guard made no further comments about the investigation into the tug. However, in response to questions from the Times, Coast Guard Sector Boston spokeswoman Petty Officer Lauren Jorgensen yesterday said the examination of the tug train had been completed.

She declined to say what had been learned. She also declined to identify the "vessel of interest."

The Times, however, yesterday interviewed the general counsel for Hornbeck Offshore Services, the Covington, La., company that owns the tug Gulf Service — a 126-foot-long, ocean-hauling behemoth that had been working south across Massachusetts Bay on the night of Jan. 2 and 3 when the Patriot was lost.

Hornbeck's general counsel, Sam Biberga, acknowledged that his company had agreed to cooperate with the Coast Guard in its investigation, but he asserted yesterday that the Coast Guard had no reason to continue to consider the Gulf Service a factor in the sinking.

"There is no indication the Hornbeck vessel was in the vicinity of the Patriot when it sank," said Biberga in a teleophone interview. "We have cooperated fully and extensively with the Coast Guard ... (but) we do not believe we should remain a part of any future investigation."

The Russo and Orlando families — Josie Russo, who co-owned the Patriot with her late husband, her two siblings and Anna, their mother and the widow of the late John Orlando, who crewed for his son-in-law — declined to comment on the evidence that a foreign object or objects had impacted the Patriot.

Josie Russo, the boat owner and widow of Matteo Russo, and her siblings and mother, the legates of the employee of the Patriot, are being represented by attorneys Joe Abromowitz and Stephen Ouellette, respectively. They all referred questions to their lawyers yesterday.

Ouellette did not return phone calls.

Abromowitz described the video evidence as "inconclusive."

In a related development, the Coast Guard announced a plan to use "one or more" remotely-operated submersible vehicles in an underwater examination of the wreck.

The service's Maritime Safety and Security Team Boston, "with possible assistance from a second team from Seattle, will conduct the survey," the service said in press release.

Last week, Petty Officer Jorgensen said Sector Boston had filed a request with Adm. Thad Allen, commandant of the Coast Guard, for permission to do an underwater photographic examination of the Patriot.

Richard Gaines can be reached at rgaines@gloucestertimes.com