GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

February 3, 2009

CG chief: VMS use wasn't 'routine'

'Case study' to look at Patriot response

By Richard Gaines

The Coast Guard's top ranking search-and-rescue officer says that getting access to a VMS or vessel monitoring system database to locate the last "ping" point position of the Patriot for a lifesaving effort for the crew of two should have been "routine."

It wasn't.

Instead, as Sector Boston Commander and Capt. Gail P. Kulisch has said, the watch officer on the Jan. 2-3 overnight shift was unable to gain immediate entry to the VMS system from the workstation at Sector Boston despite "several" attempts.

In a telephone interview from Washington, D.C., Cmdr. Erin MacDonald, chief of the policy division for search and rescue, said that should not have happened.

That Sector Boston did not make routine use of the VMS system, MacDonald said, "is an issue that is being addressed in the search and rescue case study."

That study, an internal investigation of the Coast Guard's delayed response to the signs of the Patriot's distress, is well under way; on a parallel track, the Coast Guard continues to try to determine what undid the 54-foot long, steel-hulled fishing boat.

The Patriot lies on its starboard side on the sandy bottom of Middle Bank, the fishing ground favored by the Gloucester fleet for their 800 pounds of cod a day each boat is allowed by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The Coast Guard had estimated the location as 15 miles from port, but in a statement yesterday, changed the location to 18 miles from Gloucester.

The first underwater views of the Patriot, both still photos and video, were taken by fisherman Bill Lee, captain of the vessel Ocean Reporter, two weeks ago. Last weekend, better quality video pictures of the wreck were made by a remotely operated vehicle brought to the site of the wreck by the Coast Guard.

The footage, the Coast Guard said in a press release, "will serve as another piece of evidence for investigators to consider in trying to determine what caused the ... trawler to sink."

That footage, however, was not released to the public; Lee did release his work to the public through the Times.

The wreck was compromised on Jan. 4, when a trawler lost its gear including trawl doors, chains, cables and nets on the Patriot's super structure.

It was not until Jan. 8 that the Coast Guard announced the location and declared off limits a circular area 1,000 yards in diameter around the site of the wreck.

In announcing on Jan. 8 the decision to protect the wreck, Kulisch also said a vessel — later identified as a tug-cable-barge train — had been proximate to the Patriot around the time of its last VMS ping at 12:30 a.m.

The tow line, the press release said, has been examined by a metallurgist from the National Transportation Safety Board. The release said the line will "remain in ... custody for the duration of the investigation and the board's findings will be included as evidence in the case."

But Petty Officer and spokeswoman Connie Terrell said yesterday that no inference of involvement in the accident should be made from the statement. Sam Giberga, chief counsel for Louisiana-based Hornbeck Offshore Services, which owns the tug Gulf Service, the vessel of interest to the Coast Guard, reiterated the company's position that it has no reason to believe the Gulf Service was in any way involved in the sinking.

"Nothing has changed as far as we're concerned," said Giberga. "No one from the Coast Guard or the NTSB has suggested anything that would change that view."

The Coast Guard volunteered to have Cmdr. MacDonald speak to the Times and two other publications about the VMS system.

"The qualified watch commander should be able to log on and access that information," she said. "The logging on to VMS is a series of steps that should not require outside assistance. It's a routine process, VMS is an active tool" in law enforcement and search and rescue.

Although the VMS system, which records automatic locational "pings" every hour or half hour, is required and managed by the National Marine Fisheries Service as a means of tracking and policing commercial fishing boats, MacDonald said, "(Coast Guard) individuals log on routinely for enforcement and search and rescue."

The inability of Coast Guard duty personnel in Boston to make facile use of the system until apparently after a call was made to Colorado for help in using the VMS system delayed the command for a full search and rescue operation for the Patriot which went down under still unexplained circumstances in the early-morning hours Jan. 3, a busy fishing ground.

The bodies of the two man crew — boat co-owner and Capt. Matteo Russo, 36, and his father-in-law, John Orlando, 59 — were recovered soon after the Coast Guard helicopter arrived on the scene, followed by two rescue craft sent to the location from Cape Ann.

In the month since then, neither the Coast Guard nor the families of Russo and Orlando, including Josie Russo, widow and business partner of the captain and daughter of the late mate, have indicated any progress in determining what put the Patriot down. Both the service and the families have held to the notion that the catastrophe was lightning-fast based on the absence of a mayday call from the high-tech cabin of the 11-year-old boat that the Russos acquired last spring, then modernized and repainted in October.

Josie Russo urged Station Gloucester to begin searching for the Patriot about 1:17 a.m., but the search and rescue order was not issued from Sector Boston until 3:52 a.m., according to a partial chronology released by the Coast Guard.

Russo was worried by a combination of factors — a remote radio fire alarm on the boat that was received by the alarm service on land, and an unusual inability to make cellphone contact with either her husband or father. The Gloucester Fire Department, responding to the fire alarm, confirmed that the Patriot was not in the harbor, but Coast Guard Sector Boston's response still began with a Station Gloucester car searching the harborfront for the Patriot despite the Fire Department's confirmation.

Kulisch has declined to return phone calls in recent days. In the days after the dimension of the tragedy became known, she declined to speculate on how much time was lost to the inability of the Sector Boston watch to operate the VMS system.

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