GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

May 15, 2009

Coast Guard leader leaving with no word on Patriot probes

By Richard Gaines

For all stories related to the sinking of the Patriot fishing vessel, visit gloucestertimes.com/patriot

Less than a week after a Gloucester trawler was mysteriously lost at sea with its two-man crew, the commander of Coast Guard Sector Boston promised that an investigation into the delayed response would be swift, its findings public.

From the podium of the City Hall auditorium, Capt. Gail Kulisch said it was possible the internal investigation or "case study" could be completed within "three weeks."

The date was Jan. 9, six days after the Patriot went down about 15 miles from port.

Five days later, in a letter to the Times, the district commander, Kulisch's superior, underscored the imminence of the report. "I will be able to review the details of the response soon," Rear Adm. Dale Gabel wrote to the community.

That was four months ago.

Kulisch departs Sector Boston today for a new assignment in Virginia. And neither she nor Gabel have reported again.

Indeed, the Coast Guard has offered no further insight into the cause of the sinking — which is the subject unfolding litigation involving a Louisiana-based ocean tug company — or the Coast Guard's own performance in evaluating the flow of information in the overnight hours of Jan. 3.

There were signs and signals, none unequivocal but together imprecisely pointing to a vessel in distress not far from reach. There were the many steps in the assessment process — uncertainty, alert and distress — that finally led to an all-out effort to search for and rescue Matteo Russo, 36, the captain of the Patriot, and John Orlando, 59, his mate and father-in-law.

An official chronology of the response — known as a "case report," which was obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by Peter A. Stinson, a civilian employee of the Coast Guard living in Virginia, and posted on Scribd.com, a document sharing Web site — adds some clarity.

Significantly, for example, the report indicates that it took the Coast Guard roughly 50 minutes from first effort to obtain a VMS, or vessel monitoring system, to pinpoint the Patriot's last known location.

In her Jan. 9 visit to Gloucester, Kulisch told Josie Russo, who co-owned the boat with her husband Matteo, and other Russo and Orlando family members and the Times that the search and rescue response was delayed by difficulties in gaining functional access to the VMS system.

That difficulty had ironic and troubling implications.

VMS, which is required on all fishing boats with groundfish permits, is primarily a law enforcement tool. Boats are tracked by the periodic radio signals that are relayed by satellite into a computer base maintained at the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The Coast Guard has open access to the system and uses it to find and board boats suspected of illegal fishing activities; yet the Coast Guard was unable, without delay and difficulties, to use VMS to locate the Patriot when the assignment wasn't policing but search and rescue after Josie Russo notified the Coast Guard that a fire alarm on the Patriot had been sounding.

Russo's call was recorded at 1:35 a.m.

Fifteen minutes later, Station Gloucester called Sector Boston to request a VMS "picture" that might provide a recent location. The VMS system on the Patriot was programmed to "ping" every hour on the half hour.

It took until 2:38 a.m. until the VMS system produced the report.

But at 2:38 a.m., the Coast Guard had a reasonable fix on the Patriot, at least where it had been at 12:30 a.m., which was the final report. By then, the service also knew that there was had been no 1:30 or 2:30 report.

The VMS system finally surrendered the information that the Patriot's last recorded position was on China Beach, a sandy section of Middle Bank — where all the boats had been fishing in recent days.

A greater duration of time than the 50 minutes or so required to operate VMS was the period between the gaining of that information and the launch of the search and rescue effort.

At 3:45 a.m., nearly an hour after the VMS signal gave the Coast Guard a fix on the location of the boat at 12:30 a.m., entries to the chronology — which were made at computer stations at Station Gloucester, Sector Boston and District Boston computer stations — indictated indecisions about launching search and rescue continued.

Because of its proximity to the spot of the VMS reading, the Coast Guard cutter Flying Fish, moored in Gloucester at the time, was considered a candidate for immediate launch.

But five minutes later, at 3:50 a.m., the fire alarm company was consulted about the capabilities of the system and district command center in Boston "discussed risk assessment," which was determined to be "low."

At 4 a.m. came an entry that reported multiple briefings and the outcome: "Recommended launching assets based on combination of fire alarm and VMS not updating for F/V Patriot even though VMS appears to be updating for other vessels every 15-20 minutes."

Cmdr. Nathan Knapp, the regional search and rescue officer at Sector Boston "requests Station Gloucester get underway with Flying Fish and aircraft (from Cape Cod)."

In 17 minutes, at 4:17 a.m. the Flying Fish got underway toward the spot defined by the last VMS ping. At 4:42 a.m. the helicopter from Cape Cod took off, and at 4:45, Sector Boston reports recommending "launch to get as many assets on scene as possible."

The copter took 23 minutes to get to the scene. It arrived at 5:05, six minutes ahead of the Flying Fish that had been steaming from Gloucester for 44 minutes.

At 5:27 a.m. came the saddest of news from the site: "No signs of life."

The Coast Guard reiterated yesterday that it had no information to report about the case study or investigation into the cause of the sinking.

State Sen. Bruce Tarr and state Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferante said in a statement yesterday that they "fully expect a complete report on the incident ... regardless of any changes in the chain of command in the United States Coast Guard."

"Important issues need to be answered in the name of those who lost loved ones and those who still venture to sea everyday from the Port of Gloucester," their statement red. "We will continue to communicate with the United States Coast Guard to ensure that the report is made available to the public in a timely and responsible manner."

Kulisch did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Richard Gaines can be reached at rgaines@gloucestertimes.com