GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

June 11, 2009

Coast Guard: Response was slow

Report finds delays in search for Patriot, crew

By Richard Gaines

The Coast Guard yesterday announced that its response to the sinking of the fishing vessel Patriot, which went down under still uncertain circumstances in January with its crew of two, was slow and flawed.

"Our review of this case showed that we were slow to launch search and rescue assets because of poor collection and analysis of information and decision-making regarding the Patriot's status," said Vice Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr.

According to his report, the search and rescue effort was not launched until 2 hours and 23 minutes after the first notice of distress on the Patriot, which had gone fishing after dark on Jan. 2 to Middle Bank, about 15 miles from Gloucester Harbor.

A small portion of that period was lost in efforts to operate the VMS or vessel monitoring system, which emits period "pings" into a computer to provide tracking data.

Josie Russo, who lost her husband Matteo Russo, 36, and father John Orlando, 58, reported to the Coast Guard at 1:35 a.m. that a fire alarm signal from the Patriot, a newly re-outfitted 54-foot, steel-hulled trawler, had been received at the alarm company.

Search and rescue assets were not launched until 3:58 a.m. on Jan. 3.

A separate investigation into the sinking continues, Papp said.

Joseph Abromovitz, attorney for Josie Russo and her two children, has begun the process of suing a Louisiana company which owns an ocean-going tug that was towing a barge in the vicinity of the Patriot during its final hour.

Neither victim was wearing any survival gear, and no distress calls — maydays calls or signals from the boat's EPIRB or Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon — were received before the Patriot sank in about 100 feet of water.

Commander of the Coast Guard's Atlantic Area based in Portsmouth, Va., Papp also implied that the case study into the response undertaken by the First District in Boston was slow and flawed by the potential conflict of interest of self investigation.

The case study or internal review of the response began in District Boston within days of the incident.

In April, said Papp in a release last night from Portsmouth, he was becoming "anxious to know what issues had been found" in the case study. On reading the draft, he said he found that the First District Command Center had been more deeply involved in the case than originally thought, he decided to convene an administrative investigation.

"Assigning an independent, third party investigator to maximize the amount of information available and ensure that there was an independent level of review, gave us a broader look at all aspects of our response."

The administrative investigation was conducted by Capt. Patrick Brennan, chief of response for the 8th District in New Orleans and incorporated the work of the case study that had been done by District Boston, Papp said.

A Coast Guard delegation came to Gloucester to brief Josie Russo and her family about the finding. Russo declined comment. The team also briefed elected officials and representatives of the fishing community.

The deaths of Russo and Orlando, considered accomplished fishermen, were engulfed in twin mysteries from the first sign of trouble on the Patriot — the on-board fire alarm radio signal which alerted the alarm company about 1:17 a.m. on Jan. 3.

The first involves the cause of the sinking, the second the delayed response.

The delay in responding — more than two hours after the last VMS, or vessel monitoring system, signal gave the Coast Guard coordinates for the Patriot at 1:30 a.m. — was unexplained until yesterday's release of the after action report.

Since underwater photographic surveys of the wreck showed no sign of fire on board, what triggered the alarm became one of the many unknowns that left uncertainty nearly everywhere.

Five days after the bodies were recovered — without the survival suits that were on the boat, suggesting a lightening quick catastrophe — Capt. Gail Kulisch, commander of Sector Boston announced at a news conference that an ocean-going tug hauling a barge had been in the vicinity of the Patriot around the time of the sinking.

Kulisch was rotated out of Boston to Virginia last month.

But because the time of the sinking and the Patriots' precise whereabouts in its final minutes were both unknown, the suggestion of the involvement somehow of the quarter mile long tug-cable-barge train was theory.

It remained such after a forensic examination of the cable taken from the tug when it arrived in the port of Baltimore gave no evidence that it had scraped along the steel hull or superstructure of the Patriot.

Joseph Abromovitz, attorney for Josie Russo and the estate of Matteo Russo, who has signaled the intent to sue Hornbeck Offshore Services, the Louisiana-based owner the tug Gulf Service, has said it was no surprise that there was no paint from the Patriot on the tug after hundreds of miles at sea between Middle Bank and Baltimore.

Hornbeck has asserted that the Gulf Service was not involved in the sinking.

The Patriot was the only boat fishing on Friday and Saturday at the start of the new year.

Matteo and Josie Russo were co-owners of the boat. In late May, Josie Russo gave birth to John Matteo Russo, named for her late husband and father.

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