GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

July 10, 2009

Survival suit from Patriot recovered

Found off Wellfleet, Coast Guard investigators take possession

By Patrick Anderson

A survival suit believed to be that of Matteo Russo, whose fishing boat Patriot sank in January under still unknown circumstances, has been recovered off the Cape Cod shore by a lifeguard.

The suit, enclosed in an orange bag with no signs of being worn before entering the water, was spotted floating in the surf Monday between Lecount Hollow and Marconi beaches on the Atlantic coast of Wellfleet, about halfway up the forearm of the Cape, the Coast Guard confirmed yesterday.

After pulling it from the water between 20 and 30 feet from the beach, the lifeguard found the name Russo on the suit, according to Angela Sanfilippo, president of the Gloucester Fishermen's Wives Association.

The suit was taken to Wellfleet Police and is now in the possession of Coast Guard investigators working to determine what sank the Patriot and took the life of the 36-year-old Russo and his mate and father-in-law John Orlando, 59.

A spokeswoman for the Coast Guard yesterday would not confirm whether the suit was believed to belong to Russo, although she did acknowledge that it had been taken by investigators working on the Patriot case. Wellfleet Police were also unable to confirm whether the suit could be identified.

No other items or debris are known to have been recovered in the area near where the suit was found.

Sanfilippo announced news of the suit's recovery to those gathered in support of the fishing industry, including scores of fishermen and their families, at a Gloucester vigil Wednesday night, hours after she was contacted by the lifeguard's family about the discovery.

"Every time something happens, it relives it," Sanfilippo said by phone yesterday about the grief the Patriot's loss has caused family of the crew and fellow Gloucester fishermen.

Sanfilippo said she contacted the Coast Guard about the suit yesterday morning.

While the cause of the Patriot's sinking has yet to be determined, Coast Guard officials have said they believe the catastrophe that befell the boat shortly after 1:15 a.m. on Jan. 3 while fishing Stellwagen Bank was sudden and left the crew little or no time to react or put on survival suits.

The discovery of the suit still packed in its bag appears consistent with that assessment.

"They didn't have time for anything," Sanfilippo said.

Emergency survival suits are generally sealed, water-tight "dry suits" designed to be put on quickly over clothes in the event of a possible immersion in cold water. They provide insulation from cold water; some also provide flotation and are designed be put on in less than one minute.

The survival suit recovery comes as the Coast Guard enters the seventh month of its investigation into the cause of the Patriot's sinking.

Last month, the Coast Guard released a report acknowledging it was slow to react to the first signs that the vessel was in trouble, a fire alarm radio signal that sounded nearly 2 1รขÑ2 hours before the first rescue craft was deployed.

But the report also says that the sinking probably occurred so quickly that a faster response would not have been able to save the crew, plunged into 42-degree water without time to don survival suits.

Although the Coast Guard has not ruled on the cause of the sinking, Russo's family has begun a civil legal action against Hornbeck Offshore Services, the Louisana-based owners of a tugboat they believe brought down the Patriot while towing a barge.

Patrick Anderson can be reached at panderson@gloucestertimes.com