GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

July 17, 2009

NOAA urging 250K boaters to check emergency beacons

From Staff and Wire Reports

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — Citing delays in identifying a scallop boat as it sank in the Atlantic Ocean in March, the federal government is contacting nearly a quarter of a million boaters, urging them to make sure their emergency position locators are correctly registered in a rescue database.

The Coast Guard says an incorrectly recorded beacon number from the Lady Mary delayed notification of rescue personnel as the boat foundered off Cape May. Six of the seven crew members died.

As a result, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is mailing and e-mailing all registered owners of the emergency beacons across the country.

"I'm glad to see they are doing this; hopefully it will prevent a similar delay in search and rescue operations in the future," said Stevenson Weeks, the lawyer for the Lady Mary's owner.

The cause of the sinking is still being investigated. Weeks said a collision with another vessel in the early-morning darkness is the leading theory.

The accident in many ways parallels the Jan. 3 sinking of the Gloucester-based fishing vessel Patriot, which claimed the lives of Capt. Matteo Russo and his father-in-law, John Orlando.

In the Lady Mary's case, only one of the seven fisherman on board survived; he had jumped overboard and clung to a piece of wood in the ocean for hours, until being rescued by a Coast Guard helicopter.

The Coast Guard this week issued a marine safety alert urging boat owners to make sure their ship-mounted emergency position indicating radio beacons, commonly known as EPIRBs, and portable personal locator beacons are correctly registered with NOAA.

The EPIRB from the Lady Mary was wrongly recorded with the agency, off by one digit.

Thus, when the scallop boat ran into trouble March 24, there was a delay of nearly an hour and a half in locating it.

According to testimony in the ongoing Coast Guard inquiry into the sinking, when the first satellite signal was detected, there was no positional information to pass along to search and rescue teams. And because the radio beacon's registration had been wrongly entered into the database, there was no emergency contact information, either.

That information — the ship's name and a phone number for its owner or other crew members onshore who might have known where the boat had been fishing — could have aided rescuers who would have known where to start looking.

The emergency signal was received at 5:40 a.m., but it wasn't until a lower-orbiting satellite picked up a signal at 7:07 a.m. that rescuers could zero in on its position.

In the case of the Patriot, Coast Guard officials delayed their response, in part because responders were unable to gain access to the National Marine Fisheries Service's Vessel Monitoring System. The Patriot's EPIRB did not send a reported emergency signal before it went under; the Coast Guard's search-and-rescue team picked up an EPIRB signal only as it approached the wreck scene — but full search-and-rescue efforts were not launched until more than 21รขÑ2 hours after the boat apparently went down.

The Coast Guard has since released a report outlining a number of admitted problems with its response, citing widespread "systematic failure" by duty personnel that night. But the cause of the Patriot's sinking, like that of the Lady Mary, remains under investigation.

The hearing into the Lady Mary sinking, which was adjourned in May after several days, will resume in September or October, Weeks said. The delay is designed to give Navy divers time to retrieve damaged items from the sunken boat, including its propeller, which will then be examined by metallurgists to determine if the damage came from a collision with another ship.

"There's a lot of evidence pointing in that direction," Weeks said.

Boaters seeking to reach the Coast Guard's EPIRB database can access it at www.beaconregistration.noaa.gov.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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