The Coast Guard's regional search and rescue chief said yesterday there was no sign of fire involved in the unexplained sinking early Saturday of a working, apparently shipshape commercial fishing boat whose crew of two were found dead in the water.
The first and only known warning that something was amiss with the 54-foot Patriot — an 11-year-old, steel-hulled trawler fishing on Middle Bank — was a remote fire alarm notice to the captain's wife and the boat's co-owner, Josephine Russo, who was at home in Gloucester, Coast Guard Cmdr. Nathan Knapp said yesterday. Knapp also said burns were not found on the bodies of her husband, Matteo Russo, 36, and her father John Orlando, 58, nor on any of the debris that was picked up.
"It's a mystery, it doesn't make sense," said Angela Sanfilippo, president of the Gloucester Fishermen's Wives Association.
A noted commercial diver has agreed to examine the wreck for the family.
Neither fisherman apparently had time to don the survival suits carried by the Patriot, a boat the Russos acquired early last year and modernized into a model craft that was recently featured in a photo spread by lobster dealer Joey Ciaramitaro on his blog, GoodMorningGloucester.
As the large family yesterday gathered around the widow, Josephine Russo, who is pregnant, and her nearly 3-year-old son, Salvatore, to grieve and wonder about what happened, Nathan said the Coast Guard together with the Massachusetts State Police would resume their investigation into the cause of the incident.
He said the Coast Guard would interview people with direct knowledge of the Patriot, its gear and the technology that the owners had installed while outfitting it a year ago.
He said foul play was not suspected, noting that the state police's involvement is triggered by an unexplained death or deaths.
But he also said the Coast Guard did not plan to dive to the wreck, which was located during the search for survivors before dawn Saturday in between 90 and 100 feet of water on a sandy bank known as Middle Bank inside the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.
State Rep.-elect Ann-Margaret Ferrante, a school mate and close friend of Matteo Russo, said Bill Lee of Rockport, a veteran commercial diver, has agreed to dive and photograph the Patriot.
"Fishermen wonder about a collision," she said, noting that the boat was dragging for groundfish along a section known as China Beach because of its smooth bottom. "So, it's not likely the net could have gotten caught on the bottom." Such snags can flip a boat as the net holds the back the stern and the bow rises until it goes over.
City Councilor Sefatia Romeo, who is vice president of the Gloucester Fishermen's Wives Association, fielded and deflected calls to the family.
"The family can't answer anyone's questions; they have no answers," Romeo told the Times in a telephone interview yesterday. "The family is living day-to-day, in shock, in disbelief. The family needs some time."
For the fishing families of Gloucester — many of them, like the Russo-Orlando family, emigrees from Sicily — the sudden losses of last weekend stoke fears and worries that lurk in the back of the mind, noted Angela Sanfilippo.
"For those of us who are involved — a son, an uncle, a husband, a father — we are always conscious of 'it' when the phone rings," said Sanfilippo, who not only is president of the Fishermen's Wives but is also the wife of a retired commercial fisherman. "We're always scared to pick it up."
She recalled the Gloucester fishing community's other recent losses at sea — of two Gloucester fishermen in a collision caused by a Russian freighter in 2001, and the six-man crew of the Andrea Gail in 1991.
The Starbound was struck about 130 miles east of Gloucester and the search, which proved futile, carried on as the Fishermen's Wives' memorial, a bronze statue of a young woman, with tot in tow and infant held close, was dedicated. Hopeful, fearful, stoical, she looks out past the Dog Bar breakwater, roughly toward the place where the Patriot went down 15 miles off Gloucester Harbor.
Sanfilippo said the recovery of the bodies of Matteo Russo and his father-in-law Orlando was enormously important; the victims aboard the Starbound and the Andrea Gail were never recovered.
"Call it a miracle," she said. "It puts a closure to all this, and allows a proper burial in our (Roman Catholic) faith, so that they can be at peace, we can go and visit, and that they are here among the others, and not in the ocean where the fish could eat them or they could be mutilated."
Sanfilippo said the regulatory constrictions placed on the fishing industry, reducing the catchable volume and days allowed, reinforces the tendency of families to own and work boats together as the Russo-Orlando family has done.
Matteo and Josephine Russo both came from Sicilian fishing families.
Matteo and his future father-in-law worked on boats owned by Matteo Russo's father. Matteo progressed rapidly up the family business pecking order, and was considered one of the up-and-coming leaders of a local fleet-industry that has had adapt to uncertain mandates by federal fishing regulators.
"Matt was one of the few young fishermen," said Larry Ciulla, whose family owns and operates the Gloucester Seafood Display Auction.
"Matt was the future of the industry," said Peter Prybot, a Times columnist, author and lobsterman who wrote a column last May about the Patriot and the Russo-Orlando fishing family.
Cmdr. Knapp said the first hint of trouble was received at 1:35 a.m. Saturday.
In response, he said, personnel from Station Gloucester surveyed the port first looking for the Patriot. A second call from Josephine Russo came at 2:45 a.m.
"By then," he said, "we knew the Patriot was not in port. We tried to reconstruct its latest position," did finally and sent out "assets" about 4 a.m. — a helicopter, an 87-foot coastal patrol boat from Station Boston, and the 47-foot motor life boat from Station Gloucester.
They found the debris field and the bodies where the "datum" spot predicted.
There was no transmission from the Patriot on Channel 16 VHF FM radio, the international hailing and distress band, used for maydays, the commander said.
Richard Gaines can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org