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January 9, 2009

TUG focus of Patriot Probe

Coast Guard confiscates cable connected to barge for study in sinking

Coast Guard officials said last night that a tug towing a barge has become the focus of the investigation into the sinking a week ago this morning of the recently outfitted, steel-hulled commercial fishing boat Patriot that went to the bottom killing both crew members.

Coast Guard Capt. Gail Kulisch, commander of Sector Boston, declined to identify the tug or provide any details about its role in the investigation into the mysterious incident that occurred in relatively calm seas about 15 miles from the Gloucester home port of the Patriot and its crew, Capt. Matteo Russo, 36, and his father-in-law, John Orlando, 59.

Kulisch said the 2,000-foot-long, 21�Ñ2-inch thick steel cable the tug was using to the barge has been taken into "evidence," using her investigative "subpoena power." She said the cable would be studied inch by inch for signs of whether it rubbed on the black-hulled Patriot.

Ocean-towing tugs connected to giant barges by thick cables that can be more than a quarter-mile long pose lethal risk to small boats such as the 54-foot Patriot — or the Heather Lynn II. A slightly smaller fishing boat, the Heather Lynne II was run down by a towed barge about 10 miles east of Thacher Island in 1996. The three crew members were trapped inside their overturned fishing boat, and died slowly in an incident memorialized in the book "Dead Men Tapping."

Last Saturday, the Coast Guard found the bodies of Russo and Orlando in a debris field about 15 miles southeast of Gloucester, and about a mile from a liquefied natural gas terminal constructed last year. Both men were considered first-rate seamen and fishermen; the boat Russo and his wife Josie co-owned was considered a model for the modern trawler.

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