By Richard Gaines
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.
In announcing the latest investigative developments, Kulisch was holding her second news conference in two nights, but her first in Gloucester, where the grieving families and local fishermen had raised doubts about the efficacy of the Coast Guard's response to the many early signs that ill had overtaken the Patriot.
"The tug, the barge, the cable and the crew are all part of the investigation," said Kulisch, who was flanked by the elected political leadership of the city and Angela Sanfilippo, president of the Gloucester Fishermen's Wives Association.
Kulisch described the crew of the tug, which she said was now in Maryland, as "highly cooperative." She said the tug was "in the vicinity at the time" of the sinking.
At a first news conference Thursday night in Boston — just hours after the funerals for Russo and Orlando, the husband and father of Josephine Russo — Kulisch revealed that "another vessel in the area at the time of the sinking" had become the focus of Coast Guard investigation into the cause of the Patriot's demise.
Kulisch, along with Coast Guard Cmdr. Nathan Knapp, who headed the search-and-rescue effort for the Patriot and its crew, met earlier in the day with the families of the dead fishermen, and also met with Mayor Carolyn Kirk, state Sen. Bruce Tarr and state Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante, and City Councilor Sefatia Romeo.
At the start of the news conference, held in the City Hall auditorium, Kirk released a statement announcing the talk was about collaborating in the investigation and deciding what lessons "can be learned from this tragedy."
Kirk said everyone should be "reassured that local and Coast Guard officials will learn from the tragedy in order to advance fishing and vessel safety in the future."
Kulisch deflected questions about the meaning of Kirk's comment, but Tarr suggested better use of the VMS or vessel monitoring system which the Patriot was required to carry. These systems provide constant tracking via radio signals into computers and are used primarily for law enforcement. They were made mandatory in 2006 for boats fishing under the federal fishing regulation Framework 42, which was based on days at sea and the opening and closing of fishing sectors.
As reported first in Thursday's Times, the Coast Guard command in Boston hesitated to order a search-and-rescue operation to find the Patriot until Boston station personnel double-checked the conclusion of the Gloucester Fire Department that the Patriot was not in port and that the boat and its crew could not be found. More than two hours elapsed between the first signs of trouble and the beginning of a full search and rescue operation.
The VMS system was not used to find the boat until more than an hour after Josie Russo urged Coast Guard Station Gloucester to launch a search for her family's boat. Her worries were sparked by a remote fire alarm report and silence from her husband, who typically maintained frequent cellphone communications with his pregnant wife.
Tarr said the VMS technology has been used primarily for law enforcement, tracking the whereabouts of fishing boats, but is not used as actively in life-saving situations.
"They should be co-equal," said Tarr.
Fishing Capt. Joe Orlando — who is not related to John Orlando, the mate on the Patriot — helmed one of four boats that went out on their own at 4 a.m. to look for the Patriot. He complained that the Coast Guard wasn't there yet, but was calling for help.
While she expressed thanks for the efforts of Orlando and other fishermen who were searching for the Patriot, Kulisch declined to engage in any substantive review of command decisions in the hours before and after the rescue effort was ordered, except to say "we want to make it better and better and better each time."
Romeo and Gloucester Fishermen's Wives Association President Angela Sanfilippo also announced the founding of a scholarship fund to benefit the nearly 3-year-old son and unborn child of Matteo and Josephine Russo. The fund will be administered through BankGoucester. Anyone wishing to contribute may send a check to The Children of Matt Russo Fund, c/o of BankGloucester, 160 Main St., Gloucester, MA 01930, Attention Amy E. Mitchell.
Richard Gaines can be reached at email@example.com