GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

January 21, 2009

Families push for underwater Patriot photos

By Richard Gaines

Elected officials and a lawyer for the estate of one of two Gloucester fishermen who died in the unexplained, rapid sinking of the Patriot early this month pressed the Coast Guard yesterday for a definitive, "subsurface" examination of the wreck.

Coast Guard Sector Boston, which is conducting two related probes — the first into what caused the sinking early Jan. 3, the second an internal case study of the delayed Coast Guard response to the emergency — has thus far obtained sonar but no photographic images of the 54-foot fishing boat in its resting place, on the sandy bottom about 100 feet down and 15 miles southeast of Gloucester.

Petty Officer Lauren Jorgensen said yesterday Sector Boston was "still considering" photographing the wreck. But she said decision to do so required multiple approvals in Washington and could not be authorized by Sector Boston.

"It would have to go through proper channels," said the public affairs officer. "It would have to go to headquarters in Washington."

The "sonar picture is worthless," said attorney Stephen Ouellette on behalf of the estate of John Orlando, 59, who died with his son-in-law, co-owner and Capt. Matteo Russo, 36, when the steel-hulled boat vanished so quickly no Mayday was called.

Josie Russo, the co-owner of the Patriot, and her late husband's estate are represented by Boston attorney Joseph Abromovitz, who could not be reached for comment yesterday. No lawsuits have been filed. For now, the related interests of the families that are linked by marriage through Josie Orlando Russo are considered "parties of interest" in the twin investigations into the strange misfortune that took the Patriot and its crew.

Jorgensen said the sonar was used only to establish the precise location of the wreck, not provide forensic evidence that might help investigators figure out what happened.

The Coast Guard has interviewed the crew of a tug that was hauling a barge on a 2,000-foot cable that was in the vicinity of the Patriot at about the time of it ceased giving off radio tracking data. The Coast Guard has also confiscated and is examining the 2 1/2-inch thick cable.

Jorgensen said, however, the Coast Guard has not decided what, if any, role the tug-and-barge package may have played in the sinking of the Patriot.

"We just don't know," she said in a telephone interview.

Based on reports from the Coast Guard, Ouellette said, "there is no direct evidence of interaction between the tug, cable or barge."

"There's nothing more than relative positional data," he added.

The risk to fishing boats of tug-cable-barge trains is well known in the fishing port — no more so than on board the Patriot. Twelve years ago, the Heather Lynne II was run down due east of Thacher Island by a similar ocean-train, and the boat flipped over on top of the crew of three man, who died slowly in a gruesome scene. The tragedy — replete with a failed lawsuit against the Coast Guard — was memorialized in the book "Dead Men Tapping."

The Heather Lynne II was salvaged and purchased by Matteo Russo, who renamed it the Damariscotta. Russo told Kate Yoemans, author of "Dead Men Tapping," that he wasn't superstitious, and he had fished the Damariscotta before selling it last spring.

That's also when he and his wife Josie, bought, modernized and refitted a different, larger 11-year-old boat — one that had been called the Danielle Marie, but that the Russos renamed the Patriot. Up to and including its fire alarm system, the Patriot was considered a model of the modern trawler, and Russo a model of the modern fisherman.

The National Transportation Safety Board has assigned a "metallurgist" to inspect the cable for signs of damage or traces of the Patriot, according to Sector Boston announcement last Friday. But that inspection had not been done by yesterday, Jorgensen said.

At a Gloucester news conference Jan. 9, Capt. Gail Kulisch, commander of Sector Boston, a subdivision of District Boston, said the tug-cable-barge was believed to be in the vicinity of the Patriot which last emitted a positioning radio signal at 12:30 a.m. on Jan. 3 while Russo and Orlando were fishing southeast of port.

About that time, a radio transmitted fire alarm signaled, and telephone chatter between the husband-and-wife co-owners of the boat ceased. Josie Russo has said she knew something was wrong when she also found she could not reach her father's cell phone.

The Russo household communicated this set of circumstances to Coast Guard Station Gloucester, a subdivision of Sector Boston, which did not authorize a search and rescue operation for nearly two and a half hours.

Kulisch and subordinates have told the Times the call for emergency response was delayed while duty personnel struggled to access the VMS or vessel monitoring system computer at the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is used by both agencies to track fishing boats for law enforcement purposes.

Kulisch declined to speculate on how much time was lost trying to access the VMS system.

In a letter to the Times last Wednesday, Kulisch's superior, Rear Adm. Dale Gabel of the First District, said that, while the case study investigation was incomplete, he was nonetheless "100 percent confident" Station Gloucester and Sector Boston search and rescue crews were "not held hostage to a mindless bureaucratic process," but he also promised to "acknowledge needs for improvement if our response could have been better."

The formal request for an underwater investigation of the Patriot was made to Adm. Gabel on Jan. 9. Sen. Bruce Tarr, state Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante and Mayor Carolyn Kirk wrote that "extraordinary" steps were required because of the "haunting questions" about how "a sound vessel with an experienced crew could so suddenly be lost" in the relatively calm seas and mild weather of Jan. 2-3.

Gabel wrote back last Friday that "we are considering the use of all potential resources in our investigation, to include the need for underwater examination of the Patriot." Kulisch and Gabel did not return phone calls yesterday; inquiries were referred to the public information office.

Ferrante, who is counsel for the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition and a staunch advocate for the fishing industry, said yesterday she believed the Coast Guard "was moving" in the direction of approving underwater photography for the Patriot.

"The best thing to do is drop a camera down," Ouellette said. "Billy Lee of Rockport has offered to put his camera down."

Lee, who does underwater photography from the Ocean Reporter, was barred from shooting the wreck after the Coast Guard declared it a possible crime scene and secured the area.

Ouellette said the "state police have indicated they will not send a dive team down."

Lee said he was prepared to go and film the Patriot.

"It's as simple as your taking your Instamatic down to take a picture of Motif No. 1," he explained. "I have extremely robust equipment, designed to film commercial fishing gear on the bottom."

Richard Gaines can be reached at rgaines@gloucestertimes.com.SClBSClBSClBSClBSClBSClBSClB