GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

April 13, 2009

Patriot crew's family to sue tug owner

By Richard Gaines

The owners of the ocean-going tug Gulf Service will face a suit for causing the deaths of Capt. Matteo Russo and his father-in-law John Orlando aboard the fishing vessel Patriot, which sank under mysterious circumstances in early January.

Joseph Abromowitz, attorney for the estate of the late Capt. Matteo Russo, 36, and his pregnant widow Josie, said yesterday he has begun the process of suing Louisiana-based Hornbeck Offshore Services, a publicly traded leader in the tank-barge industry that specializes in moving petroleum between ports.

The 126-foot-long Gulf Service was built in 1979 and is rated for 3,900 horsepower, according to the 2007 annual report for the $1 billion company.

"I have notified them of a claim being made and it will be prosecuted," Abromowitz told the Times in a telephone interview yesterday.

Josie Russo declined comment, referring questions to Arbomowitz. Pregnant with the couple's second child, Josie Russo also lost her father John Orlando, 59, who had been the mate, when the Patriot sank.

Sam Giberga, chief counsel for Hornbeck, could not be reached yesterday.

In earlier interviews, Giberga has acknowledged that the Gulf Service, a 130-foot behemoth, was the vessel the Coast Guard had investigated for a possible role in the tragedy, said the company and the crew had cooperated, and that there was no reason to believe the tug had been involved.

The Coast Guard investigation into the sinking remains incomplete, according to its public information officials. A second investigation into the search-and-rescue operation, which was delayed for more than two hours from the first signal of trouble, was also said to be ongoing.

Less than a week after the Patriot — a steel-hulled boat that had been recently reconditioned and outfitted with optional communications technology — was lost about 15 miles from port on Middle Bank in the early morning hours of Jan. 3, the Coast Guard announced that an unidentified tug towing a barge had been in the vicinity and was a vessel of interest.

Capt. Gail Kulisch, commander of Sector Boston, announced that the tow cable of the tug-barge train was being confiscated and examined for signs of a collision with the Patriot.

The Coast Guard's delay of nearly a week before creating a "no-go" zone around the wreck on the sandy bottom allowed a second fishing boat to trawl by and lose its rigging to the wreck, which complicated underwater forensics.

Abromowitz said the case was "circumstantial" that the Gulf Service brought down the Patriot, but he noted "underwater video from the Coast Guard" left "clear indications of contact with the tow line from the barge."

He also said the forensic examination of the cable, described by the Coast Guard as about 2 inches thick, and about 1,800 feet long, did not show signs of collision with the Patriot.

"The cable disclosed nothing," said Abromowitz, but he said that did not surprise him since "it was dragged through the water for 400 miles."

The tug-tow made port in Baltimore after passing through Massachusetts Bay, and it was there that the Coast Guard took possession of the cable for forensic study by an expert from the National Transportation Safety Board.

In the days after the announcement of the interest in the tug, the Times contacted Hornbeck and reported Giberga's contention that his company's vessels, the Gulf Service and the barge, were not involved.

"There is no indication that the Hornbeck vessel was in the vicinity of the Patriot when it sank," Giberga said in an interview. "We have cooperated fully and extensively with the Coast Guard ... (but) we do not believe we should be part of any future investigation."

Abromowitz said he believes that the barge, capable of carrying up to 115,000 barrels of fuel, was "virtually empty" on the overnight passage through Stellwagen Bank (which includes Middle Bank), so "her height above the water line was substantial. The (Patriot) had its working lights on, (so) one should have been able to see it a couple of miles away.

"There was no indication they saw the Patriot," he said.

"Shortly before the time we believe there was contact, roughly 12 (midnight on Jan. 3) or 12:30, we theorize that the Patriot, before anything happened, saw the tug and never saw the barge, and came in contact with the cable and turned the vessel, spun it around and tipped it so that it began taking on water," Abromowitz said.

Stephen Ouellette, attorney for the family of John Orlando, said, "The evidence indicates that the Patriot came in contact with another vessel resulting in her sinking. The tug and barge were the only other vessels in the area that we are aware of which could account for this loss.

"Patriot's presumed course and speed on her return to Gloucester following completion of her fishing activity have her crossing the path of the tug and barge in close proximity," Ouellette said in an e-mail.

Matteo Russo and Orlando left the 53-foot dragger at that point, the attorney for the Russo family said, adding that when "the boat took on enough water and began to sink, that shorted the alarm."

The "alarm" reference is to the boat's unusual remote fire alarm system, which brought the first indication back of trouble on the Patriot. At 1:17 a.m. Jan. 3, according to a Fire Department incident report, the alarm activation was under investigation.

A crew led by Capt. Gaetano LoGrande, a former commercial fisherman, was dispatched to Jodrey State Fish Pier to look for the Patriot before concluding that "vessel was not found at dock, contact person states at sea."

Josie Russo called the Gloucester Coast Guard station to urge a search-and-rescue effort, explaining that both her husband and her father's cell phones had gone dead around the time the fire alarm notified the land-based service operator, who had notified Russo.

According to the official case report, at 1:50 a.m., Station Gloucester called Sector Boston requesting that it use its VMS or vessel monitoring system, to locate the Patriot.

VMS is mandatory computer technology on groundfishing boats; it provides periodic (hourly in the case of Patriot) "pings" into a database maintained by the National Marine Fisheries Service and used by NMFS and the Coast Guard for monitoring and enforcing fishing regulations.

But Sector Boston was unable to immediately get onto the VMS system, and when the system was finally entered about 40 minutes later, the last "ping" had been recorded at 12:30 a.m.

It was not until 4 a.m. or after that the search-and-rescue operation was launched.

The bodies were found soon thereafter.

Abromowitz said Hornbeck has filed a motion for exoneration with the federal district court in New Orleans. He said he would seek a change of venue to bring the case back to Boston. "The case should be tried in the place with the most interest and the most witnesses."

On its Web site, 12-year-old Hornbeck, based in Covington, La., describes itself as a "leading provider of technologically advanced, new generation (offshore vehicles) serving the offshore oil and gas industry, primarily in the Gulf of Mexico and in select international markets. The focus of our OSV business is on complex exploration and production activities, which include deepwater, deep well and other logistically demanding projects.

"We are also a leading transporter of petroleum products through our tug and tank barge segment serving the energy industry, primarily in the northeastern United States and Puerto Rico."

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