GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

May 22, 2009

Plans in the works to raise the Patriot

By Richard Gaines

The fishing vessel Patriot will be raised and examined for evidence of what caused it to sink during a winter fishing trip that took the lives of its two-man crew, the attorney for the estate of the owners said yesterday.

Joseph Abromovitz, attorney for Josie Russo — whose husband Matteo Russo, 39, and father John Orlando, 59, were killed in the Jan. 3 incident — said the Coast Guard was working with the salvage company on an engineering plan to raise the Patriot.

"Josie wants to raise the boat," said Abromovitz. "Suffice it to say she is the moving force,"

Abromovitz reiterated his belief that, even without unimpeded access to the boat, the estate — Josie Russo and her two sons, Salvatore Russo, 3, and an infant, John Matteo Russo, who was born this week — would be able to prove that a tug towing a barge brought down the Patriot.

In March, Abromovitz began the process of suing the Louisiana-based owner of the tug Gulf Service, the publicly traded Hornbeck Offshore Services.

Within days of the sinking, the Coast Guard announced that a tug and barge were believed to be the only other vessels in the vicinity of the Patriot, whose last signal via the VMS or vessel monitoring system put it about 15 miles from port in Middle Bank.

The Coast Guard interviewed the crews on the tug and barge and examined the cable, but has not made public its findings in the investigation into the cause of the sinking, nor has the service announced the results of its internal study into the delayed response to the request for search and rescue.

It was more than two hours after Josie Russo's frantic call to Coast Guard Station Gloucester before the Guard launched a full-scale search-and-rescue effort.

On March 19, in reaction to Abromovitz's notice, Hornbeck began its defense by filing a "complaint for exoneration from liability," an action in U.S. District Court in New Orleans that seeks a trial to determine that the Gulf Service and the barge cannot be tied to the sinking.

The petition asserts and asks the court to confirm that the loss of the Patriot was "caused solely and only as a result of the actions or inactions of parties over which (Hornbeck) had no control or responsibility."

"The Patriot came into contact with something," said Abromovitz. He said underwater photography has produced images indicating "the hull was not breached."

"We know there was no explosion and no fire, and it was not rammed," he added. "Everybody has assumed the vessel was swamped."

Dominic Orlando, Josie Russo's brother and the son of the late Patriot mate John Orlando, a professional salvage diver, said he dove to the wreck this week with the team from Triton Marine. It was hired by RDA Construction, the salvage company that was prepping the wreck for the raising operation.

"We went down to get it ready" for raising, Orlando said.

The plan contemplates "raising, floating and towing her in," said Abromovitz.

On Tuesday, the Coast Guard "disapproved" a salvage plan submitted by RDA, which has been retained by S & M Corp.. That's the company formed by the Russos to own and operate the Patriot, a 54-foot steel hulled trawler that was acquired in March 2008 and re-outfitted and modernized.

With his father-in-law Orlando, Capt. Russo steamed out of port in the evening of Jan. 2. The last contact was a long cell phone conversation between the co-owners around 11 p.m.

A fire alarm system on the boat activated after midnight.

Their bodies of the men were recovered in the pre-dawn hours. The last transmission was a ping from the VMS or vessel monitoring system at 12:30 a.m. on Jan. 3, which placed the Patriot about 15 miles from port, in the waters fished by nearly the entire Gloucester based fleet at that time

The decision to launch a search-and-rescue effort was delayed by about half an hour by the Coast Guard's frustration trying to access the VMS system which is owned by the National Marine Fisheries Service and used to track vessels for enforcement but is used by the Coast Guard for search and rescue.

Even after the service got the last VMS reading, another two hours elapsed before the search and rescue effort was launched.

The service has made no comment about either the investigation into the cause or the internal review of the actions in the search and rescue process since the week of the sinking.

Its letter to RDA disapproving the salvage plan dealt with technical elements.

Abromovitz said the company has made the proposed changes and was resubmitting it to the Coast Guard.

He said it was likely the litigation could take years.

Richard Gaines can be reached at rgaines@gloucestertimes.com