Lack of training, unsafe conditions and some bad decisions led to the death of six men in 2009, when their fishing vessel sank off the coast of Cape May, a U.S. Coast Guard report released Friday shows.
The Lady Mary’s crew likely could have survived if they had been properly trained, the investigation found. But it’s possible the entire crew was asleep when the Cape May-based vessel began taking on water early March 24, 2009.
No one sounded the general alarm, no one launched a flare and there was no digital selective calling alert made, the report says. While the life raft was manually launched, no one was inside when the Coast Guard’s rescue helicopter arrived.
Capt. Royal “Bobo” Smith Jr. and his brother Timothy “Timbo” Smith, both of Middle Township; their uncle Tarzon “Bernie” Smith, of Wildwood; Frank Reyes, of Middle Township; Jorge Ramos, of Lower Township; and Frank Credle, who was living on the boat, all were killed.
Only deckhand Jose Luis Arias, of Wildwood, survived, after rushing to put on his survival suit when he was awoken about 5 that morning. He also was the only one to have his suit on properly.
Capt. Smith was responsible for conducting safety orientation for new deckhands, along with monthly drills to make sure the knew what actions to take in an emergency, but those drills were rarely done, the investigation found. One, on July 21, 2008, only had one deckhand present.
Topics should have included donning survival suits, launching life rafts, making radio distress calls and activating the general alarm. None of that was properly done the morning the vessel sank, the report found.
Arias also told investigators the captain and a man referred to in the report only as “Deckhand 1” “fought all the time.”
This led the investigation to determine Capt. Smith, who was less experienced than some of his crew, was not a receptive trainee, was not accepting of advice or criticism, and “had difficulty controlling his temper,” the report states. These factors were viewed as impeding Smith’s ability to learn on the job or accept assistance from more experienced crew members.
Modifications made to the vessel over the years also lowered the freeboard — the distance from the waterline to the upper deck — by four inches, which would have required a more skillful crew, the report says.
Owner Royal “Fuzzy” Smith Sr. — who lost his brother and two of his sons — previously said the Lady Mary’s dredge was on the ocean floor when the sinking occurred and he believed it must have snagged something.
But the final drag and haul back of the scallop dredge was completed between 12:01 and 1:03 a.m., according to the report. From 1:03 until 5:10 a.m., the Lady Mary was drifting.
Problems with the lazarette — a storage space on the boat — meant it was open, likely allowing seawater to slip into the main deck and flood the space between 1:17 and 5 a.m., the report found.
At that same time, the crew all may have been sleeping, which means no one was monitoring the lazarette’s status or keeping navigational watch. Therefore, no one was there to take immediate action if the main deck took on a significant amount of water.
By the time the survivor awoke, it was too late to take action, the report states.
There was a frantic mayday broadcast just before 5:14 a.m., but nothing else.
The vessel’s Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon was functioning, and sent a distress signal at 5:40 a.m. But the beacon was not properly registered, causing an hour and 27-minute delay as a search was made.
That time likely cost the captain and a deckhand their lives, the report found. But, even an immediate response to the EPIRB could not have saved the other four men, it said.
Some survivors’ families had suggested a larger vessel struck the Lady Mary, but the investigation found no evidence any other vessel was at fault for the chain of events that caused the sinking.
Damage to the rudder, propeller and stern ramp — with the exception of some previous damage — happened when the vessel struck the ocean floor, the report said.
Marijuana was found in postmortem tests of the captain and his brother, Timothy, but the forensic toxicologist could not conclude if there was physical or mental impairment at the time of the sinking.
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