CAPE MAY - The sole survivor in the sinking of the Lady Mary testified today that the scene was chaotic as the captain struggled to right the foundering scallop boat.
Jose Arias, speaking through an interpreter, described crew members struggling to put on their survival suits amid shouts and mayhem.
Arias said he did not see all six crew members on deck -- leaving open the possibility that some were in their bunks and went down with the ship.
Autopsy results show the captain and one crew member aboard a scallop boat that sank off the New Jersey coast had used marijuana.
But a doctor says how recently they had done so and whether it might have impaired their judgment and performance aboard the Lady Mary could not be determined.
Capt. Royal Smith Jr. and his brother, Timothy Smith, were among six crew members who died when the boat sank off Cape May on March 24.
A lawyer for the Smiths' father says the captain's blood level was low enough to have been caused by second-hand smoke from Tim Smith's use. But attorney Steve Weeks says drugs have no place on a fishing boat.
Testimony came Tuesday from Dr. Anthony Costantino during a Coast Guard inquiry into the accident.
On Monday, the possibility of a collision at sea emerged following testimony that there were at least 20 vessels within a 6-mile radius and two that were less than a mile away.
The testimony also raised questions about how none of the other boats saw anything amiss or came to help, even as the Lady Mary sent out a line of debris that stretched for miles.
Coast Guard Lt. Timothy Lee Marriott, speaking before a Marine Board of Investigation looking into the March 24 sinking that took the lives of six Cape May County fishermen, used electronic vessel tracking data to show the area was full of marine traffic.
There was a fleet of scallop boats working the rich fishing grounds about 70 miles offshore known as the Elephant Trunk. There were also several deep-draft cargo ships navigating the shipping lanes.
At 5:10 a.m., the last tracking signal was received from the Lady Mary. At that time, Marriott said the commercial fishing vessel Alexandria Dawn was just 800 yards away and a cargo ship heading to the Port of Philadelphia, the 222-meter Cap Beatrice, was less than one mile away and moving fast at almost 20 knots. Two other cargo ships, the Energy Enterprise and APL Arabia, also were close by.
The electronic tracking signals come every half hour or so, giving an exact position at that time, but the problem is there is no way to track the exact movement between the 30-minute signals. It’s not always a straight line.
Whether any of the vessels crossed paths is not clear. The Lady Mary’s 5:40 a.m. signal never came, placing the sinking between 5:10 and 5:40 a.m.
Steve Weeks, the attorney for the Smith family, which owns the Lady Mary, said underwater video of the wreck taken last week shows fishing gear entanglement that could have come from a collision, or the scallop dredge hitting an underwater obstruction. He said the cable line to the dredge is not connected.
This could indicate the cable was hit and broken or some other problem occurred. The video, however, shows the dredge, loaded with scallops, on the deck of the boat. If there was some type of collision with the cable, how did the crew retrieve the dredge?
“The gear has been retrieved and disconnected. There’s no reason to disconnect a tow cable from a dredge unless you have a problem,” Weeks said.
A dive team led by Capt. Steven Gatto, of Sicklerville, is ready to go out and take a closer look at the wreck and take high-resolution video once the weather cooperates.
“The divers will review the gear entanglement question,” Weeks said.
Marriott reviewed AIS, or automated information system, signals large commercial vessels must transmit, as well as VMS, or vessel monitoring system, signals scallop boats must send to let fish regulators know where they are working. At 5:10 a.m. the Cap Beatrice was three-quarters to one mile from the Lady Mary and going 19.7 to 19.8 knots. Marriott had no explanation why the Cap Beatrice stopped sending signals for about six hours after that.
“For several hours we received no AIS data from the Cap Beatrice. I don’t why. APL Arabia and Energy Enterprise were continuous,” Marriott said.
“Was the Cap Beatrice inspected for damage when it got to Philadelphia?” Weeks asked.
“I don’t know,” said Marriott, who added that he received the AIS data about one week ago.
Weeks noted that the Alexandria Dawn, a New York-based, boat, could also have made up the 800-yard distance in very little time.
“They could have crossed paths,” Weeks said.
“It’s possible,” Marriott replied.
‘They heard something’
Monday’s testimony also delved into radio communications.
Marriott reviewed tapes of VHF transmissions from 3 a.m. to 8 a.m. and heard no distress calls, though he heard chatter among captains indicating something was happening.
“It’s clear they heard something. They were discussing something as happening but no mention of a vessel in distress or a Mayday,” Marriott said.
Even with all the boats out there, Marriott noted it wasn’t until late in the afternoon of March 24 that a captain called to say he heard a garbled Mayday at about 5 a.m.
But Marriott said the Lady Mary may have been too far out for VHF communications to even reach shore. High-frequency, or HF, radio has a farther range,but he noted the high-frequency radio tower in Atlantic City went down at about 3 a.m. and did not come back up until hours after the sinking. Marriott said an HF tower in Cape May could have picked up transmissions, but none were heard.
Weeks questioned Chief Petty Officer James Bell of Coast Guard Sector Delaware Bay on whether the Cape May tower could have been out of range.
“Yes sir,” Bell replied.
Cmdr. Kyle McAvoy asked if they ever pick up HF transmissions from the fishing fleet. Bell said they do, yet even urgent marine broadcasts the Coast Guard issued were not being heard that day on the HF emergency channel.
A third witness, Coast Guard Reservist Aldo Guerino, testified on safety exams he did in 2007 and 2008 of the Lady Mary. He said the equipment was up to code and any time he asked Capt. Tim Smith to add anything, he did.
“He did everything any captain could do,” Guerino said.
The bodies of Smith and his brother, Royal Smith Jr., were recovered by the Coast Guard. Still missing and presumed dead are Frankie Reyes, Jorge Ramos, Bernie Smith and Frank Credle.
Guerino said one problem was the EPIRB, or emergency position-indicating radio beacon, had two different identification numbers, one listed with the manufacturer and one on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration registration. Just one of 15 identification numbers was changed — a zero and a letter C — but this meant when the EPIRB activated it did not give rescuers the name of the boat. Weeks blamed NOAA for the error. The board talked about ways to prevent such errors by cross-checking the numbers.
“Anybody can make a mistake. I could mistake an O for a C,” Guerino said.
Guerino said he saw recent additions to the wheelhouse, but noted that a boat under 79 feet in length is not required to have a stability test for such modifications. Weeks argued the dredge being found on the deck of the Lady Mary proves it did not roll over, because the dredge would have separated from the vessel.
Guerino said there is no requirement for the crew to take safety classes and no drug tests are required on vessels of less than 200 tons. It was announced earlier that the lone survivor, Jose Luis Arias, passed his drug test, which is required after a casualty incident.
The hearing continues today at 8 a.m. with Arias expected to take the stand.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Check here for updates. See Wednesday's edition of The Press for additional coverage.