CAPE MAY - The U.S. Coast Guard has subjected the March 24 sinking of the Lady Mary to months of intense scrutiny in its quest to find out what sank the Cape May scalloper.
The stakes are high both for family members who lost loved ones as well as the commercial fishing industry, which could face tighter regulation over drug testing, navigational equipment and boat stability.
"We're just trying to determine to the best of our ability what happened so we can prevent it from happening again," Coast Guard Cmdr. Kyle McAvoy said.
McAvoy is heading up the Coast Guard Board of Investigation into the maritime disaster. The hearings were suspended Thursday and will resume once the panel has the results of lab tests on the stricken boat's rudder and stability.
McAvoy and his panel have the authority to recommend prosecution if it finds criminal culpability in an accident at sea.
But prosecution is extremely rare. The panel said it has not forwarded any of its conclusions to the U.S. Attorney's Office in more than 10 years.
Six people died in the accident, including brothers Royal "Bobo" Smith and Timothy "Timbo" Smith; their uncle, Tarzon Smith, and a Smith cousin, Frankie Credle, who lived on the boat. Crew members Frank Reyes and Jorge Arteaga also perished. Mexico native Jose Luis Arias was the sole survivor after he was plucked from the frigid ocean by a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter.
For the boat's dockside manager, Royal "Fuzzy" Smith, who lost his sons, brother and cousin, there are financial implications as well. Smith's lawyer, Steve Weeks, said he thinks evidence will prove that a collision at sea sunk the Lady Mary.
"The best-case scenario is we determine which boat struck it. The families of the decedents can pursue legal remedies in court," Weeks said.
And for the fishing industry, the inquiry could lead to more oversight.
Dan Cohen, a Port of Cape May seafood dealer who owns scallop boats, said he has been following the progress of the investigation.
"Whenever an accident of this nature happens, especially of this magnitude with six men dying, it's important for the Coast Guard to determine what went wrong so we can all learn from that experience and minimize accidents in the future," Cohen said.
Depending on the findings of the Coast Guard, these hearings could result in stricter regulations in a number of areas, including:
Forensic exams on the bodies of two crew members found marijuana in their systems. McAvoy said the investigation found a broader incidence of drug use among commercial fisherman.
"Is it an area of concern there is drug use amongst vessel operators? Absolutely," McAvoy said.
When the Lady Mary was reconfigured with a new wheelhouse from a shrimp boat to a scalloper, the boat did not have to undergo stability tests. Federal law exempts boats 79 feet or smaller from these tests. The Lady Mary is 71 feet long and did not undergo stability testing.
Weeks said he thinks the Lady Mary hearing could prompt changes in international law requiring commercial fishing boats to install collision-avoidance systems called Automatic Identification Systems. These systems alert nearby boats about a vessel's location, speed and heading and are already mandatory for large passenger ships or international shipping.
On April 14, the Dictator, a fishing boat the same size as the Lady Mary, was struck from behind by the 965-foot container ship Florida. The Dictator survived the collision but required Coast Guard assistance to return to port in Cape May.
Weeks said he expects to subpoena witnesses in that accident.
Stacy Greene, of Middle Township, who lost her longtime boyfriend, Royal Smith, Jr., the father of her three boys, said the findings will not salve her pain.
"It won't bring them back. It won't replace my love," Greene said.
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