At least two men died and four were missing after a 71-foot scallop boat with seven aboard sank Tuesday morning in rough seas off Cape May. One man survived, but those close to the family say the owner's two sons and brother are among the missing.
The Lady Mary sank in 40-degree waters at about 5 a.m., according to the only known survivor, Jose Luis Ariese.
It was the second time in just over a week that a scalloper sank off the Cape May coast. On March 17, the Miss Dollie burned and sank about 30 miles offshore. The three men aboard were saved by a nearby scalloper.
But the crew of the Cape May-based Lady Mary were not as lucky Tuesday.
A distress signal was not received until about 2½ hours after the time Ariese said the boat sank.
The Coast Guard did not receive a radio distress call until
after 7:30 a.m., Coast Guard Senior Chief Petty Officer Steve
Carleton said. An EPIRB -
emergency position-indicating radio beacon - should go off when a boat sinks, but Carleton said there can be delays based on the proximity of satellites that transmit the signal.
An Air Station Atlantic City helicopter crew arrived on the scene at about 8:30 a.m. They found no debris, just a lifeboat.
"I saw something flopping out of it that looked like an arm," rescue swimmer Lake Downham said.
But after he was lowered into the water and swam over, he found the raft empty. He deflated it, with his crew flying overhead.
As Downham was being lifted back into the helicopter, he noticed a plank of wood and the familiar red of a survival suit.
"Once he was down, he called for the rescue basket," said Jason Oyler, whose job as aviation maintenance technician includes lowering the rescue swimmer and pulling up survivors.
Downham secured Ariese and began to ask him all kinds of questions: How many on board? Did they have survival suits? When did they go down?
"(Ariese) was anxious to get out of the bucket," Oyler said.
Oyler was excited, too. It was the first time aside from training he had the opportunity to make a rescue. It was a success.
"It made me feel good," he said. "I didn't ask (Ariese) any questions. I just had him give me the thumbs up, then turned back to Lake."
Oyler wanted to get his rescue swimmer out of the sea, with 4- to 7-foot waves, and into the helicopter to check Ariese's vitals.
Pilot Lt. Cmdr. Tina Pena spotted two more victims. But the next two times the crew pulled men up did not turn out as well. One of the crew members was dead; the other - unconscious when he was lifted into the helicopter - died later. Their names have not been released pending notification of next of kin.
Family and friends flooded to Cold Spring Fish & Supply in Lower Township - where the boat had docked for 15 years - desperate for news about their loved ones.
There wasn't much.
"It's my family out there," Wayne Green said. "I hope they came out alive. They might have a shot. I just hope they come home."
Barbara Matthews drove to the dock not even sure if her cousin Brian Jones was on the boat. She knew he was out fishing and often fished on the Lady Mary.
The West Cape May woman headed to the dock after attempts to contact Jones were unsuccessful.
Many said boat owner Roy "Fuzzy" Smith Sr., of Bayboro, N.C., was on his way from Delaware after hearing the news.
"We just want them to tell us who was on the boat," Matthews said. "It's difficult. It's so many friends and so much family."
Gathered at the dock, many hugged. Some cried. A local pastor arrived to offer prayers.
Robert Jones comforted his mother, Edith, the fiancee of crewman Bernie Smith of Wildwood - the boat owner's brother.
Fuzzy Smith's elder son Roy Jr., known as Bobo, was captain of the boat. Son Tim, who goes by Timbo, was also believed to be onboard.
"The mother is coming up from North Carolina and she's just got to be torn up," said Jones, who lives in Middle Township. "I just pray to God they're all right. I'm choked up right now. I'm just walking around trying to get myself together."
"It's a shame. I knew all those guys," said Willie Smith, 46, a retired fisherman from Cape May.
Early in the day, the Coast Guard said all seven crewmen got their suits on. Later, after interviewing Ariese, Carleton said they were not sure how many were able to don their suits.
All seven had suits with them, Ariese said, but the four missing crewmen may not have had them on when the boat sank.
The suits are difficult to put on in the water and the chance for survival decreases since body heat is lost. The Coast Guard has charts on how long a human can survive in different water temperatures with a survival suit, and Carleton said the search would continue into the night.
"They could still be alive," Carleton said.
People inside the dock's restaurant, the Lobster House, dined on scallops Tuesday, not realizing how dangerous it is to deliver the succulent shellfish. Willie Smith, who retired after getting caught between two scallop dredges and needing back surgery, said it can be rough off Cape May.
"I've been on boats that sank and caught fire," he said. "It's dangerous, for sure."
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