CAPE MAY - A brief and frantic call for help reached a fishing boat working the scallop grounds off the coast here before dawn March 24 at about the time the Lady Mary was sinking, killing the captain and five crewmen.
"It sounded like a mayday. It was a heavy foreign accent. It sounded very scared, frantic, very quick and barely audible," New England fisherman Antonio Alvernaz said Monday to a Coast Guard panel investigating the sinking.
Alvernaz, testifying by telephone from a Coast Guard office in New Bedford, Mass., said he ran to the wheelhouse of the Kathryn Marie and heard the call answered by Joe Neves, captain of the vessel Paul & Michelle that was about one-quarter mile away.
"I heard Joe say, 'Come back with that. Come back with that more clearly,'" Alvernaz said.
Hearing nothing, Alvernaz got on the radio, which was set on the emergency frequency, VHF Channel 16. Alvernaz said it was about 4:30 a.m. and he could see numerous other scallop vessels around him.
"I got on the radio and said, 'That sounded like a mayday.' Nobody responded back. It was pitch dark. I looked for flares. Nothing. There were close to 20 boats within six miles and there was no response from anyone, anything," Alvernaz said.
The only thing he heard was a captain with a southern accent get on the radio and say he did not understand a word of the apparent mayday transmission. Alvernaz never made contact with that captain.
He remembers hoping it was only a hoax.
Later, Alvernaz learned the Lady Mary sank just three to four miles away and six of the seven crewmen perished, including brothers Royal "Bobo" Smith and Timothy "Timbo" Smith. Their uncle Tarzon Smith also died along with a Smith cousin, Frankie Credle. Crewmen Frank Reyes and Jorge Arteaga also died. The lone survivor was Mexican native Jose Luis Arias.
The Coast Guard panel questioned Alvernaz on the communications that followed. He did not report the incident to the Coast Guard until about 3 p.m. He said he now regrets that decision. The Smith brothers both had vital signs when a Coast Guard rescue crew arrived about three hours later so they may have survived with a quicker response.
"In a way, I feel stupid, but I was one of two people who did pick up the radio and there were 100 boats in the area. In the future, I will get ahold of the Coast Guard when I get a mayday," Alvernaz said.
He said he got off his shift at 8 a.m. and did not come back on until 2 p.m. A short time later, he heard a Coast Guard cutter was searching the area and realized a search and rescue operation was under way.
Why none of the other boats fishing in the scallop grounds known as the Elephant Truck, about 60 miles off Cape May, responded is unclear. There may have been 100 boats on the scallop grounds that day.
Alvernaz said the weather was rough, with winds at about 35 knots and seas of 10 to 12 feet. Adverse weather can hamper radio communications. A Coast Guard helicopter pilot previously said she tried to hail fishing vessels on the radio with no luck, even though she could see the boats. Alvernaz said he never heard the Coast Guard call.
"Most boats were not aware of what was going on until (2 or 3 p.m.) when the cutter got on scene," Alvernaz said.
But it was not the only delay. Previous testimony revealed the Coast Guard response was delayed about 90 minutes because a government clerical error led to problems identifying the Lady Mary's emergency distress beacon.
Alvernaz, 47, who has been fishing since he was 16, said he has picked up survivors before and searched for others who were never found. The mayday call still haunts him.
"I had an eerie feeling to be honest with you, but nobody came back and I didn't see any flares," Alvernaz said in a phone interview Monday night.
Alvernaz was one of several witnesses to testify at the inquiry on Monday. He was followed by scuba diver Steve Gatto, who dived on the Lady Mary wreck several times and helped recover the body of Tarzon Smith in the fish hold.
"He had sweatpants and socks on and there was a survival suit not far from that area. You don't run around the deck in your stocking feet. My assumption is he was trying to get into the survival suit," Gatto said.
Gatto went over pictures and video showing extensive damage to the vessel's stern, which has led to speculation that another vessel collided with the Lady Mary.
The ghostly images showed the rudder knocked from the boat, connected only by a chain. The rudder shoe was never found. The propeller was damaged and the 5-inch propeller shaft was bent downward. A stern ramp was also bent downward into the transom and something of extreme force pushed a 4-inch metal ramp support through the hull. Stay wires that ran from the ramp to the gallows are broken, but one is tied off to a cleat, suggesting a crewman did this right before the boat sank.
The U.S. Navy has recovered the damaged 600-pound rudder and it is undergoing testing at the National Transportation Safety Board's Office of Research and Engineering. Testing could determine that there was a collision if paint was transferred to the rudder from another vessel.
Coast Guard Cmdr. Kyle McAvoy said a stability model is also being engineered for the Lady Mary.
The images show the dredge on deck but full of scallops, which normally would be unloaded as soon as the dredge is hoisted up. This suggests problems right before the sinking.
Steve Weeks, who represents Lady Mary owners Smith & Smith, Inc., questioned Gatto about the condition of the dredge and its cables. Weeks said he wants to prove they could not have caused the damages. Gatto, who had a replica of the Lady Mary on hand for the hearing, said he did not notice any damages to the dredge and the cable showed no marks or frays.
During a recess, Weeks said he expects the testing on the rudder to "show us a lot." He believes a collision sank the Lady Mary.
"I think so, but the Coast Guard doesn't want to admit it," Weeks said. "The dredge or the wench didn't cause the damage. The wench doesn't have the power to pull 4-inch square tubing through the boat."
Weeks said the foreign accent Alvernaz heard could have been one of the Hispanic crewmen. He said the divers found the steering was in hard to port, which suggests the dredge was deployed but he theorized it was brought to the deck between the collision and the sinking.
Arias previously testified he was asleep and was awakened by Tim Smith, who told him the boat was sinking. Arias said the boat took water over the stern, rolled to port and sank.
The Lady Mary life raft would have automatically deployed when the vessel sank but Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Vincent Gamma testified that it was manually deployed. This suggests the crew knew the boat was going down and may explain why Arias did not see several crewmen when he woke up. The raft was in the bow area and Arias went off the back of the boat.
The inquiry is set to continue today at 9 a.m. here at Coast Guard Training Center Cape May with Lady Mary dockside manager, Royal "Fuzzy" Smith, the father of Royal and Tim Smith, testifying.
Contact Richard Degener: