This is the third in an occasional series of line-by-lines with narrative writers and their work, adapted from a project called Annotation Tuesday! on Tumblr. Earlier, we featured the Tampa Bay Times‘ Michael Kruse and his story about a woman who disappeared inside her own home; and Jon Franklin‘s classic “Mrs. Kelly’s Monster,” the inaugural winner of the Pulitzer Prize in feature writing. Today, we have “The Wreck of the Lady Mary,” Amy Ellis Nutt‘s Pulitzer-winning investigative narrative on the sinking of a scallop boat and the deaths of nearly the entire crew. The story is long, so we’ve divided it. The first part of the annotation runs today, the second part tomorrow. Observations and questions are highlighted in blue, Nutt’s answers are highlighted in red. It’s worth mentioning that these line-by-lines are like a little part-time job for the journalists who agreed to describe their experiences/insights for readers and other journalists, and to talk about the work. Nutt finished hers last year, while covering Hurricane Irene.
In “The Wreck of the Lady Mary” the Newark Star-Ledger’s Amy Ellis Nutt told a deeply reported, literary story about a scallop-boat sinking that killed six of the seven fishermen aboard. By its very nature the story calls to mind The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger; from a policy standpoint it’s important because it raised questions about maritime safety regulations. The series, which began on Nov. 21, 2010, won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing and is a model for marrying reporting with storytelling, and for multimedia: Nutt’s colleague Andre Malok created video, photos and graphics to accompany the text.
Nutt’s narrative work beyond newspapers is also deeply intelligent and moving. Her first book, Shadows Bright as Glass: The Remarkable Story of One Man’s Journey from Brain Trauma to Artistic Triumph, is a beautiful, fascinating read; you’ll especially love it if you’re into stories about the mysteries of the human brain. (Here’s a fun “page 99 test” derived from the Ford Madox Ford quote, “Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you.”)
But back to the Lady Mary. A few questions, to start:
Paige Williams: The 24-minute video adds important dimension to the Lady Mary story, particularly with regard to mapping/graphics. To actually see/hear a mariner say, from the deck of his boat, “In five or 10 minutes a fast-moving ship can be on top of you before you know it,” makes the danger feel all the more real. Cross-platform/multimedia applications are part of what make this such an exciting time for storytelling. How did you decide to add the multimedia?
AEN: There was never a question about it, and because we figured video was even more important than photos, Andre, who is one of our best videographers, was assigned to do both PLUS the graphics, which is his main background. I want to add that I believed the video MADE this story and I asked Andre to accompany me to the Pulitzers because he was such an integral part of the story. I wish the feature writing award had included the video.
Did you write the script for it?
I helped with it a lot, edited it and added to it, but it was Andre’s baby and his voice narrating.
How did you simulate the scene of the Lady Mary sinking, particularly the presence of the approaching ship?
We spent a good deal of money shipping out the reconstruction to a contractor who did the amazing animations with detailed instructions from us, although he didn’t EXACTLY follow our instructions about how to depict the glancing blow of the container ship.
How did this story come to your attention?
It was mostly a back-of-the-paper story because we don’t really cover South Jersey, so I kept track of the news for a few months and there were occasional updates about the Coast Guard hearings. Toward the end of 2009, I realized that there was still a fundamental mystery about why the boat went down and that’s when I decided it would make a great project.
How did you begin, and how long did you work on it?
I think the first thing I did was drive down to Cape May – it’s a long trek, about 2.5 hours – to meet with Capt. Fuzzy. There were two things we absolutely had to have for the story to work: Fuzzy and Jose, the only survivor. We worked on the story beginning in January and if you include the writing, didn’t stop until right before publication in late November.
What were the biggest reporting challenges?
The biggest COULD have been Jose, who was the second person I tried to contact. Unfortunately he was an illegal alien – long story about whether to include this, because Jose told me this and said he didn’t care if we published it; but I believe he was also still in a depression – so he had no permanent address or landline. Even Capt. Fuzzy didn’t have an address for him. So I took several trips down to Cape May and canvassed the docks talking to fishermen who might have known him. Eventually I found out that he probably lived in Wildwood, which is next to Cape May. So I drove to Wildwood and decided to go to the first Catholic church I saw and ask if there was a particular parish that served the Hispanic community. But as I was about to pull up to a church I noticed a Mexican market in a little strip mall and went in and asked the manager if she might know him. I showed her a photo and she said she was pretty sure he did come in on a regular basis. I was fully prepared to stake out the store for days on end if need be, but miraculously this woman said she knew someone who might know where Jose lived. Turns out his apartment was just around the corner.
The only other reporting challenges were the lack of cooperation from the Coast Guard regarding their inspection of, and interview with the crew of, the Cap Beatrice. More than anything else, I really, really, really wanted to talk to the captain of the Cap B. I found him online and also found a phone number in the Ukraine. When I called, the woman who answered, who did not speak much English, said he didn’t live there anymore and didn’t know where he lived.
Were you present for any of the hearings, etc., or did you do everything via documents/interviews/reconstruction?
By the time I decided to do the story, the hearings were over, so yes, everything was from documents, interviews, reconstruction, etc.
What information did you want but couldn’t get, if any?
An explanation of what the Cap Beatrice was doing in the hours after the accident and why her AIS (Automatic Information System) was turned off. Also, that interview with the captain of the Cap B. Also, I would have loved to interview the wife of Jorge Ramos. I tried a number of times, and even met with her – she did not speak English, so I was also with a translator – but she said she was still too sad.
What did you read to prepare yourself for this series/immerse yourself in the subject?
First, I always try and read some literature pertaining to the subject of a project before I start. It’s a way to steep myself in the feeling of it more than anything else, and get myself in a certain frame of mind – I suppose it’s kind of like the way an athlete listens to a certain piece of music before a big game. For instance, when I wrote a series of articles about memory research, I read Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past for the first time and totally loved it. For this project, I re-read Moby Dick – I hadn’t read it since high school — and Joseph Conrad’s Typhoon. As for preparing to write about the particulars of the subject matter, I do loads of research reading, including everything from sailing terminology to the history of navigation. I really run up my bill from Amazon.com before every project!
Before this project what kind of relationship did you have with the sea? What about now?
Interesting question. I grew up in New Jersey, which is a coastal state, and I was born in Staten Island and often visited my grandparents there, and stayed at their summer house at the beach for several weeks as a young kid. For 50 years – I’m 56 – my family has always gone to the Jersey Shore for vacation during the summer. So the sea, the ocean, was something I grew up with. I never really sailed or fished; I was a swimmer mostly. And becauase I’ve always been drawn to poetry – both the writing of it and the reading of it – the sea has always been evocative for me, and as a writer, I’ve mined it for not a few metaphors. As for what my relationship is now, I’m not sure it’s much different, except for one thing: Everytime I’m in or near the ocean, I think of the crew of the Lady Mary.
Riotous waves pummel José Arias. In the frantic scramble to abandon ship, he zipped his survival suit only to his throat and now the freezing Atlantic is seeping in, stealing his body’s heat.
The cold hammers him, a fist inside his head. How did you decide to tell the story in present tense? Did you play at all with past tense? I played a bit, but early on I knew exactly where I wanted to start the story, and for the effect of immediacy knew present tense was best. There were several possible scenes I could have opened with – at any point as the boat is going down, in fact – but I wanted to be able to return to that action, to the final minutes of the boat, and build up to it, so the next best dramatic point is really with Jose in the water, wondering whether he’s going to live or die.
Seesawing across the ocean, he cannot tell east from west, up from down. At the top of a wave the night sky spins open, then slides away. Buckets of stars spill into the sea. lovely image, particularly the verbs –spins, slides, spill; how did you arrive at “spins”? I consider myself a fairly visual person and after going over and over with Jose about the conditions that night, what he saw and heard and felt, I wanted to put the reader in the water, see-sawing up and down the waves. Imagining myself in the same situation, floating on my back, in heavy seas, I realized that looking up at the sky as you’re moving up and down will make the stars seem to move too. I worked on the wording of the lede for many many hours, tweaking it many times over the days before publication. When I did, I always read the lede out loud. I do this with stories whenever I can, to make sure the rhythm and flow is right, and of course alliteration and assonance is important in that regard.
“Sálvame, por favor. Sálvame.”
Save me. Please save me, he prays to Our Lady of Guadalupe.
In the chilly, early morning hours of March 24, 2009, 57-year-old José Arias fights for his life, floating in the water 66 miles from Cape May. The nearest lights are from another fishing vessel, which does not see him, anchored less than a half-mile away. A little farther out, a mammoth container ship steams toward Philadelphia.
Although Arias does not know it yet, all six of his friends and fellow fishermen are dead, and the red-hulled scalloper, the Lady Mary, is resting, right-side up, such a great, specific detail; what’s the source, photos? Video and photos, taken by professional divers with whom I worked closely in researching the story. on the sandy bottom of the Atlantic. The mystery of what sank her, which continues to haunt the maritime world, has just begun. [annotation-group][annotate color="blue"]interesting move –takes us out of straight narrative and allows for a traditional nut-graf-y moment, which then hour-glasses us back to narrative. The next seven grafs provide context and cue the reader to settle in for Story – I’m curious about the thought that went into using this particular tool of newspaper writing, which seeks to establish immediate relevance (before the jump, if possible) and declare the story’s (and newspaper’s) authority and intentions. Sometimes nut grafs and nut-graf passages work against the story, though, by derailing/defusing it and by turning a distracting amount of the attention onto process – did you worry about that here? Ahhh, the nut graph. The bane of many a reporter’s existence! At a newspaper it’s almost impossible to get away without one – especially with my editor! – but the story is also a complex one. It’s part narrative, part investigation, part profile of an industry, etc. So I actually do think it was important to help the reader out a bit in terms of what to expect.
For months, what happened to the 71-foot Lady Mary baffled the Coast Guard, marine experts, fishermen, divers and heartbroken loved ones — all of whom wanted to know how a sound and stable boat with an experienced crew could disappear from the ocean’s surface in a matter of minutes and leave so few clues behind.
This story is about a tragedy no one lived to tell — except Arias, the only crewman plucked from the ocean alive, but who was asleep below decks when the sea suddenly began to swallow the boat. But from the tormented memories of its sole survivor, hundreds of pages of Coast Guard documents, the analyses of more than a dozen marine experts and the Lady Mary’s own ghostly remains, a picture has slowly emerged.
No single event doomed the six fishermen, rather a cascade of circumstances set in motion years earlier by a slip in penmanship on a vessel safety form, compounded by a clerical error. Darkness, deteriorating weather, a tired crew and an open hatch contributed to the vessel’s vulnerability. Then, a floating behemoth 10 times the size of the little scalloper came plowing through the fishing ground at nearly full throttle.
The men of the Lady Mary were like thousands of others who earn their living from fishing, toiling in a Wild West sort of world, in hazardous, ever-changing conditions with scant safeguards and few legal protections.
On today’s oceans, endangered whales have more protection than fishermen, though scores are killed each year.
And when fishermen die at sea, their deaths often remain unexplained, their bodies never found and their lives soon forgotten by the public.
As one mariner said, “There are no skid marks on the ocean.” amazing quote. Did this person say it to you or did you find this in documents? My favorite quote in the whole story. It came from a naval architect who said he did not feel right about commenting on the evidence we showed him, but was happy to talk about the issues of accident investigations in general, and so because I did not use him anywhere else I decided best not to name him. All that being said, when he uttered those words I felt my heart leap. It pretty much encapsulated so much of what the story was about, and how hard it is to solve these mysterious sinkings.
‘SEE YOU WHEN I GET BACK’
On the morning of Wednesday, March 18, 2009, a week before the Lady Mary disappeared, José Arias lingered on the dock of Cold Spring Fish & Supply in Cape May. Arias, like most commercial fishermen, lived frugally. He shared a spartan one-bedroom apartment in Wildwood with another fisherman and used a bicycle to get around town. A trip to the area known as the Elephant Trunk, the richest scallop grounds on the East Coast, meant he and the other six men aboard the Lady Mary might pocket $10,000 to $15,000 each — more for the captain — for a week to 10 days at sea. Lovely. It’s clear that you think about cadence. And I’ve heard you recite – beautifully, memorably – the final paragraphs of The Great Gatsby, so I know you think about lyricism. Thanks. Yes, Fitzgerald and Gatsby are particular favorites. Fitzgerald was so astute to cadence and the music of words that he removed more than a thousand commas from the final draft of The Great Gatsby before publication.
The federal government strictly regulates commercial fishing, placing limits on the number of trips and the size of the catch. So at the beginning of each season, usually around March 1, fishermen are eager to get back to work. Interesting that you drop in exposition rather than work it in, say, via Arias’ POV. How did you arrive at that choice? There was so much explanatory information that I needed to weave into the story – about the fishing industry, commercial fishing boats and the various regulations, that I knew I had to have these “pauses” in the narrative to keep the reader up to speed. The eagerness to get back to work in the spring is true of all scallopers, I learned, so it was certainly not just true of Jose. I also wanted to drop in hints along the way about all the various reasons why the Lady Mary was doomed, including, obviously, the need for fishermen to get out as soon as possible when the season opens.
Waiting for the rest of the crew to arrive at the dock that Wednesday morning, Arias noticed an 8-foot-long wooden plank leaning against the ice machine, not far from where the scallops are weighed and packed for shipment. Perfect, he thought to himself. He would use the wood to fix one of the bins in the boat’s fish hold. Arias picked up the plank and carried it onboard, placing it on the bow, or front, Just curious: Why include “or front”? Were you worried readers wouldn’t understand “bow”? My editor’s suggestion, at least early on in the story, to help nonboaters. of the ship, next to the life raft.
According to the vessel tracking system operated by the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Lady Mary cast off shortly after 10 a.m. Here’s an interesting point of difference between newspaper and magazine writing. A magazine writer might have written “The Lady Mary cast off shortly after 10 a.m.” and let it go at that if the backup contained NMFS documents affirming the fact. Do you think newspaper writers often feel an undue burden to show our work at the local level even when the reporting backs up the story? Did you attribute the shove-off time because it was a contentious point? Certainly it’s true that newspaper reporters feel more of a burden to show attribution, but in this case, the vessel tracking system almost becomes a kind of character in the story – especially when it comes to trying to figure out what the Cap Beatrice was doing in the hours after the accident – and I wanted the reader to know early on that there was a lot we DID know, and CAN know, about a ship’s whereabouts, which to me underscores the terrible tragedy of the accident – that despite the most sophisticated technology in the world, a boat can sink 65 miles off shore and take six men down with her, and yet no one knows until hours later. Among the seven men were two brothers, Capt. Royal “Bobo” Smith Jr., 41, and Tim “Timbo” Smith, 39, the only children of 64-year-old Royal “Fuzzy” Smith Sr., who co-owned the boat with son Tim. One of Fuzzy’s brothers, Tarzon, (nicknamed Bernie) 59, was also aboard, as was a cousin, Frankie Credle, 56. The other two members of the crew were 23-year-old novice Jorge Ramos and Frank Reyes, 42.
Pointing the boat east, Bobo picked up his cell phone and called Stacy Greene, his 39-year-old girlfriend and the mother of two of his three biological children.
A teller at Crest Savings Bank in Wildwood, Stacy couldn’t answer, but she knew Bobo would leave a slew of messages.
“Babe, we’re leaving. We’re pulling away from the dock,” he said after Stacy’s voice-mail message played.
A few minutes later, according to phone records, Again, why did you choose to attribute? Was this point in question? It may not have been necessary, but again I think I wanted the reader to know how much we DID know about the Lady Mary’s last days, etc., and yet not the ultimate reason why she sank. he called again. The boat had probably cleared the lighthouse by then. Soon it would be out of range.
When they were fishing, and well out of sight of cell-phone towers, Bobo often called Stacy on the satellite phone. Because they worked virtually around-the-clock, he sometimes dialed her at crazy hours, ringing her at 2 a.m. to ask what she was doing.
“What do you think I’m doing?” she’d say in mock anger.
Over the next six days, Bobo called Stacy on the satellite phone 10 times, not always reaching her. He called Fuzzy twice on Saturday, March 21. The first time was just after 2 in the afternoon, to tell him the crew was catching a good load of scallops and things were going well.
“Go bag ’em up, and don’t be guessing how much you got,” Fuzzy told Bobo.
He never liked to hear from his sons when they were out fishing, It’s details like this that make a narrative. How’d you get this one? We – photographer/videographer Andre Malok and I –spent hours and hours with Capt. Fuzzy and he was very open and generous and told us this quite straightforwardly he just wanted them to get the job done and come home.
He worried about them, especially when they were on the same boat. Usually they took two boats and kept an eye on each other. When one of them called Fuzzy in the middle of a fishing trip, he always thought something was wrong.
At 10:37 that night, Bobo called his father back to tell him they had 200 bags of scallops — big ones, he told his father — and would probably be heading back on Tuesday, the 24th.
Three minutes later, Bobo called Stacy. The couple had broken up so many times over the years, often because of his drinking, but when he moved back into the house in Whitesboro in June of 2008, he quit and told her he wanted to be a real father to his kids.
The next eight months were blissful, according to Stacy. Bobo fixed breakfast for the children, attended every one of 8-year-old Jeremiah’s basketball games — in fact, every one of his practices — and on weekends drove the kids to the Family Dollar Store in Rio Grande to buy them presents.
Of course, that was when he was just back from a fishing trip and had money in his pockets. When he did have cash, he spent it freely, usually on the kids, but sometimes on complete strangers.
The previous November, when they were all driving down to Virginia Beach for a big family reunion, Bobo spotted a homeless man wandering on the side of the road. He pulled over, handed him all the food they’d just picked up at KFC and gave him $10 in cash.
“Here you go, man,” he said. “I hope you can make it.”
When fishing season opened in March 2009, Bobo was broke again. Just before leaving on the first trip of the year, he stopped by Adele’s Jeweled Treasures in Cape May and, according to store receipts, How/why the decision to attribute? In this case, there was no other way we could have known this. The reader already knows Bobo is dead, and so he couldn’t possibly have told us, and his wife didn’t know about the chain until the shop called after the boat went down pawned the gold chain he always wore around his neck for $200.
Like Bobo, younger brother Tim was utterly and completely a fisherman. He even married a fisherman’s daughter. Carinna often went down to the boat before a trip, clean sheets in her arms, and made her husband’s bed. great detail
She also liked to pack Tim’s duffel and sneaked “sea letters” — love notes, really — into the pockets of his clothes. Each day, when Tim dressed, was like Christmas morning, and he tucked the little presents into his shaving kit for safekeeping.
“Tell (the Realtor) I’ll have the money for the house when I come back in,” he told Carinna right before leaving that Wednesday morning.
He was going to use his share from the trip to make a down payment on a new home. Students and I often talk about the pros and cons of single-sentence grafs –how and when to use them, and when to combine material and keep powerful ideas streamlined. Obviously it depends upon the story but generally how do you view single-sentence grafs? Do you ever worry about their potential to overdramatize certain material? In this case, the single sentence graph wasn’t meant to be dramatic. It’s just that I switch to a new subject in the next sentence, so I couldn’t run it in with that graph.
On the same block in Whitesboro on which Tim and Carinna lived, 37-year-old Jeannette Rodriguez was reluctant to see Frank Reyes leave on his first fishing trip of the year. The two had been together 20 years and although they’d never married, they had three children. Jeannette and Frank met at a Christmas Eve party in Wildwood. She was 18 and had just arrived from Puerto Rico. He was five years older, and conscious of the age difference, so he allowed their relationship to develop slowly over the months. Eventually, they moved in together.
Reyes, 42, was a cook at the Lobster House in Cape May and loved his job, but during the slow winter months the restaurant cut back on staff. Fishing was one way to fill the gap financially. ”Don’t go,” she would say to him. “It’s so dangerous.”
And sometimes he wouldn’t. Reyes never wanted his family to worry about him. So when he did go out, he never called his parents back in Puerto Rico and he always left before the kids were up. Good details, these personal rituals/superstitions Personally he didn’t much care for fishing, but he had no fear of the water. In fact he loved it. Nearly every weekend in the warm weather he would go swimming off Sunset Beach, at the western edge of Lower Township. Early in the season the water was always too cold for Jeannette and the kids, but not for Frank.
“Only God would separate us,” he would tell Jeannette before leaving on a fishing trip, “so you have to trust me.”
On the morning of March 18 she drove him to the dock and kissed him goodbye.
“I’m going to be home Monday morning,” he said. “Take care of the kids.”
On the first two days of fishing, the crew had little luck and kept moving, until they were at the outer edge of the Elephant Trunk, named for the shape of the sea’s floor in that area. That’s when they hit the mother lode, dredging up shells with plump scallops the size of half-dollars inside.
On Monday, March 23, Arias got up early, ate a breakfast of ribs and bacon, then spent the next 18 hours in the cut room, separating scallop meat from their shells. Two-hundred bushels later, he finally ducked into the forepeak bunk room, below the galley in the bow of the ship, and slipped into bed, exhausted. It was just after midnight. So streamlined and visual
The other six men continued to work: Capt. Bobo kept watch in the wheelhouse; Tim, Bernie, Frankie Credle, Frank Reyes, and Jorge Ramos were all either on deck dredging or in the cut room shucking.
The boat was about 60 to 70 miles east by southeast of Cape May and carrying close to a full load: 18,000 pounds of scallops packed neatly into 50-pound muslin bags. Great specificity: east by southeast, FIFTY-pound MUSLIN bags, 18,000 pounds of scallops One more shift, and the Lady Mary would probably head for home.
The boat was well-equipped for long voyages and included up-to-date Glad you didn’t use the clichéd “state-of-the-art” – possibly because that’s not what the reporting actually showed; with “up-to-date” you seem to be making a technical distinction about on-board inspections and the required equipment but you didn’t hit us over the head with it. It’s a small move but if I’m reading it right it shows precision reporting Thanks, that’s just what I wanted to convey. It certainly wasn’t state-of-the-art, but it’s a detail that helps underscore the coming mystery – that despite all the navigation equipment and the apparent safety of the boat, it is somehow doomed. navigational and safety equipment, including a covered life raft and an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon, or EPIRB, which automatically emits a distress signal when it’s submerged in water.
Staggering their shifts, two men usually slept while everyone else worked. Arias and Timbo were scheduled to knock off Love this moment of lingo; important to echo the language/collective voice of a subculture, if possible; Tom Wolfe does it particularly well. at the same time, but Tim didn’t turn in right away. At some point after midnight he smoked a little marijuana, probably with Bobo, according to a toxicology report, before finally heading to bed.
Ramos was supposed to wake Tim and José at 6 a.m. when it was his turn to rest, but Arias wouldn’t have been surprised if Bobo told the others to take a break, too, then just let the boat drift for a few hours. It was getting difficult to work anyway. The seas were building and the wind was up. Love this sentence
In his bunk bed, Arias pulled a blanket up around his shoulders. He was used to the labored grunts of the engine and the high whine of the winches as they lowered and lifted the dredge, and though his hands and arms ached and the smell of fish and diesel fumes still oozed from the clothes he’d tossed in the corner, he fell asleep quickly. How did you get the precise detail about where he tossed his clothes? Many hours of interviews with Jose, almost all of it through a translator.
One-hundred-and-twenty miles to the north, the container ship Cap Beatrice was steaming from Antwerp, Belgium, toward the Port of Philadelphia at nearly 20 knots. Thank you for not converting this to mph; I think I as a writer would have done so, and it would’ve been wrong There was discussion of this; I wanted to stay in character, so to speak, and not convert, because no one does that out at sea Owned by the Reederei Thomas Schulte company in Hamburg, Germany, the Cap Beatrice was sailing under a Liberian flag and was leased by the Hamburg Sud shipping company, the 16th largest in the world. Since launching in 2007, her route was usually a 70-day round-trip to various ports between Australia and the United States.
For some reason in mid-March 2009, the Cap Beatrice had made a detour to Europe, perhaps for repairs, I’ll bet you killed yourself trying to nail this down; would the company, Hamburg Sud, just not cooperate? Did those details not come out in the Coast Guard hearings? Oh, Lord, there were sooo many of these details. First, no, unfortunately it did not come out in the hearings. Second, yes, neither Hamburg Sud nor the Coast Guard would answer the question and on the 24th was headed to the United States, presumably to resume her loop to Australia and back.
Capt. Vasyl Stenderchuk, a 55-year-old Ukrainian, was in charge of the 728-foot-long ship, and spent most of his days in the wheelhouse, some seven stories above the deck. Radar, along with a sophisticated Automatic Identification System and other navigation tools, keep the officer on watch apprised of other ships in the area.
AIS, however, can only detect ships carrying the same system and virtually no fishing vessels carry the expensive equipment. blockbuster detail. Source? General research? Coast Guard investigation? Talked with a lot of navigation experts and fishing industry experts as well as fishing vessel inspectors, to confirm.
In the deteriorating weather, the 40,000-ton Cap Beatrice was headed straight for one of the most crowded fishing grounds on the East Coast of the United States.
Arias slept soundly, even as the Lady Mary rolled and pitched with the waves. The wind continued to scoop up barrels of water and sling them over the gunnels. Your verbs in this series are so good I had to make a partial list just to see them that way: scoop, sling, slap, shudder, lurch, scramble, slosh, brace, bang, clutch, dip, swerve, grip, grab, skid, tip, jam, crackle, sputter, huddle, split, nose, whirl, thunder, gun – nothing fancy, all power lifters Ha! I always take F. Scott Fitzgerald to heart on this. He said “All fine prose is based on the verbs carrying the sentence.” Just re-read his description of the cocktail party at Gatsby’s house in Chapter 3. For example, count all the verbs in just these three sentences – and he’s writing about a cocktail party, for crying out loud!: “The lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun, and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music, and the opera of voices pitches a key higher. Laughter is easier minute by minute, spilled with prodigality, tipped out at a cheerful word. The groups change more swiftly, swell with new arrivals, dissolve and form in the same breath; already there are wanderers, confident girls who weave here and there among the stouter and more stable, become for a sharp, joyous moment the centre of a group, and then, excited with triumph, glide on through the sea-change of faces and voices and color under the constantly changing light.” Heavy cables slapped against the deck and hull, and the sound of metal grinding was enough to wake the deepest sleeper.
Fishermen, however, get used to the movement and noise of a boat — or they don’t stay fishermen for long.
At 5:10 a.m., the Lady Mary automatically reported her position to the fisheries service for the last time. The next electronic signal she sent was from her EPIRB hitting the water at 5:40 a.m. The only other information that is known for certain is that a phone call was placed from the Lady Mary at 5:17 a.m.
What else happened between 5 and 6 Tuesday morning, March 24, 2009, has been reconstructed I love that you did this – told the reader straight out that from here on we’re dealing with reconstructions from a variety of sources; it’s clear, honest (not to say a lack of disclaimer would’ve been dishonest) – it’s transparent, is my point from vessel tracking reports, information from weather buoys, and interviews not only with José Arias, but with marine experts, other fishermen out there that night, as well as Fuzzy Smith, the co-owner of the Lady Mary, who knew the boat, the crew and the routine aboard the scalloper better than anyone.
AWAKENING TO TERROR
Around 5 a.m. something happened to the Lady Mary. Even though you’ve just announced that you’ll be telling us what else happened, this simple phrasing is beautifully unexpected/compelling. You take us back by 40 minutes and into an intimate POV Arias wasn’t sure what, but he jerked awake. The boat had shuddered, lurched hard to the left, and nearly catapulted him from his middle bunk.
“Come on, José, the boat’s sinking!” Timbo shouted as he dropped from his upper berth Visual – sourcing of detail about where Timbo slept? interviews with Jose on the other side of the room. In emergencies, the crew is drilled to go to the wheelhouse on the upper deck. Arias and Smith were in the bow of the ship, the farthest point from the bridge.
They scrambled out of the bunk room and up the steps into the galley. The water was ankle-high as they sloshed across the kitchen to the port-side passageway. Moving slowly down the narrow hall, they braced themselves against the wall. The freezing water was now up to their knees. Through the cut room I love that you included the route through the cut room – the notion of a “cut room” (I’d never heard of such a thing) echoes your earlier mentions so powerfully that I immediately see Arias there pre-storm, separating meat from shell and out the double doors nice In detailing the route so exactly I also wanted the reader to realize that it took a minute or more for him to actually get out on the back deck. they finally emerged onto the deck. The Lady Mary was now leaning harder to port and a third of the stern was awash.
Frankie Credle, dressed only in black boxer shorts, banged a piece of pipe against the metal steps and yelled something up to Bobo in the wheelhouse, but Arias, who speaks little English, did not understand what he was saying.
At 5:17 a.m., about 80 miles away the phone rang in Stacy Greene’s house. She was sound asleep, but her mother, Janet, a light sleeper, answered. The voice on the other end sounded like Bobo, but all she heard was, “Hey!” and then static. Deft; we instantly remember that the last call from the Lady Mary went out at 5:17; I like that you delayed identifying who made the call
“Hello? Roy?” she said, calling Bobo by his given name. When there was no answer, she hung up.
Reception from a boat that far out could be sporadic, and satellite calls from the Lady Mary were often dropped. Janet knew he’d phone again later, when he was closer to home, and went back to sleep.
Inside the wheelhouse, Bobo frantically tried to steer the Lady Mary. The engines were throttled up but it seemed to Arias as if the boat was somehow stuck and not moving. Outside the wheelhouse, on the upper deck, Frank Reyes clutched the starboard railing with both hands, frozen in fear.
“José, José, Qué vamos hacer?”
What are we going to do? he pleaded.
The two men, both Spanish speakers, were friends. Neither drank or smoked, which was unusual in the world of fishermen. Arias enjoyed spending time with Reyes and his partner, Jeannette Rodriguez, at their home in Whitesboro and eating the dinners Reyes loved to cook: spaghetti, turkey and gravy, mashed potatoes, rice and beans. Afterward, the two men would trade stories about their hometowns. Reyes grew up in suburban Hatillo, Puerto Rico, just two blocks from the ocean; Arias was raised in the rural state of Chiapas, Mexico, one of the country’s poorest regions. Nice condensing of back story, and because you’ve framed the revelations within exchanges between friends we not only see them, we feel them
Aboard the Kathryn Marie, several miles from the Lady Mary, Capt. Antonio Alvernaz was shucking scallops and keeping an ear out for the ship’s radio. Around 5:15 a.m. it crackled to life.
That was all Alvernaz heard — one word, in a panicked voice.
He rushed back into the wheelhouse, hoping to hear the person identify himself or give the name or location of his boat. Instead, the next voice on Channel 12 was that of Capt. José Neves, aboard the Paul & Michelle, a few miles west of the Lady Mary.
“Come back with that more clearly,” Neves radioed. “Come back with the name of your boat and position.” How did you get the dialogue – radio recordings or reconstruction? This is from Neves’ testimony at the Coast Guard hearing.
“I couldn’t make out a thing,” Neves radioed next, to anyone listening.
“It sounded like a mayday,” Alvernaz responded.
Neither man could be sure, and with no name or location, there was no point in calling the Coast Guard. Both went back to work. Mayday hoaxes were a common occurrence, and Neves and Alvernaz didn’t think about the aborted call until eight or nine hours later.
Six miles due west of the Lady Mary, Jim Taylor, on the Elise G., also heard a frantic voice over the radio, but couldn’t make out what was said.
Taylor, 34, was first mate on the Elise G. and was keeping watch at the time. While the captain slept, the rest of the crew was dredging and cutting. For awhile Taylor had been watching a large ship on the radar — a container or cargo ship, he thought — as it crossed straight through the fishing grounds. This sentence is so haunting; I think it’s powerful because you cast the fact from Taylor’s POV, which is so much more visual than something abstract such as, “For a while a large ship had been crossing the radar as it made its way through the fishing grounds.” Thanks. I think it also underscores, yet again, that there were people so close by, people who saw things, or thought they saw things, and yet for one reason or another were not in a position to be able to help the Lady Mary or even know she was in distress.
Only two vessels were within a mile of the Lady Mary, according to Coast Guard and Marine Fisheries records: The 728-foot container ship Cap Beatrice, and the 69-foot scalloper Alexandria Dawn, which was “laying-to” — using her dredge as an anchor — and so was not moving.
Other than the Cap Beatrice, the only other large merchant ships in the area were the Energy Enterprise and the APL Arabia, but they were 20 to 30 miles north of the Lady Mary, moving in opposite directions. All of this detail is so good and clear – it gives us almost a bird’s-eye view of that ocean sector
As Taylor hauled back on the dredge, he noticed to the east a huge ship suddenly turn on its deck lights.
“Like a Christmas tree, or a football stadium,” Taylor said. “It was the first time I’ve ever seen that.”
Anatoly Parayev, who later served as captain of the Cap Beatrice, said there is only one time he will turn on a ship’s deck lights in the middle of the ocean — when overtaking a fishing boat. “ To scare them off,” he said. “To warn them.” Holy crap; source of this quote? CG hearings? No, this was from conversations with Parayev IN THE WHEELHOUSE OF THE CAP BEATRICE! Andre and I were able to secure permission to board the ship when it was in port in the spring of 2010. Our second request, a few months later, was denied, as was access to the rest of the crew.
On the massive, window-encased bridge of the Cap Beatrice, there are three satellite phones, a large-screen radar system with a maximum distance of 55 miles, and two pairs of high-powered binoculars. So you were allowed on the CB only once, if I’m understanding correctly; did you scramble to get all the physical detail from that one visit or did you have to pair your observations with details from records? So often we don’t know what’s valuable from a scene until later, when we’re piecing together the narrative, so we’re inclined to suck in everything we see/hear, etc., knowing we might not get another chance, which is nerve-racking Yes, a mad scramble indeed. Almost all the detail in this graph is from first-hand observation; other details from official records Seeing other large ships, either electronically or with the naked eye, is no problem, but keeping an eye on smaller vessels is another matter entirely. With its deck stacked with metal containers and the wheelhouse set back 590 feet from the bow, according to Parayev, the person on watch is blind to everything on the surface of the water inside a quarter-mile from the ship.
Taylor, aboard the Elise G., has been fishing since he was 18 years old. To him, it appeared the container or cargo ship had slowed considerably, perhaps even stopped. Not far from the ship, he noticed the green mast-light of a fishing boat flickering in the dark. Normally, just below the green light, is a white light, part of a signal system that indicates to vessels in the vicinity that the boat is a fishing trawler and is underway. Taylor observed neither a white signal, nor the fishing boat’s bright deck lights, which are usually turned on whether the vessel is dredging or not. I like that you stuck with the facts of what Taylor could see and let us draw our own conclusions about what it meant –that the boat was capsizing
On the bridge of the Cap Beatrice, the AIS tracking system stopped transmitting the ship’s position shortly after 5 a.m. By law, virtually all deep-draft vessels (ships of 300 tons or more) are required to continually report their location when transiting international waters, except where the ship’s security is endangered. In these rare cases the nearest vessel-tracking service must be notified. Traffic monitoring is required by international law, mostly as a way for large ships to avoid hitting each other. AIS is a line-of-sight signal, and reception on land depends in large part on the height of the antenna.
That night there were no interruptions in the AIS transmissions from either the APL Arabia or the Energy Enterprise, according to the Coast Guard, although both were farther from shore than the Cap Beatrice. I hate to be a dork but I got a little lost here about the takeaway; did the CB purposely stop transmitting? Just curious. This is one of the big mysteries, and because the Coast Guard would not answer our questions – they interviewed the crew of the Cap Beatrice months after the sinking – we don’t know who or why she stopped transmitting, only that she did, according to vessel tracking records. Our supposition is that someone turned off the AIS, but because we don’t know that, I could only intimate how unusual it was by comparing her to the other big ships out there that night.
ONBOARD THE LADY MARY
In the wheelhouse of the Lady Mary, Arias and the two Smith brothers pulled survival suits, also called immersion suits, out from under the captain’s bunk. The vessel was now listing 45 degrees to port. In a few minutes she would be submerged.
Arias knew he had to get to the highest point on the boat. He left the bridge and pulled himself up to the starboard railing. There, leaning against the outside wall of the wheelhouse, he put one foot into his immersion suit, then the other. His friend Reyes was just a few feet away, still gripping the railing, a look of desperation in his eyes. On the side of the wheelhouse, Arias grabbed a life ring off its hook and handed it to Reyes.
“Agárralo,” he shouted into the wind, “Te va salvar la vida.”
Hold onto it. It will save your life.
The Lady Mary dipped and swerved, skidding down one wave, then hurtling up another. The boat tipped hard again to port. Suddenly the 30-foot starboard outrigger swung up out of the water and jammed itself behind its cradle, high on the mast.
The water had risen to Arias’ waist. There was no time left, and no sign of Frankie Credle or Bernie or Jorge. Tim and Bobo had left the bridge, too, both in their survival suits. There was nothing more Arias could do for Reyes. He looked at his friend one last time, and let go.
A plunge into cold water, with the face unprotected, can set off a lethal series of physiological events. First, the shock of the frigid temperature causes a person to involuntarily gasp, which blocks the flow of air into the lungs. Drowning, more than anything else, is a kind of quick suffocation, and in frigid water the reflex to inhale can kill even the strongest of men in minutes. Brilliant idea, to include the physiological effects of hitting frigid water. What led you to the decision to include this? By doing so you give us added sensation Drowning, I knew from research, is really so awful that I knew I wanted to detail it. Just saying “drowning” gives a reader absolutely no idea about what it’s really like. Also, I wanted the reader to understand how quickly you can die in frigid water and drown.
Arias slid into the water on his back. He tried to move away from the Lady Mary as quickly as possible, using his arms like paddles and making sure to keep his face out of the water. A few yards from the sinking ship, a voice cracked through the wind and waves. Someone was yelling, but Arias couldn’t see him or understand what he was saying.
“Quién es? Dónde está?”
Who’s there? Where are you?
No one answered. The bright deck lights of the Lady Mary blinked out. The engine sputtered to a stop. She was sinking quickly now.
Taylor, at the wheel of the Elise G., looked out the window to the east. It was, he recalled, five or 10 minutes since he’d spotted the container ship with its deck all lit up. The lights were off now, and the green light of the fishing trawler was nowhere to be seen. Taylor figured the boat was obscured from view behind the container and turned his attention back to dredging. When the sea started to crest the wheelhouse,the only part of the Lady Mary still visible to Arias was the long arm of the starboard outrigger, pointing heavenward. Good Lord, what an image; did this one come to you right away or did you have to beg it? I specifically asked Jose what was the last thing he saw and went over the last few minutes of the sinking with him so much that I had a very, very clear picture in my mind of what he saw and when I saw it in MY mind, I shivered.
AN INCREDIBLE TWIST OF FATE
Rolling over the waves, his survival suit slowly filling with water, Arias hears Back to present tense; why the shift? I wanted to end the story where I began – back with Jose in the water. nothing — no voice, no engine — only the wind thrashing wildly at the waves and the sound of his own heavy breathing.
Bobbing and weaving in the mountainous seas, he spots a piece of debris floating toward him and can’t believe his eyes — it’s the 8-foot-long board he picked up off the dock before the Lady Mary left port. So he saved his own life Another point that I shivered when Jose told us this story. I had to resist mentioning Moby Dick and Queequeg’s coffin! After placing it on the bow of the boat, he’d never had time to use it to make repairs.
Now, reaching out, he lifts his arms wearily across the plank, then lets the waves take him where they will.
José Arias, a slender, middle-aged fisherman, a grandfather with graying temples, is alone in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
And dawn is still another hour away.
All his life, Royal “Fuzzy” Smith has followed the sea. One of 13 children from rural Bayboro, N.C., he took his first fishing trip with his father when he was just 4 years old. By the time he was 18, he was working full time on shrimpers plying the Intracoastal Waterway, a 3,000-mile ribbon of inlets, rivers and bays that stretches south from the Jersey Shore to Key West, Fla., then up into the Gulf of Mexico all the way to Apalachicola, Fla.
From a young age, Fuzzy could read the water — where it ran warmer, faster or deeper — and knew the tides without checking the charts. He fished from October to June, at night, when the shrimp came out to feed in the shallows, and especially around a full moon, when they rode the currents out to spawn. Again, such graceful writing – I’m guessing you read your work aloud You bet. Having heard you read Fitzgerald I’d like to hear you read this whole series aloud. You should record it and add it to the Star-Ledger archives – for the blind, for posterity, for the hell of it. But that’s just me. Ha! You might be interested in an 8-minute video we will be posting. I was asked to write an essay kicking off our week-long 9/11 anniversary coverage, and the assignment, believe it or not, was to visit historic places of hallowed ground. We started at Ground Zero, then Gettysburg, then Arlington National Cemetery, Oklahoma City and finally Pearl Harbor — all in 10 days! It was exhausting and exhilarating. And my colleague John Munson has done an incredible job making a video out of an essay. For this I did write the script and did the narration…
He followed the shrimp south, catching Georgia whites and Key West pinks, and then followed them up into the Gulf of Mexico, hauling in Pensacola reds and Texas brownies. I like the repetition of “follow” here and that you didn’t force yourself the switch up the verbs – thought behind that? The repetition reinforces the visual of the travels and its linearity
Over the years, Fuzzy moved from mate to captain to owner, and when scallops became the big moneymaker, Thank you for not giving us the history of scalloping The photographer/videographer on the project, Andre Malok, is also a graphic artist and he did a beautiful word graphic describing the life of the scallop – another reason why other elements like graphics and video and photos are so key to good storytelling – so that the writer doesn’t have to shoehorn EVERY explanation and piece of information into the story. he gave up shrimping and moved his boats from North Carolina to Cape May. By the time his sons Bobo and Tim were of age, Fuzzy had a fleet of scallopers and was content to let his sons do the fishing while he managed the business on shore.
His office in Cape May is a one-room apartment in a squat, cinder-block building at the back of a parking lot across from the Lobster House. Photos of boats and family fill the room. The most recent is a picture of Bobo and Tim taken in November 2008 at a large family get-together in Virginia Beach. It’s almost dusk, and the sons are framed against a cornflower-blue sky. They smile into the camera, both dressed in crisp, white “Smith Reunion” T-shirts inscribed with a quote from Proverbs 3:5.
“Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.” Such a closely observed detail that adds meaning/depth/even comfort – how do you go about gathering details when you’re on scene? My hands always start to shake when I come across something that I know will be vital to a story. Instead of shaky hands I get jumpy eyes and feet! I pride myself on picking up as many details as possible, always with the thought that you never know what detail can enhance or illustrate a theme, character or event. And sometimes I use the details to go do more research. For instance, I always look into the history, geography, even geology of a place where my story is centered, looking to see if those bits of information can inform a metaphor or image or theme.
From his desk in Cape May, Fuzzy kept watch over his boats and his boys. Looking out the window, he could see the clammers and scallopers huddled up against the dock and watch Bobo and Tim steer in and out of port. When they were on a trip for a week, two weeks, Fuzzy followed their progress using a special program on his computer, mainly to help them stay within the federally designated fishing grounds. If they strayed, fines would be levied.
But in truth, he was anxious about their safety. They usually fished together in two boats, so they could keep an eye on each other. But if it was a quick trip, it was easier to go out in one, and the best boat was the Lady Mary.
Those solo trips were when Fuzzy worried the most. If something went wrong, there was no second boat to help out. He kept the TV tuned to the Weather Channel, and when he couldn’t sleep at night he’d get up, turn on his computer, and in the sea-green glow of its screen look for his two sons somewhere out in the Atlantic.
Fuzzy was good at all the nuts and bolts. Although he filed his mail in a tall kitchen garbage can, I’m with Fuzzy on this one he knew where everything was — bills and boat records, tax papers, trip reports and safety equipment registrations.
He wrote everything out in bold, black letters and numbers — in print, mostly, not cursive — and if, on the hundreds of forms he filled out every year, occasionally a “C” looked like an “0,” what could it possibly matter? Nice foreshadowing Credit for this goes to my editor on the project, David Tucker
A CALL FOR HELP
At 5:40 a.m. on March 24, 2009, a geostationary satellite 22,236 miles Great, specific; source? NOAA records as well as interview with NOAA satellite scientist above sea level wakes up. I may be stretching the analysis here, but you almost anthropomorphize the machines in this story – from the beginning they seem to have a life of their own, which for me adds a layer of mystery This is purposeful – so many things happened that conspired against the Lady Mary that they acted almost like characters in the story. I also think anthropomorphizing makes these “accidents” of timing , etc., more poignant Its antennae have picked up a maritime distress signal from an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon.
About the size of a large flashlight, an EPIRB is a required piece of equipment on most commercial fishing vessels. When submerged — that is, when a ship begins to sink — the device automatically releases from a bracket attached to the outside of a ship’s cabin or wheelhouse and floats to the surface.
The EPIRB emits a distress signal, in bursts, every 52 seconds Nice on a special radio frequency (406 megahertz), It might be easy to dismiss this as over-detailing but it’s critical to understanding what happens later reserved for emergencies. Embedded in the signal transmitted in the early morning hours of March 24 was a unique 15-digit code identifying the Lady Mary and its owners. Huh; kind of like a digital license plate; thank you for not giving us those 15 digits Well, I do later! There, it’s perfect
The geostationary satellite is the first link in an electronic rescue chain, and it immediately notifies the nearest automated “local user terminal,” which is an unmanned computer at U.S. Mission Control Center in Suitland, Md. The center is operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and its Search and Rescue Satellite-Aided Tracking program, or SARSAT, is in the same building on the Suitland campus. Atop the flat roof of the office, radio dishes sprout like mutant mushrooms, scanning the skies 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Deftly described
Normally, the local user terminal attaches the EPIRB registration information to the electronic message it sends to the mission-control computer, and when the SARSAT computer receives the emergency data, it notifies a watch-stander — the officer in charge — at a rescue coordination center.
In the case of the Lady Mary, that’s the Fifth Coast Guard District’s headquarters, or Atlantic Area command center. But there’s a problem: The local user terminal can’t match the signal coming from the Lady Mary’s EPIRB with one of the more than half-million registered beacons in SARSAT’s database. Without a matching registration, there is no vessel name, and without a vessel name, the mission-control computer takes the local terminal’s information and “tables” it. The Lady Mary’s EPRIB also did not have a GPS, which was not mandatory.
No other alert is sounded. No one is notified. Why the double passive here? I think it emphasizes the finality With the lives of seven fishermen in the balance, and despite the most sophisticated communications technology in the world, those who could save the men of the Lady Mary remain oblivious to the unfolding disaster.
At 5:45 a.m., Petty Officer 3rd Class Lake Downham is still asleep in one of the second-floor bedrooms in the hangar of Coast Guard Air Station Atlantic City. The heliport is actually 10 miles from the city’s neon signs and casinos, next to a commercial airfield in the Pine Barrens.
Downham’s 24-hour shift will be up at 2:30 p.m. The previous day he flew a training mission, checked and rechecked his gear, then lay in bed and watched the Philadelphia Flyers beat the New Jersey Devils for their third win in a row. Interesting how you nudged this detail one step further with “third win in a row;” some writers might’ve let it drop at “Devils” – why the little something extra? You’re right. I didn’t need it. I think it’s a case where I may have gotten carried away with showing how much reporting I did. On the other hand, Downham is a Flyers fan, so it would have meant something to him – not to the reader, though, since I don’t mention he IS a Flyers fan! Shortly after 9 p.m., he turned off his light and went to sleep.
At age 28, the 6-foot-4, square-shouldered officer has been in the Coast Guard for nearly a decade, the last three years as a rescue swimmer. Although he grew up in Pennsylvania, he spent summers with relatives in Ocean City, and the summer after graduating from high school worked as a lifeguard during the week and surfed on the weekends.
Almost every day as he sat in the lifeguard chair he would look up and see one of those orange-and-white Coast Guard helicopters zipping back and forth, either on a rescue or training run. Flying a chopper and making mid-ocean rescues seemed a lot more glamorous than blowing a whistle from the beach and occasionally pulling someone out of a riptide.
Tired of being a lifeguard and with little interest in filling out college applications, Downham joined the United States Coast Guard at the end of the summer of 2001. He spent the next few years as a boatswain’s mate on a cutter in Hawaii, carrying a gun and inspecting fishing vessels. Such efficient writing; I see his life in these couple of paragraphs Two months before his enlistment was up, he rescinded his discharge papers after realizing he’d never followed through on what he originally joined the Coast Guard to do — save lives.
ANOTHER CHANCE Okay so here’s something I’m wondering. We use subheds as mileposts/cues, but in this story we already know the fishermen’s fate because of the nut-graf passage, so one could argue that “another chance” doesn’t sincerely appeal to a deep sense of drama; in terms of structure, why not draw out the mystery of what happened and who lived/died – it might’ve been slightly more challenging, and definitely atypical of newspaper structure, but … discuss? I actually think it would have been more typical to pretend not to know what happened to the men, and even too easy to build the story that way. I also decided ahead of time that the bigger mystery was why the boat went down and why the men died, as opposed to merely whether they lived or died. And by telling readers ahead of time about the men’s fate, I focus them on the “what happened” question, not the “who lived or who died” question. I also felt there was SO much drama in the reconstruction of the event that knowing the fate of men – and perhaps especially because of that – gave readers a sense of the enormity of the tragedy. It’s more agonizing, too, to follow them in the days and hours and minutes up to their deaths, knowing their fate ahead of time. Finally, telling the story this way mimics the great Greek tragedies, where we know in advance the horrible outcome that awaits the main characters – which is NOT to say that I am comparing myself to the Greek tragedians! – only “borrowing” their device.
Luckily, the high-altitude, geostationary satellite rotating in sync with the Earth is not the Lady Mary’s only hope. A lower, earth-orbiting satellite can get a fix on her even without a beacon number or name, but there is only a small, 15-minute window of opportunity when the satellite passes directly overhead. By the time the EPIRB aboard the Lady Mary activates at 5:40 a.m., the low earth-orbiting satellite is 20 minutes beyond her and just out of range.
Not until it passes over this patch of ocean again — an hour and 16 minutes later — will the satellite have another chance to hear the ship’s distress signal.
At 7:07 a.m., Petty Officer 1st Class Cullen Rafferty has been on duty as watch-stander at the Fifth Coast Guard District headquarters in Virginia for less than an hour. The morning has been slow, until a computer next to Rafferty clacks to life like an old teletype announcing breaking news. Rafferty prints out the distress message from mission control. No boat ID, no owner name, just a notice that an EPIRB signal has been detected by a low-orbiting satellite.
What will not be known for months is that a contractor for NOAA, which handles EPIRB registrations, made the tiniest of errors. In December 2006, Fuzzy purchased a new EPIRB and filled out the required paperwork from NOAA by copying the code that came with the device onto NOAA’s form. On Jan. 18, 2007, a clerk working for NOAA transferred the ID from Fuzzy’s form into the agency’s system, but misread the 13th digit in the 15-digit code. Love that you get that specific: The clerk didn’t just misread the code, he/she misread the THIRTEENTH digit
Instead of ADCD023C3542C01, the clerk wrote down ADCD023C3542001. Ah, and NOW deliver the code – detail now serves the narrative And here again is the beauty of the “art” that accompanied the story, because we had a copy of that form and we published it, highlighting the wrong digit and how close it was to the correct sticker on the form. Fuzzy’s “C,” the third to last digit, was just the slightest bit sloppier than the other letters and numbers, and the clerk copied it down as “0.”
Just to the right of the code on the registration form Fuzzy filled out was a neatly typed sticker with the correct ID. The contractor, however, was trained only to look at the middle of the form — at the spaces filled out by the owner — according to the testimony of a NOAA official. Attribution –again, you know where this info came from, you source it in your About This Story box – were there discussions about whether to attribute this at the local level? I’m not saying you shouldn’t have attributed it, I’m just wondering about specific choices. Some would argue that with solid backup – and without causing doubts – you could’ve ended the sentence at “owner.” Honestly, in this case I don’t remember. I know right before publication my editor was nervous that there weren’t enough attributions, so this may be one that was reinserted. Call it over-due diligence.
For more than two years, the wrong EPIRB code for the Lady Mary had been kept on file in NOAA’s Maryland office. Which means that as the 71-foot scalloper sinks to the bottom of the sea, a half-billion-dollar satellite passing overhead is all but blind to her. Neat switchback to the present moment Also, notice again the anthropomorphizing of the satellite being “blind.”
When the low-earth satellite finally does register an alert with mission control, a computer indicates there are two possible locations for the signal: Sac City, Iowa — or a point somewhere out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
Eight minutes later — at 7:15 a.m. — the satellite resolves the ambiguity to latitude 38 degrees, 35 minutes, 42.8 seconds north; longitude 073 degrees, 41 minutes and 27.8 seconds west. The alert is coming from 66 miles east by southeast of Cape May. Rafferty’s watch partner picks up the phone and calls Sector Delaware Bay in Philadelphia, which will contact the Coast Guard air station near Atlantic City.
Normally, an Urgent Marine Information Broadcast, or UMIB, is also sent out to all mariners in the area telling them to keep a lookout for a ship in distress. But at Sector Delaware Bay, the communications specialist responsible, Shayne Kendrick, who graduated from Mount Vernon High School in Virginia less than three years earlier, is feeling “overwhelmed” in his new job, which he later admits in a signed statement. Good attribution here
Forty-six minutes pass before Kendrick sends out the first UMIB at 8:01 a.m., and when he does, he makes a mistake. Petty Officer 1st Class Trista Fisher, also on watch, tells him to send the UMIB on two frequencies, VHF Channel 16 and HF Channel 2182, both reserved for emergencies. The signal emitted by VHF is line-of-sight, and only as good as an antenna is tall.
Most recreational vessels and fishing boats will only pick up a VHF message when they’re no more than 20 to 25 miles offshore. The high-frequency channel, HF 2182, can transmit much farther, up to 3,000 miles.
When Kendrick finally punches the information into his computer, he sends it on Channel 16, but not on Channel 2182. The radio message disappears some 40 miles short of the two dozen fishing boats working near the stricken Lady Mary. I like how you phrase this – by making the message the subject of the sentence you give it action/power. Instead of saying something like “The boats near the LM never receive the message” you force us to follow, almost by sight, the message going out over the ocean; the phrase “40 miles short” creates an instant visual; the “disappears” echoes the disappearing vessel I have to say “The Wreck of the Lady Mary” was one of my most visual stories – I felt like I could see the radio signal just drop down and dissolve into the ocean.
LEAPING INTO ACTION
Lake Downham is up and showered and has just spread his gear out on the long tables in the crew room when the station’s Klaxon alarm goes off shortly before 7:30 a.m. — WHAAA-hoo! WHAAA-hoo! WHAAA-hoo!
That means Downham. An aviation survival technician, second class, he’s one of the guys helicopters drop into hellacious seas to save people’s lives. Don’t kill me but I have to play editor for a second and say this may have been one of those moments when you didn’t need to switch to an expository graf. You might’ve done this: “… ’Launch Bravo crew.’ Downham quickly changes from his flight suit into his orange, waterproof and fireproof dry suit. An aviation survival technician, second class, he’s one of the guys helicopters drop into hellacious seas to save people’s lives. While the pilot and co-pilot are briefed on weather and rescue coordinates, Downham repacks his mask…” In retrospect, I totally agree! It should also be obvious to the reader that that’s what this guy does.
Downham quickly changes from his flight suit into his orange, waterproof and fireproof dry suit. While the pilot and co-pilot are briefed on weather and rescue coordinates, Downham repacks his mask, snorkel, fins, flashlights, three knives, gloves, extra batteries, extra straps for his fins, and several chem-lights — small, taffy-shaped flares. I love lists
Before heading out of the hangar to the helicopter, he also grabs breakfast — a chocolate protein shake — from the crew-room refrigerator. Why set this info off in a new graf? It seems to beg for attention yet it doesn’t belong with the previous graf or with the one that follows. Is the graf even necessary? I don’t know why it’s a separate graph, actually. Should be attached to the one above. Don’t know if it had anything to do with layout.
Three hundred miles to the south in Virginia, Coast Guard Petty Officer Rafferty frantically makes survival calculations: air temperature offshore (33 degrees); water temperature (40.6 degrees). Great that you fold this information into the narrative – that you put the action into a character’s hands rather than just delivering information. Did you play with the idea of giving water temperature above, as the ship begins to sink? So glad you didn’t As much as possible, I wanted there to be a person behind the numbers and the details. He feeds the information into a cold exposure survival model and what spits out is not comforting: Based on the approximate time of sinking and the height and weight of an average man wearing some protection from the cold, Rafferty gives the fishermen just 1 to 1.5 hours of functional time, which means the ability to move, and a survival time of 1.5 to 3.1 hours.
At the hangar, the pilot and co-pilot are briefed on weather conditions and the EPIRB coordinates, and the helicopter is slowly cranked up. Downham, along with the pilot, Lt. Cmdr. Tina Peña; co-pilot, Lt. Matt Tuohy; and the flight mechanic, Petty Officer 3rd Class Jason Oyler, are strapped in and ready for takeoff. Peña pushes down on the throttle How did you report this precise fact of pushing down on the throttle/understanding how that particular aircraft flies? Believe it or not, I read an operating manual for this helicopter. of the Coast Guard MH-65C and slowly noses the helicopter up and forward.
At 7:53 a.m. they are airborne, lifting quickly away from Atlantic City. Peña banks to the left and whirls southeast out over the ocean at 140 mph. With a strong tail wind out of the north, they should be on the scene in less than 30 minutes. By that time, and if found right away, the men of the Lady Mary will have been in the water close to three hours.
A SUDDEN RUSH OF HOPE
Dawn arrives early out in the middle of the Atlantic, and sometime before 7 a.m., as José Arias continues to pray to Our Lady of Guadalupe, the first few cracks of light split the bruised horizon. He is losing feeling in his fingers and toes and struggles against exhaustion to keep his face out of the water.
Rising to the top of a wave, he suddenly catches sight of what looks like an enclosed orange life raft about 100 yards away. His vision is blurry and his mind confused, but he’s sure of what he’s seeing and a surge of hope makes him think the others might be alive. As Arias slides into the next trough, the raft disappears behind a wall of water.
“Tim! Frank! Bernie! Bobo!” he yells into the wind.
At the crest of the next wave, he sees the raft again and tries to kick his way toward it, but within seconds stops, exhausted and limp. Expending energy causes heat loss, and humans lose heat 25 to 30 times faster when they’re in water than on land. Interesting Moment o’ Exposition – how did you decide to drop that in? obviously it’s relevant, and I think it’s not that distracting, but some might argue that reading this sentence right after watching poor Arias go limp is like watching a movie only to have the director poke his head in front of the camera and say, “Expending energy causes heat loss and …” Could you have located this information up where we’re learning, from the rescue crew, about the survival conditions? (Asked with love! I mean no disrespect!) I think I did move this sentence around a bit and it does interrupt the narrative a bit, but it was important for the reader to know how quickly life can slip away in the ocean as opposed to on land. A second explanatory sentence definitely would have been over the top!
The blood flowing to Arias’ muscles has thickened and slowed. Hypothermia is beginning to set in.
As the Coast Guard helicopter thunders across the ocean, it’s too noisy inside for conversation. Downham sits uncomfortably on a pad on the floor — there is room for only three seats in the chopper, so the rescue swimmer is odd man out. The ride is bumpy as the helicopter is buffeted by the wind. Strapped to the inside wall of the craft, and left to his own thoughts, Downham stares out the window at the shifting mosaic of whitecaps below.
He’s taken so many wasted trips — maybe 100 — when an EPIRB is set off either accidentally or by a raucous teenager, or someone on a boat who’s had too much to drink. The crew has to launch on every alarm, but they never know until they arrive at the beacon’s location whether it’s a real rescue situation or not.
Since 2006 Downham has helped save a dozen or so fishermen from their boats or life rafts, two jet skiers stranded in a marsh, and the pilot of a Cessna airplane that went down in a blueberry patch not far from the hangar. None had life-threatening injuries. Another annoying editing question but I wondered whether this graf could have been located after the shifting mosaic of the whitecaps, keeping us slightly more in-narrative. So it would’ve been something like: “… stares out the window at the shifting mosaic of whitecaps below. Since 2006, he has helped save a dozen or so fishermen from their boats or life rafts … Yet he’s taken a lot of wasted trips, too – maybe 100 – after an EPIRB…” Then you’d have segued from “…whether it’s a real rescue situation or not” to “The visibility is better than 10 miles…” Don’t hate me because I’m anal. You’re a good editor because you’re anal!! I agree with your suggestion. As an aside, I am one of those writers who sings the praises of my editors because without them I’d look like an idiot. Not possible
The visibility is better than 10 miles and the cloud ceiling high, but pilot Tina Peña and co-pilot Matt Touhy are having trouble with the chopper’s new 406-frequency EPIRB direction finder. It keeps pointing back to land.
Peña decides to switch to an older direction finder 200 times less powerful. For it to work the helicopter must be within five miles of the source to pick up the signal.
During his nearly three hours in the water, he has been clutching the religious medal of Our Lady of Guadalupe that he wears around his neck and repeating to himself, “Me van a salvar. Me van a salvar.” I’m going to be saved, I’m going to be saved.
The orange-and-white helicopter descends from the sky like a quetzal Imma tell ya I hadda look this one up. M-W: “a Central American trogon (Pharomachrus mocinno) that has brilliant green plumage above, a red breast, and in the male long upper tail coverts” Truthfully, I was surprised my editor allowed me to keep this in. I’m stretching it here, I know. from the cloud forest. Arias’ Mayan ancestors called the colorful bird “God of the air,” and as the helicopter’s rotors thump overhead, happiness floods the fisherman’s heart.
“Gracias, Dios mío. Gracias,” he says to himself. Thank you, my God. Thank you.
He tries to shout to the helicopter, but the wind scatters his voice. Ensconced in his immersion suit, he waves one arm, then the other, making sure never to let go of the board, but it’s not easy. Even when dry, the survival suit weighs 12 pounds, but because so much water has seeped in, it probably weighs twice as much. In the sourcing box you say a similar survival suit was tested twice – did you do the testing? If so, wow, tell me about that My colleague, Andre, and I bought two suits and tested them in the water off a Cape May beach. He zipped his all the way up, but I wanted to know what it was like, and how the water got in, if I zipped it only as far as Jose, Bobo and Tim did. One thing I realized was how difficult it is to maneuver in a survival suit when you’re floating in the water, making it even clearer to me how crucial it was that Jose went into the water on his back, and that Bobo and Timbo likely did not. A lot of people make fun of immersion journalism – wow, I just realized this was literally immersion journalism! – but it was so important to this story. For instance, being out on the scallop boat in gale-like conditions made me realize several important things. First, that rough conditions like that do not fazefishermen in the least and that the boats are built to sustain these conditions. Second, that at night, with the deck lights blazing, it is impossible to see anything beyond a few feet past the boat’s gunwales. And third – because we actually saw a container ship pass by us on one of our trips – that these big ships are actually not well lit at night and that it is easy to come close to them, especially when you are working, and not be aware how close you truly are. This helped me a lot when people would ask after reading the series how it was possible that Jose did not see anything. As it turns out, very possible. Did you have safety backup when you were testing those suits? Any seasickness while out on that scallop boat? When we tested the suits we did it one at a time so that one of us was right there on the beach. As for seasickness: Oh. My. God. I was violently ill, and so was Andre, but luckily not until a couple of hours after me, because it rendered us both helpless. It was fine going out, flat water, then the wind picked up – and up and up. I was getting sick over the side of the boat but it was SO rough – even though they kept working – and so slippery with the rain and the water sloshing over the sides of the boat, that the captain told me he needed to lash me to the gunwales for my safety, or I needed to go back into the covered portion of the boat. At that point I wouldn’t have cared if I’d washed overboard, but I acceded to the last request and he gave me a bucket. After 13 or 14 hours, when we finally pulled into the dock the next morning, I told the captain, in all honesty, that I’d been through 18 months of chemo (for breast cancer) five years earlier and I would go through that again – in a heartbeat – before I’d ever go out on a scallop boat again! He was both amused and shocked, and told me that was worse than the guy who told him he’d rather go back to jail!! It was truly an invaluable experience, and truly the worst experience of my life. … I did, however, lose 3pounds but for at least a week, even standing in the shower, I felt seasick!
The helicopter, tightening its search pattern, moves a little north of Arias.
“Me ven, no?” They see me, don’t they?
“That’s a life raft, 3 o’clock!” Downham yells out. I love that you didn’t do something typical and Dramatic like “But they did see him. Downham spotted Arias and yelled, ‘That’s a life raft…’”; the juxtaposed points of view are perfect He’s spotted a swatch of orange, bobbing in the heavy seas, and he thinks he can see an arm waving. It’s 8:36 a.m.
The helicopter hovers, just 300 feet from the surface of the roiling sea. It is a delicate dance, trying to hold position in 35-knot winds above a moving, surging surface. An MH-65C helicopter normally carries 1,600 pounds of fuel, which it burns at a rate of about 600 pounds an hour when flying. When hovering, however, it burns more, as much as 750 pounds an hour.
Adrenaline surging, Downham removes his helmet and takes out the ear plugs that help save his hearing from the violent roar of the rotors and engine. He puts on his fins, mask and snorkel, and hooks onto the hoist that will lower him into the water.
When the flight mechanic, Jason Oyler, pats Downham on the chest — the “go” sign — he detaches himself from the safety belt tethering him to the inside of the helicopter.
Oyler uses the hoist to raise Downham a couple of inches off the floor to make sure the harness is secure, then swings him out and slowly lowers him into the sea.
Even in his dry suit, Downham is staggered by the cold. At 80 miles an hour, the rotor wash scalds his face, and with his flotation vest, lifting harness, radio, strobe light, pocket flares and knives, he has added another 45 to 50 pounds to his already considerable frame.
Disconnecting from the hoist, he is in essence a 300-pound man swimming toward a moving life raft, in 10-foot seas, half a football field away.
Before he gets to the raft, Downham realizes the “arm” waving at the helicopter is actually the flap over the entrance to the covered raft. Peeking inside, his spirits sink again. No one. Just a few supplies — food, a radio, the usual survival items, wrapped in plastic, unopened. Did he remember seeing these specific things in that chaotic moment or did you later learn what the raft contained or likely contained? Both – from Downham and from Coast Guard reports
After radioing the information to the helicopter, Downham slits the lifeboat with his knife and deflates it. He can’t leave the raft floating, since it would likely result in more alarms being called in to the Coast Guard by other vessels.
Once back in the helicopter, Downham removes his mask and fins. As Peña turns the craft in a circle around the raft, she loses her bearings for a moment.
“Where’s the raft? All I can see is a red buoy down there,” she says.
Downham, looking out the window, knows that’s not right.
“I got a plank in the water, 2 o’clock and there’s a survivor suit on it,” he shouts out.
The survivor suit moves.
“There’s someone in the water!”
Quickly, Downham dons his gear again, and about 8:40 a.m. is lowered on the hoist and swims out to the man in the water. Six-foot swells carry the rescue swimmer up and down the heaving seas. Every few seconds, José Arias catches sight of the man in the dry suit, his neon-yellow arms thrashing powerfully toward him.
“I’m a Coast Guard swimmer and I’m going to get you out of here,” Downham announces to Arias, just like he’s been taught. The middle-aged fisherman is still clinging to the piece of wood he carried onto the Lady Mary before the trip began.
“Thank you. Gracias. Thank you,” Arias says, over and over, switching between English and Spanish. Downham struggles to pull the man’s arms off the plank and push it away, but Arias resists. The piece of wood has saved his life. Downham will have none of it. His job is to rescue people in distress, and that’s what he does, even if it means he has to manhandle them a bit. Was there info here that you held back? What did Downham have to do to get Arias off the plank? I was purposefully a bit vague because Downham couldn’t remember exactly, just that he had to quickly “convince” Jose to let go.
A NEW, POTENTIALLY LETHAL DANGER
The fastest way up into the helicopter is the harness, or lifting strop, since it’s secured under the arms and legs, but when someone has been in cold water for any length of time, it’s also more dangerous. Hanging vertically from the strop, the body’s blood will suddenly drain away from the core where it was redirected in the frigid water to keep the heart and lungs warm. Saved from hypothermia, the victim could easily go into cardiac arrest before reaching the helicopter door. never knew that Me, neither, until Downham explained it to me.
Downham gives Oyler a thumbs up, which means drop the 4-foot-long metal basket. Buoyant cushions attached to the top edges of the basket allow it to float, and Downham pushes Arias in, headfirst. The slack cable whips around both men, threatening to entangle them, so when Downham signals Oyler to start the hoist, the rescue swimmer clings to the bottom of the basket until the cable is taut, then drops 5 feet back into the water. Oyler will send the hoist down for him after Arias is safely aboard.
When both men are in the helicopter, Downham opens a special hypothermic blanket and drapes it around Arias’ shoulders. Then Oyler taps Downham on the back. The flight mechanic points out the door of the helicopter, and down. Someone else has been spotted in the water.
As he’s lowered a second time, Downham sees the orange survival suit is facedown, and he’s worried he’s too late. Swimming through the churning water, he can tell the man’s eyes are open.
“Hey! Hey!” he yells as he turns the body face up, just as he’s been taught. He rubs hard on the man’s sternum with his knuckles to try to get a pain response. The technique can sometimes rouse a person from unconsciousness, but Downham’s sternum rub produces no reaction at all. The victim’s eyes are fixed, his mouth is open slightly and a white cable is wrapped around his legs.
Downham calls again for the basket, pushes and pulls the body into it, then gives Oyler the thumbs up. When it’s his turn to be hoisted, Downham just reaches the helicopter door and sees Oyler again pointing downward — another survival suit in the water.
The helicopter has been hovering for nearly 20 minutes, quickly burning through its “bag” of gas. Before Downham is lowered again, co-pilot Tuohy gives him a sign: five fingers, or five minutes to “bingo,” the cutoff time for the chopper to get back to land with a safe margin of fuel.
When Downham reaches the second body, it, too, is turned facedown, eyes open and unresponsive. It’s clear from the stiffness of the arms and legs that rigor mortis has set in. Downham realizes he can’t call for the basket — it’s only 4 feet long and is meant for sitting. This man is at least 6 feet tall and has rigor mortis. He doesn’t even know Tuohy has been unable to move the first body out of the basket. The strop is the only alternative.
This is his fourth time in the water, and Downham tries not to think about his screaming muscles. The cold is starting to numb his fingers, even though he’s wearing special gloves, and he fumbles to secure the harness to the body. When he finally does, he hooks himself onto the hoist, just above the body, and the two are lifted together. All so tightly/rivetingly told
After he unhitches, Downham helps Oyler pull the body in, but the man’s legs are so rigid they stick out the door of the helicopter. Peña has to head back — now — or she risks ditching the chopper in the sea. But she can’t go until the door is closed. It takes all the strength Downham and Oyler have to bend the body and get the legs inside. Amazing details; did the specifics come up in the hearings or did you have to get them to walk you thru every single moment? Often when people are reconstructing stories they skip over details This was entirely from repeated interview questions
It’s close to 9 a.m. when Peña points the helicopter northwest. They had a tail wind out. Now they’re in a head wind. The trip back will not only take longer, it will use up more fuel.
After Downham removes his mask, snorkel and fins, he feels helpless for the first time. Neither body appears to have vital signs, but he can’t just sit there. With Oyler’s help, he reaches into the basket and pulls on the man’s legs until his back is flat against the bottom, then begins CPR.
Hunched over in the tail of the chopper, Arias watches solemnly as Downham unzips Tim’s survival suit, then takes out his knife and cuts the suit at the waist to expose more of his chest. When he does, seawater gushes out. Downham flinches, Again, amazingly tight, precise details; how’d that happen? Basic interviewing or a process of re-interviewing and/or documents or …? Interviewing. It was a moment that stood out for Downham, so it wasn’t hard to get. worried all the saltwater might short-out the helicopter’s electronics. After slicing through Tim’s wet undershirt, and applying several conduction pads to Tim’s chest, Downham tries to shock the fisherman back to life, twice.
Every time he looks up from his work, he catches Arias’ eyes, and when he does, Arias asks, almost pleadingly, “He okay, yes?”
Downham pulls an oxygen mask over Tim’s face and begins CPR: 30 compressions, then two pumps of the oxygen bottle; 30 compressions, two pumps, over and over for 45 minutes, all the way back to the air station.
When the helicopter lands at 9:30 a.m. with a nearly empty tank, two ambulances are on the tarmac. Arias, flopping around in his bulky survival suit, is escorted into one of them and taken to AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center, 12 miles away in the heart of Atlantic City.
Bobo is placed in a body bag and carried from the helicopter on a stretcher.
Tim, still cradled in the basket, is carefully lowered to the ground. The entire time, Downham continues CPR, even as Tim is lifted onto a gurney.
Both bodies are put in the second ambulance, to be taken to the morgue at Shore Memorial Hospital, nine miles from Atlantic City.
Finally, Downham stops the compressions.
“Is there anything else I could have done?” he asks the EMT.
“No,” the man replies. “Nothing.”