In Part 2 of our annotation of Amy Ellis Nutt‘s Pulitzer-winning “The Wreck of the Lady Mary,” Nutt, of the Newark Star-Ledger, explains how the investigative track of her five-chapter narrative unfolded. Yesterday, in Part 1, she walked us through the story conception and first two sections of the series, which chronicled the sinking of an Atlantic scallop boat and the deaths of all but one of the crew, exposing flaws in maritime safety law. The blue bits are Paige Williams, the red bits are Nutt. For more annotations, see the Tampa Bay Times’ Michael Kruse on 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.
Edith Jones, longtime partner of Bernie Smith, lies on the couch in her apartment in Wildwood. It is 11 a.m., and Jones is expecting Bernie back the next day. On ABC, Channel 6 in Philadelphia, Rachael Ray has just finished interviewing the latest winner of TV’s “The Biggest Loser” show. Jones is waiting for “The View” to start when Action News breaks in with a special report.
The Lady Mary, a fishing boat out of Cape May, appears to have sunk, the announcer says. One man is reported to be alive, two others are either dead or in very critical condition, and four are still missing.
Jones leaps off the couch and calls her daughter Rebecca.
“Bernie’s boat went down!” she screams into the phone.
For 15 years, Jones, now 70, and Bernie, one of Fuzzy’s younger brothers, lived together in a photograph-filled apartment in Wildwood. He was devoted to Jones, and when he wasn’t at sea the two were rarely apart. Bernie, 59, cooked for her, even accompanied her to the laundromat, and when they weren’t watching “Dancing with the Stars” or his favorite show, “Friday Night Smackdown,” they were out dancing in Cape May. She often wore her red chiffon dress, he his red tie and tux. Even when they attended the First Baptist Church in Whitesboro every Sunday, they liked to wear matching outfits. Another great visual; same question – how’d you get? Was there a particular line of questioning that took you there? I noticed a photograph on a coffee table – the one of the couple in their matching red outfits – and asked Edith about it.
As Bobo did with Stacy, Bernie always called Edith after she dropped him off at the dock for another fishing trip and the boat was pulling out of port. Usually she wasn’t even back home yet when her phone rang.
“I love you, honey” was always the first thing he said. I’m curious about this, knowing grieving families tend to idealize the dead. Please understand I do not mean to cast doubt, but really, seriously? Did you wonder? Sure, you wonder. But when someone insists, then you have to go with it. I also figured people would “see” through the statement for what it is – that he surely said it a lot, but “always” when it’s said about anything, is doubtful. The two talked for 15 or 20 minutes, past the lighthouse and the Coast Guard buoys, Nice. This because it puts us two places at once until reception was lost.
In 2007 Jones retired after 27 years as a housekeeper at the Crest Haven Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Cape May Courthouse. Her first husband, Alford, died in her arms when he was just 58. Several years later she met Bernie. The love of her life, Bernie didn’t mind when Edith said he and Alford were so alike they could have been twin brothers.
“Don’t make no plans,” Bernie joked with Edith on the morning of March 18 as the boat steamed east toward the Elephant Trunk. “We’re going to Virginia Beach when I come back.”
“All right,” she said, but the line had already gone dead.
The Lady Mary was out of reach.
A DANGEROUS CALLING
Fuzzy wasn’t expecting his sons back until Wednesday morning. That gave him just enough time to drive home to Bayboro, N.C., run some errands and see his wife, Hazel. A few hours later he’d turn around and be back in Cape May in time for the Lady Mary’s arrival. There would be scallops to weigh and checks to cut for the crew.
The commute was a long one, 12 hours each way, but Fuzzy drove it 40, 50, 60 times every fishing season. He’d grown used to it, prizing the quiet time alone. He ran his Ford Lariat up onto the Cape May ferry, and when the boat hit the shore in Lewes, Del., 90 minutes later, he turned the truck south down the Delmarva Peninsula and across the Chesapeake Bay. Lovely Before he reached Bayboro, 200 miles to the south, he would thread his way through dozens of small towns stitched into the Virginia and North Carolina coastline.
The sky was high and cloudless — the kind of day air traffic controllers refer to as “severe clear” — and the good weather put Fuzzy at ease. Bobo and Tim would soon be hauling back and heading home.
Commercial fishermen always have risked life and limb to pursue a profession where a mere change in wind or a minor mechanical malfunction might mean they never get home. Every year throughout the 1800s, the village of Gloucester, Mass., the oldest seaport in the country, lost about 200 fishermen — approximately 4 percent of its population — to weather and accidents.
Advancements in navigational technology and boat design made the occupation safer and the industry profitable, but it also created crowded seas. Overfishing and environmental concerns eventually led to shorter fishing seasons and strict enforcement, all of which meant crews took more chances — going out in bad weather or overloading their boats with too much catch — to meet regulations and make deadlines. I appreciate this truncated but info-packed history. What decisions did you have to make about how much to include? What bits did you have to scale back as you moved forward? Oh, Lord, Paige, we cut out probably another 100 inches of explanatory info because it just bogged the story down so much. In the case of the regulations, they are so complicated that I had to really work to synthesize this. Again, though, this is where we made good use of sidebars and graphics.
In August 1985, 20-year-old Yale student Peter Barry died with five other crewmen aboard an Alaskan salmon boat. His parents — his father was a former congressman and a member of the staffs of two U.S. presidents — succeeded in pushing Congress to pass the Commercial Fishing Industry Vessel Safety Act of 1988. Here is an amazing coincidence. After the Pulitzers were announced I received an email from the mother of another Pulitzer winner, Ellen Barry of the NYT. Peggy Barry, who had not yet read my story, only a basic description of it, just wanted to reach out to me with her story. I told her that she and her husband and her late son were part of my series, and so when we met at the luncheon it was very moving for us both.
The new law mandated lifesaving and firefighting equipment on all fishing vessels, as well as survival suits and EPIRBs on vessels operating in certain waters.
Deaths declined by more than 30 percent over the next five years. But fishermen, notorious for their fiercely guarded independence, resisted many of the recommendations. Commercial fishing remained — and remains — the most dangerous occupation in America with a fatality rate 30 times that of the average American worker, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Between 1992 and 2007, 1,093 commercial fishing vessels and 934 men and women were lost at sea, the Government Accountability Office reported last year. Fully a third of those deaths were Atlantic Coast fishermen.
In New Jersey alone, more than 100 commercial fishermen have died on the job since reliable records began to be kept in 1931. Last year 11 died, the worst since the winter of 1999 when the same number was lost. In the aftermath of those deaths, a special Coast Guard task force issued a report and made 59 recommendations. More than a decade later, only a handful have been officially adopted.
The 80-page document opens with an 1816 quote from Sir Walter Scott, expressing a reality that is often still true, nearly 200 years later:
“It’s not fish you are buying — it’s men’s lives.” I like the inclusion of all of this info because, obviously, it’s important context. I was surprised by it – learned something from it – and in some ways almost wanted just a tad more about how dangerous a career choice fishing has remained. Curious to know whether there was any of that typical talk about breaking this data out into a graphic, and also whether you considered getting back to Fuzzy before the subhed. I almost always over-research my stories and so much of it is eventually left on the cutting room floor, so to speak. For instance, I learned a great deal about the arcane, ancient rules of navigation on the sea, but probably only included a single sentence about them. As for getting back to Fuzzy earlier, I think we probably moved him around quite a bit before he ended up here. And again, sidebars and graphics helped alleviate the need for all the explanatory information in the body of the story, but not completely.
‘HAVE YOU HEARD?’
Fuzzy was nearly to the North Carolina border when his cell phone rang. It was Keith Laudeman, owner of the Lobster House.
“Fuzzy, where are you at? Have you heard anything about the Lady Mary sinking?”
“What!? No, no way.”
Fuzzy immediately dialed Bobo’s cell phone, then Tim’s. Both calls went to voice mail. That wasn’t surprising, he realized, they were still too far out. Heck, he talked to Bobo three days earlier and everything was fine. Fuzzy kept driving south toward Bayboro, running names and numbers through his head. Who could he phone to get more information?
A half-hour later, Laudeman called back.
“Fuzzy, you better come on back here,” he said. “Something’s not right.”
Without even thinking, Fuzzy U-turned across two lanes of traffic and gunned his truck north.
Around the same time, Carinna Smith, Tim’s wife, was ironing a blouse for work when her phone rang, too.
“Have you heard from Tim?” Carinna’s friend, Martha Crawley, asked.
“I’ll hear from him soon. He’s due this week.”
“You know a boat went down, don’t you?” Martha asked, gently.
“No, no. I’d hear from his dad if anything was wrong.”
An hour later, at the Woodbine Developmental Center, Carinna’s cell phone rang again. This time it was her pastor, Thomas Dawson, from the First Baptist Church of Woodbine. “Carinna, have you heard from Tim?”
“No, I’m due to hear from him,” she said for the second time that morning.
“A boat went down,” Dawson said. “Do you know the name of Tim’s boat?”
Carinna’s mind raced in a million different directions. Why couldn’t she remember?
“Well, they’re all named after his grandmother, Mary something or something Mary.”
“Lady Mary?” the Rev. Dawson asked.
“That’s one of them.”
Carinna couldn’t believe it, didn’t want to believe it. Tim was too good a fisherman, and he was with Bobo and Bernie and Frankie Credle. Together, they were four experienced captains. How could they sink? She remembered when they first met, the movie “The Perfect Storm” had just been released. The story of the six New England fishermen killed when their boat went down in one of the worst storms of the century frightened her, but Tim was reassuring.
“Baby, you know things are in place. I’m always watching the weather. If water gets in, alarms go off.”
And when the weather wasn’t good, he would call her and say, “Baby, I’m laying up.” I love these bits of his voice She trusted his judgment and several times actually went out with him on the boat when he went fishing. She loved watching him work the winches and steer the boat, bringing in a full load of scallops. She was proud of Tim, and so she learned not to be afraid when he was out.
In fact, she embraced Tim’s love of the sea. Three hundred guests were invited to their wedding, and Carinna did the decorations herself for the reception at the Rio Grande fire hall. She collected hundreds of snail shells, boiled and bleached them, then dipped them in glitter and deposited one at every place setting. Haunting detail
THE TERRIBLE WAIT AT THE DOCK
If the sea was going to be her husband’s life, it would be hers, too. When Carinna hung up with Pastor Dawson, she immediately dialed Fuzzy.
“Dad, they said a boat went down!”
“I know,” Fuzzy said. He was still driving north. “I’m trying to find out now.”
Carinna remembered Tim telling her, “Baby, if I fall overboard this time of the year, it ain’t good.” She couldn’t stay at work and she was too distraught to drive, so Crawley picked her up and drove her to Cape May.
Waiting at the dock was awful, and each new bit of information made it more so: A life raft had been spotted, but no one was inside. Three men had been recovered from the water, but only one was definitively alive.
Carinna kept Fuzzy apprised of all the reports. He was a fisherman, and he knew how bad it was. His sons were dead. Now he dreaded they’d never be found.
When word reached him that two bodies had been recovered, he prayed over and over: “Please God, let them two boys be mine.” Heartbreaking; how did you get the precise quote, and how did Fuzzy come to reveal it was the first time he’d ever prayed? It amazes me that in the face of known catastrophe families often just want to know where their loved one is Capt. Fuzzy is an amazing man. He shared his innermost feelings with us, sometimes in just a few words, sometimes reluctantly – there were a lot of long silences after he answered a question, and that’s usually when he would fill in the silence with his sorrow. We have him on the video saying this same thing, his voice cracking. In his entire life, he’d never prayed for a single thing.
“I won’t ever ask for nothing else,” he pleaded. “Just let those boys they got out of the water be mine.”
All afternoon, friends, relatives and fishermen gathered on the Cold Spring dock, as if hoping their presence might be enough to will the Lady Mary home safe and sound. Under an excruciatingly blue sky, they huddled and embraced and whispered encouragements to one another. But they all knew. How could they not?
Few survive the total loss of a vessel, especially that far out, and in water that cold. Most fishermen understand and accept this, but not their families, who for centuries have waited on shores for men who never came home.
For the most part, the other fishing vessels out in the Elephant Trunk still didn’t know anything was wrong with one of the boats in their fleet. The Urgent Marine Information Broadcasts coming out of Sector Delaware Bay were sent out only on one frequency, which couldn’t reach more than 20 or 30 miles out, and the rescue helicopter’s few attempts to broadcast were thwarted by having to hover so low over the rough seas.
Not until late in the afternoon of the 24th did any of the other fishing vessels know one of their own had gone down. At 3:40 p.m., some 10 hours after the Lady Mary sank, and more than four hours after the Coast Guard ship Dependable arrived on scene, the cutter issued an urgent radio broadcast for all vessels to be on the lookout for “possible PIW” — “persons in the water.” The mariners’ lingo sprinkled throughout this series builds credibility/authority/, adds color, captures a world/subculture
Twenty minutes later, the scalloper Kathryn Marie radioed back to report she’d heard a short, frantic call about 5:15 a.m., but nothing else after that.
At 5:47 p.m. the fishing vessel Margaret Rose volunteered to help. Then Jim Taylor aboard the Elise G. offered to assist. Forty minutes after that, the fishing boats Miss Planters and Nancy Elizabeth joined the others in what would prove to be a fruitless search for the missing men of the Lady Mary. Great details and such evocative names – sourcing? The Coast Guard hearings included a map of the boats that were nearby and I spoke with many of their skippers.
At the Coast Guard air station, Lake Downham was back in the hangar’s crew room by noon. High on the room’s back wall are the testaments to the lives he and his fellow rescue swimmers have saved. The dozen or so life preservers and flotation devices bear inscriptions, scribbled in black ink, with the vessel’s name and the date of rescue or the persons on board (POB): “Killing Time,” “Gypsy Blood (Aug. 2004),” “Tapped Out (5-12-08),” “The Chief (7 POB).” Glad you saved this description for now rather than putting it up high with Downham’s introduction; how did you arrive at this decision? First, it means so much more, and it is that much more effective, after you know that nothing was brought back from the Lady Mary except two bodies. Also, this is where the story gets “quiet,” with Downham back at the hangar with basically nothing to do, after all that tremendous drama, so it seemed appropriate to be more descriptive here, as if the reader is just looking around the inside of the crew room along with Downham.
A couple of his colleagues asked Downham if he was okay.
“Yeah, sure,” he answered, although truthfully he wasn’t sure.
Downham unpacked his gear and rinsed his equipment, then joined the co-pilot, Matt Tuohy, to hose down the inside of the helicopter. When someone dies during transport, or a body is recovered at sea, the helicopter must be specially cleansed.
After showering, Downham’s shift was nearly up. Another rescue swimmer offered to take the rest of his watch. Inside his cherry-red Pontiac Grand Am, Downham flipped on the satellite radio and turned to Howard Stern.
Settling back, he stretched his well-muscled arms out toward the steering wheel. Both are covered in tattooed seascapes — violent ones, with skulls, lightning, ominous purple clouds and white-capped waves. Another terrific bit of delayed detail – thank you for not telling us this early on; why didn’t you? You always want to spread out the details, plus I think it’s more meaningful to describe the tattoos AFTER the reader has gotten to know Downham a bit and after everything he’s been through. Downham’s mind wandered. He’d never seen a dead body, So much more effective to deliver this information now; some might argue this point, or all these points, but I think if you’d dropped this info into the rescue scene, or just before the rescue/recovery, you’d have risked ruining it with melodrama. Learning it here allows us to feel the power of his reflection He wondered, in an almost clinical kind of way, whether it was going to affect him. Would he be able to sleep that night? What would he feel like when he woke up the next day?
An hour later he pulled up to the house in Sea Bright he shared with his future wife, Alexis. She was still at school, teaching, so Downham donned his wet suit, grabbed one of his surfboards, and headed to the beach. The wind had changed and the waves weren’t particularly good. Still, he stayed out on the water for two hours.
BEHIND THE DOOR
When the local news reported three fishermen had been taken to the hospital, Carinna and Crawley got back in the car and drove to AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center in Atlantic City. A nurse told her only one of the men from the Lady Mary was there — José Arias. Two bodies, she said, were taken to Shore Memorial Hospital.
Not until their bodies were being transported from the Coast Guard air station to the hospital were Tim and Bobo Smith declared dead: Tim at 10:01 a.m., Bobo at 10:06. Nine miles from Atlantic City, Shore Memorial’s secondary ambulance entrance doubles as the drop-off for valet parking. This is also where the body bags are delivered, then wheeled down a serpentine series of hallways that dead-ends at the morgue. Sounds like you walked it Yep. The doorknob-less entry is key-card only.
At 4 p.m., Ralph Henkel, from the Atlantic County Medical Examiner’s Office, escorted Carinna, Crawley, Carinna’s mother, Shirly Harris, and Pastor Dawson toward the door of the morgue. Fuzzy, having driven all the way back, joined them, but refused to go any farther. Harris stayed behind as well.
“Are you ready?” Henkel asked Carinna.
She nodded yes.
Inside the morgue, coroner Hadow Park stood between two gurneys. Lying on the one closest to the door was the body of Royal “Bobo” Smith Jr. Interesting move back to the full name – reason? I think it emphasizes the finality of death and is actually more respectful. and next to it, the remains of Timothy Smith. At first, Carinna could only see Bobo. He looked so peaceful, she thought, not a mark on his face.
When the coroner stepped to the side, Carinna inhaled sharply. Nice detail; source? Carinna “re-enacted” the moment for us. There he was, her beloved Tim, lying side by side with his older brother. A wail of horror and grief could be heard on the other side of the morgue’s thick wooden door and Fuzzy’s legs buckled. Interesting camera shift, from the inside of the room to the corridor, then back again. Why move from Carinna to Fuzzy and back? Well, because I really did “see” this story before I wrote it, and I wanted to “tell” this scene from the perspective of the two most important people to Bobo. Also, it’s to be expected that Carinna would wail. What’s not exactly expected is Fuzzy’s response.
“I love you, Tim. I love you, baby,” she said over and over. “I’ll see you again. I promise. I’ll see you again.”
Crawley and the Rev. Dawson helped her out into the hallway.
“It’s them!” she cried out to Fuzzy.
The two collapsed in each other’s arms. This is one of those single-sentence grafs that I as an editor would ask you to defend as a standalone but I don’t mean to suggest you made the wrong choice; I’m just saying I’d have encouraged a small discussion about single-sentence grafs in general and certain choices in particular. Sometimes SSGs are great (“SSGs” aren’t a thing; I just made that up), and sometimes I worry they’re overly Writerly I am now officially going to have to think a lot more about the SSG’s (nice acronym). In a lot of instances it really is because our style is not to tack the description onto the end of the quote, and it doesn’t belong with the following graph, so there you have it.
An examination of Tim’s body revealed a distended stomach, the result of swallowing large amounts of water, and white, frothy fluid in the trachea, the larynx and the lungs — all consistent with asphyxia due to drowning. Are autopsy reports public record in NJ? If not, how’d you get them? what documents challenges did you encounter overall in the reporting? Yes, unless they are part of an open investigation into the cause of the death. … As for reporting challenges, we FOIA’ed the Coast Guard and the NTSB but all our requests were denied due to the “continuing investigation.”
Bobo’s body, the coroner noted, had fully developed rigor mortis, which in cases of recent drowning was evidence of a brief, violent struggle to survive. In all likelihood, when Bobo’s face hit the frigid water he involuntarily gasped, drawing water immediately into his lungs and sending him into a panic from which he couldn’t recover. Cadaveric spasm — the rigidity of the arms and legs — is a kind of flash-freezing that occurs almost instantaneously when a victim drowns this way. I’ve never heard of this; thank you for such a facile explanation I didn’t know it either, until I started doing the research. The more Bobo battled to breathe, the less likely he was to live.
At 7:51 p.m. on Wednesday, nearly 37 hours after the search and rescue was initiated, the Coast Guard suspended the mission. Two helicopters, two cutters and a C-130 long-range surveillance plane had covered some 3,417 square nautical miles, but turned up nothing more than debris.
After his rescue, José Arias spent three hours at AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center. The doctors examined him head to toe, checked his temperature and blood pressure, and eventually deemed him well enough to return home. The board he’d clung to all those hours had kept his upper body out of the water, helping him to retain heat longer, thereby slowing the effects of hypothermia. Crucial info about what allowed him to survive
His problem now was that he was shoeless, and his only clothes — underwear really — had been ripped by the EMTs in the ambulance when they tried to check his body for injuries. From the hospital’s special closet of secondhand clothes, a nurse picked out a pair of pants, T-shirt and sneakers. A young woman with the Coast Guard offered him a sweater and blue jacket, then drove him home to Wildwood. So interesting; did you think this through cinematically and go ‘wait, how’d he have any clothes?’ or did he volunteer this info and you took it deeper? It was during one of our last interviews when we again went through what happened on the boat that night, and when he said he was wearing his boxers I realized he must have needed clothes in the hospital, and so I asked him.
Climbing the rickety staircase Rickety = great. Observation? We climbed them a number of times. on the outside of his second-floor apartment, Arias was hungry and exhausted, his body thoroughly beaten down by the weather, the waves and his desperate struggle to survive. Alone now, the images piled up in his mind — the Lady Mary lurching to port, the helpless look of his friend Frank Reyes, then swimming free of the Lady Mary before she slipped under the waves.
Arias couldn’t eat and he didn’t want to think. He lay down on his bed, just a mattress on the apartment’s small living-room floor, and closed his eyes. How did you choose to end this chapter with Arias? I like that you did, and that image of him lying alone on the floor is heartbreaking and points us forward, story-wise. Had you ended with one of the families of the dead there the unpacking would’ve been a bit predictable – mourning, funerals, etc. – whereas one wonders where a shipwreck survivor goes from here and what happened Exactly. I also wanted to vary my endings, and there has been so much drama to the story this far, that it needed a quiet place, and I wanted to get back to Jose.
Just before dawn March 24, 2009, on black, moonless seas, the container ship Cap Beatrice was steaming toward the Delaware breakwater where the bay and the ocean meet. So clear, so lovely; why do you suppose so many writers (myself included) get so carried away and wind up overdoing it? Oh, boy, I am a classic “over-doer,” but I’ve always had fabulous editors to rein me in. Here, deep-draft vessels like the Cap Beatrice pause and take on a river pilot, who then guides the ship up the Delaware into the Port of Philadelphia. Occasionally a ship will wait at the breakwater if a berth in port is not immediately available, but containers, which often carry food and other perishables, normally do not.
From her position 66 miles off the coast at 5 a.m., the approximate time the Lady Mary sank, the Cap Beatrice needed only about three hours to reach the breakwater. It took her 17, according to the records of the area’s river pilots association, as well as the Maritime Exchange for the Delaware River and Bay, which monitors the area’s river and bay traffic.
“Generally, ships wait one or one and a half hours at the breakwater,” said Capt. Dick Buckaloo, acting president of the Pilots Association for the Bay and River Delaware. “For containers, downtime is lost money for them. So it’s odd when a container waits.”
What the Cap Beatrice was doing remains unclear, even to the Coast Guard, which received no signal for six hours from the ship’s Automatic Identification System, a tracking device that records speed, position and direction. Her last transmission was recorded by the Coast Guard at 35 seconds past the hour, 5 a.m. Eastern Standard Time. The precision here is essential to the chronology. To have written “just past 5 a.m.” would’ve been lazyish
Because of the missing AIS data, all the Coast Guard could conclude was that the Cap Beatrice “hung” around for seven or eight hours at the breakwater, said communications officer Timothy Marriott, who testified at the marine investigation into the sinking. Did the Coast Guard not press the CB captain for answers? This was a very, very frustrating part of the story. The Coast Guard did interview the crew of the Cap B. – albeit two months after the accident – but their responses to questions were not part of the hearings and the C.G. steadfastly refused to tell us anything.
“That’s unusual,” said Capt. John Hagedorn, who teaches in the marine transportation department at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y. “Either there was some problem on the ship or someone shut it off.”
A river pilot boarded the Cap Beatrice after she reached the mouth of the Delaware at 1:11 a.m. March 25, according to Paul Myhre, the director of operations at the maritime exchange, and steered her the final 86 miles up river to the port. She arrived at the Packer Avenue marine terminal at 7:30 a.m., and longshoremen began to unload the ship at 10 a.m.
Technically, the investigation into the sinking of the Lady Mary was already 24 hours old. According to the Code of Federal Regulations, the Coast Guard’s commandant or one of its district commanders, “upon receipt of information of a marine casualty or accident, will immediately cause such investigation as may be necessary,” including taking possession of all voyage data and navigation records of vessels possibly involved in, or witnesses to, the casualty.
The Cap Beatrice left the Port of Philadelphia at 1:34 a.m. Thursday, March 26, 2009, heading south to Savannah, Ga., then back through the Panama Canal and eventually to Australia. Although the Cap Beatrice was docked for nearly 18 hours, no one from the Coast Guard contacted her captain, Vasyl Stenderchuk, the shipping agency that leases her, Hamburg Sud, or the German company that owns her, Reederei Thomas Schulte. In particular, no one from the Coast Guard interviewed Capt. Stenderchuk or requested him to save the information on the ship’s black-box voyage-data recorder, even though it could have filled in the missing AIS record. I’m guessing all of this is so heavily attributed because you had very little cooperation, if any, from the CB’s owners, and litigation is still possible. How did you deal with the company – did you hold back until you knew a certain amount and then approach them about the ship’s whereabouts/possible role in the sinking of the LM? What were the challenges of getting company info and relevant details? A lot of these questions will be answered in the next section, but in short, when I felt we had accumulated enough circumstantial evidence that strongly suggested the Cap B. hit the LM, I emailed and called the shipping company. At first the company was willing to talk a bit, albeit defensively, but then they clammed up. And when we went back to Philly to try and interview the new crew of the Cap B. when she was in port again last summer, we were prevented from getting anywhere near the ship. We also talked about the possibility of going over to Germany and trying to confront them, but it was decided that the expense and the time were probably not worth it.
Not until the Cap Beatrice returned from its trip to Australia did officials from the Coast Guard’s marine investigation interview her captain and crew, Good Lord, why? The C.G. had no good explanation, except to say that was the earliest they could interview them and New Jersey State Police divers inspect her bulbous bow. By that time, the Lady Mary had been lying on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean for two months.
Two days after visiting the Cap Beatrice, the Coast Guard announced it found no evidence of a collision between the Lady Mary and the container ship. All this time I sort of assumed the LM capsized after getting caught in the CB’s wake and taking on water. How much did you and eds kick around how strongly/overtly to draw conclusions? I’m not seeing direct evidence that the CB caused the LM to sink, or am I missing something? This was bandied about quite a bit. All of the evidence is circumstantial, but it is considerable, and especially after we spoke to the experts – next part – it became increasingly clear that the preponderance of evidence pointed to the Cap. B. That being said, our lawyers wanted us to be careful about making direct accusations.
There are no road signs on the high seas, no speed bumps, traffic lights, cameras or cops. Most coastal countries designate traffic lanes in and out of their ports, and some, like the United States, impose speed restrictions on ships transiting parts of the ocean traveled by endangered whales. Otherwise, the biggest ships — or the fastest ones — usually have the right of way.
If the Lady Mary and Cap Beatrice collided, or came close to colliding, in the early morning hours of March 24, 2009, they were no match for one another. The 728-foot container ship is more than 10 times the size of the 71-foot fishing vessel and was traveling 10 times as fast. Yet both vessels were relying on antiquated rules of navigation pertaining to square-rigged sailing ships first outlined by Great Britain 170 years ago and signed into U.S. law under Abraham Lincoln. Fascinating; did you hope the series might improve the rules of the sea? Well, yes, that would have been wonderful, but I’m not sure I thought it was possible. I was happy to learn that a maritime lawyer who read the series is looking to file suit against the shipping company on behalf of the families of the men who died.
If one ship is overtaking another it is generally the responsibility of the ship coming up from behind to change course, even if the overtaking vessel is much larger and therefore less maneuverable.
The mammoth ships that today transport 90 percent of the world’s traded goods are far less nimble than even the clipper ships of the 19th century. The largest container ship in the world, Denmark’s Emma Maersk, is 1,302 feet long — 52 feet longer than the Empire State Building is tall. The Cap Beatrice is a medium-size container ship, but her rudder alone contains enough steel — 25 tons — to manufacture 250 automobiles. Just to turn around takes 15 to 20 minutes and more than a mile of sea. What measures did you play around with in order to convey the contrast between boats? The difference is just unthinkable I like drawing analogies and comparisons and they’re so important in order for the reader to visualize scale. It’s amazing to stand next to one of these container ships and see how even the anchor chain is gigantic
Because she was traveling at nearly 20 knots the morning of March 24, the Cap Beatrice — had she come close to or hit the Lady Mary — would have been a mile past the boat in just three minutes, This draws those three minutes into such sharp focus and creates an image, whether it happened or not, of a massive boat plowing quickly away according to Ron Betancourt, a licensed mariner and maritime lawyer in Red Bank.
A little more than a week after the Lady Mary sank in the Atlantic with four of her crew still missing, a vessel from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration located her. Then, on April 29, the Coast Guard arranged for a small, unmanned submarine to take video of the wreck. The Lady Mary was sitting in 211 feet of water, on the sandy bottom of the ocean, right-side up, leaning slightly to port. Did you feel the need to give the boat’s condition/further description here? I probably should have mentioned that the visible damage is very localized. No, I think you handled it exactly right. The temptation would have been to layer on the detail but by delaying the specifics you slow down the mystery.
On April 14, 2009, the Coast Guard opened an official Marine Board of Investigation. The head of the three-member panel was Cmdr. Kyle McAvoy. The board’s role, as McAvoy made pains to clarify on the first day, was not to assess blame, but rather to determine the causes of the casualties. In his opening statement, McAvoy said it was the job of the board to assess “whether any incompetence, misconduct, lack of skill or willful violation of the law … caused or contributed to the casualty … and to make appropriate recommendations in this regard.”
During a recess in the hearings, a group of seven experienced wreck divers, all of them from New Jersey and Pennsylvania, volunteered to visit the Lady Mary. Their mission was to recover any bodies, but also to take detailed video and photos.
On May 12, 2009, in the chilly, early morning darkness, the divers left Cape May and headed east to the Elephant Trunk with navigation maps, air tanks, scuba gear — and several body bags.
It had been 49 days since the Lady Mary sank, and it took the divers five hours to get out to the site. They descended in teams of two, every 10 minutes. Steve Gatto of Sicklerville videotaped the outside of the wreck. In the ghostly green glow of the diver’s light, the Lady Mary appeared whole, even untouched. With her stern slightly raised, she seemed to hover just above the bottom, as if at any moment she might start her engines and be on her way. Yow – did you see the footage? If so, how? It would’ve been part of the investigative record but did you have any trouble getting access to it? We worked closely with the professional divers who dived on the LM, gratis, and filmed her. They were staunch supporters of the collision theory and were helpful in explaining a lot about boats, sea conditions, other sinkings, etc.
Gatto was astonished as he slowly swam down and around the bow. Most of the boat was unscarred. Across the hull he could clearly make out the name “Lady Mary,” painted in neat, white script outlined in black; the windows of the wheelhouse were all intact; the winches wound and ready to dredge.
What could have happened? Gatto wondered.
Peering into the captain’s bridge, he found the first signs of catastrophe: chairs overturned, cups and dishes scattered, a Bible wedged against the wall. Two satellite phones dangled from their cradles, and in the galley, colorful scallop-buckets floated like party balloons along the ceiling. Killer detail/imagery – how’d you get it? footage? Yep, you can see these things in the ghostly video footage
The only sounds were the hiss and bubbling of Gatto’s scuba tank, and every now and then the “whoop-whoop, weeeee” of a distant whale. Again, how’d you get this eerie stuff? He had audio attached to the video camera and it actually picked up the sound of the whales.
Sliding down from the wheelhouse to the deck, Gatto panned the camera toward the dredge, full of scallops, lying in a heap in the back left corner of the boat. Fuzzy had painted two big white eyes on the metal net, the better to “see” all those scallops on the seafloor. Detail about the eyes? It was one of the things Fuzzy told us in the course of our many interviews. And in a couple of the photos you can actually just make them out. When he swam out and around the corner of the rusty hull, Gatto was taken aback. The Lady Mary’s stern was severely damaged, but locally, on the port side, and just below the waterline.
A ramp off the stern, once used to help haul up the dredge, was ripped and pushed down on the left, and nearly to the transom, the back wall of the boat. One of the thick struts connecting the ramp to the transom was buckled into an “S” shape and had punched through the transom into the stern storage compartment, called the lazarette.
The 6-foot-long rudder was sheared off at the weld and lay flat on the sand, connected only by a safety chain, and the 5-inch-thick, solid steel propeller shaft was bent straight down.
Gatto and the other divers had seen hundreds of wrecks up close, helped raise a couple of them and even recovered the bodies of fishermen from sunken vessels, but none of them had ever seen this kind of destruction.
“It was unreal,” said Harold Moyers, owner of the dive boat Big Mac, “incredibly extensive.” Tom Packer, another volunteer, swam into one of the bunk rooms, lifted the mattresses, then picked through the scattered clothes and other debris. No bodies.
Joe Mazranni, a defense attorney from North Brunswick, was given the job of checking the cut room, where the scallops are removed from their shells. The cut room is accessed from the deck, and when Mazranni swam inside through the double doors he found a survival suit, out of its bag and partly unrolled. It was obvious someone had run out of time and been unable to get into the suit.
Mazranni then squeezed through a small opening and swam down 10 to 12 feet into the fish-hold below the deck. In the darkness all he could see was the small circle of space his flashlight illuminated — just bits and pieces of the room, really — so it was hard to get a sense of the space. He wondered if he was in the engine room by mistake. Then his light picked up a pile of boards. It was the fish-hold, all right. The boards were the removable slats of the storage bins.
Moving a couple of feet at a time, Mazranni next shone his light on what he thought was another survival suit — until he saw a pair of feet and legs. It was one of the missing fishermen and he was buried under the boards. All Mazranni could see of him was from the waist down. This whole Mazranni passage is just like the rescue passage: almost without air (in a good way), it’s so tight and contained; you wasted nothing; there’s no flab, nothing to distract. How many drafts of this series did you do, by the way, and do you like revising? Hard to tell how many drafts. Some parts were more seamless than others. The last two sections, including this, were the most difficult, but mostly in terms of how to stitch everything together. As for revising, I love it. I like to tell people that I’m a pretty good writer, but I’m a fabulous re-writer. I take instruction very well. My editor is also a published poet and so he helps to really fine-tune things – he’ll say “you need another beat here,” and I know exactly what he means. I love your editor.
The diver was almost out of oxygen and had to surface. When he came down the second time, however, Mazranni had trouble seeing through the silt he’d stirred up earlier. Like a blind person, he used his one free hand to feel for whatever was directly in front of him.
Suddenly his glove touched something soft. He instinctively recoiled. It was a man’s head. Curious why you added this sentence. Did you toy with the idea of cutting it and letting us “see” the revelation as Mazranni did? As I understand it he didn’t know he’d touched a head until he shined his light on it, or am I misreading this? In retrospect, I think you’re right. I shouldn’t have “told” it, especially since I “show” it in the next sentence. Nice catch. Yeah, well, easy to do when there’s no ticking clock Mazranni pushed back a bit and shone his light where his hand had just been — into the lifeless, wide-open eyes of a middle-aged man. Mazranni was relieved to find the flesh of the man’s face relatively intact. Usually fish eat the softest tissue first, the eyes and lips, but the man’s head, with its neatly trimmed white goatee, appeared remarkably unscathed.
‘IT HAPPENS TOO OFTEN’
The Coast Guard keeps many records detailing accidents and deaths at sea, but none specifically related to collisions between fishing boats and deep-draft vessels. Two years ago, when the Coast Guard issued a report on fishing vessel casualties between 1992 and 2007, it cited only four fatalities from all types of collisions, including passenger vessels, cruise ships and sailboats, during that 16-year period.
However, an analysis of 2,548 Coast Guard incident reports, all of them closed cases, in its Maritime Information Exchange, revealed that in just one six-year period between 2002 and 2007 there were at least 70 collisions between U.S. fishing boats and large commercial ships, and six deaths. Okay, take me through the incident-report analysis – did you have to FOIA them? how did the information come to you – as spreadsheets or data bits or in hard-copy form, and how did you begin to process the information? As someone with a fondness for documents I’d have found this among the most fascinating work and not at all tedious. What about u? would you rather be out talking to people or digging through files, or both? I truly love both. All the accident reports – or at least reports from completed investigations – can be found online at the Coast Guard’s website. The problem is they are not categorized by accident type or fatalities, just chronologically listed according to when they happened. So I had to comb through them, something which I found fascinating to do, but which others might consider tedious.
“Ships are so large and have so much mass behind them, it’s like a bull swatting a fly,” said Jim Kendall, a longtime fisherman and now executive director of New Bedford Seafood Consulting in Massachusetts. “It happens too often, way too often.”
In the 20 months since the sinking of the Lady Mary, at least two commercial fishing vessels off the mid-Atlantic Coast have been hit by large merchant ships: On April 14, 2009, in heavy rain and fog, the 85-foot scalloper Dictator was hit by the 965-foot container Florida, 21 days after the Lady Mary went down and in the same fishing ground. On July 30 of this year the 72-foot Atlantic Queen, fishing 11 miles off Long Island, was hit by the 625-foot cargo ship Baldor, which sheered off 15 feet of the Atlantic Queen’s bow.
No one was seriously injured in either incident.
Precise numbers on collisions are hard to come by because many fishing vessels are lost at sea with no survivors and no witnesses — just questions. Although at least six fishermen were killed in collisions with cargo ships between 2002 and 2007, another 39 died when 18 fishing boats sank, apparently with little warning, and all hands were lost.
“A lot of times a vessel goes missing and no one knows the cause,” Kendall said. “When you have something that large coming down on you, they can ride right up over you and possibly they don’t even know it.” In The Wave, Susan Casey makes a case for linking rogue waves to missing ships at sea. Did that scenario come up in any of your reporting? Just curious Yes, I asked it of several experts, all of whom said it was extremely unlikely, especially since no other boats in the area experienced or reported one. Even the Coast Guard investigators agreed.
When collisions do occur between large merchant ships and much smaller fishing vessels, the boats can sink quickly, according to Arn Heggers, former fishing vessel safety coordinator for Maine and New Hampshire and now a civil servant with the Coast Guard, specializing in emergency preparedness. When he instructs commercial fishermen about what to do in collisions, he warns them they will likely have no more than a few minutes to get into a survival suit or life raft, and in the case of a collision with a large merchant ship, “probably a lot less.”
“When a larger vessel collides with a smaller one,” Heggers said, “it pushes the smaller boat right under the water. Imagine you are driving on a highway — a large tanker would go right over the top of you.”
When scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology studied ship-transit risks more than a decade ago, they found three times as many collisions occurred in darkness as in daytime and the highest percentage — one-third — occurred between 4 a.m. and 8 a.m. I appreciate that you let this fact hang in the air – it speaks for itself
BACK TO LAND
With the help of his fellow divers, Joe Mazranni removed the debris from around the body in the Lady Mary’s fish-hold. The dead man was dressed in sweatpants, a tight-fitting thermal sweater and socks, but no shoes. Mazranni had seen the photographs of the men still missing and believed he’d found Fuzzy’s brother, Bernie. Using ropes, the divers pulled the body from the wreck and, while still underwater, placed it in a body bag, then lifted it to the surface. Incredible scene; diver interviews? Yep.
The four-hour ride back to Cape May was quiet. An overcast day turned sunny in the late afternoon, but at night it was a chilly trip in to port. Some of the men ate, others slept. In addition to recovering a body, the divers had taken extensive video and hundreds of photographs and along with written assessments of the damage they observed, turned it all over to the Coast Guard. Did you have access to all of this? Yes, although not through the Coast Guard, but rather the divers who made copies of the reports they made
“Everyone’s reaction was the same,” Moyers said of the other divers. “That boat got hit.” Twenty miles from Cape May, the divers radioed the Coast Guard about the body they’d recovered and arranged to meet officials at the dock.
There was just one more call to make. Five miles from shore, Mazranni took out his cell phone and dialed Fuzzy.
“I think we got Bernie.” This is just really, really skillful narrative – at so many moments you could have rushed the revelations but you draw out the drama without smacking us in the face with it. As soon as Mazranni told me what he said, I knew that’s where I wanted to end this chapter of the story.
A Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation into the sinking of the Lady Mary convened in April 2009. Several weeks of hearings were held over the next eight months, with testimony from José Arias, the only survivor of a seven-man crew; Fuzzy Smith, the co-owner of the boat; and at least a dozen other witnesses, including Lake Downham, the Coast Guard rescue swimmer who pulled Arias from the water.
More than a year and a half after the accident, the marine board has yet to release its report, although Cmdr. Kyle McAvoy, the chairman of the three-member investigative panel, says it is largely written.
“We’ve worked very hard to address all the possibilities,” he said. “It comes down to a few things: a weather event, some sort of event on the surface with another vessel, or a mechanical problem during the night that led to a slowly evolving problem.” As late as September, McAvoy said the agency was leaning away from the idea that the Lady Mary was the victim of a high-seas hit and run. Instead, the agency was considering the theory that the boat was swamped and the damage to her stern was the result of its impact with the sea floor. This seemed likely all along; what do you think? It made sense to me early on, but as time went on and we spoke to more and more experts, I felt it was the easy explanation, but probably not the right one. He has declined any comment since.
Two sources close to the investigation said the Coast Guard’s final report may suggest several possible scenarios. These sources detailed the Coast Guard’s thinking to The Star-Ledger on the condition they not be named because they are not authorized to speak about the investigation.
The scenarios being explored, according to the two sources, include some combination of human, mechanical and meteorological causes based on last year’s hearing and the Coast Guard’s own investigation. Among the factors:
• The Lady Mary was an old boat, converted between 2001 and 2003 from a shrimper to a scalloper, and was never tested for stability because it was not required by federal law.
• The wind was blowing hard and the waves were 6 to 9 feet the night of March 23 into the early hours of March 24, making conditions difficult for the Lady Mary.
• A hatch on the back deck to the lazarette, a storage area, was always left open, which made the boat vulnerable to swamping in bad weather.
• Blood tests on the bodies of Bobo and Tim Smith revealed marijuana in both men’s blood, possibly impairing their ability to respond to an emergency. (A forensic toxicologist testified at the hearings he was unable to determine when the marijuana was smoked or how much was ingested.) What kinds of conversations did you have with the families about the weed – were they open to discussing how/whether smoking might’ve played a role? Not really. Both families essentially dismissed it, either by saying they only did it to relax or they didn’t do it very much, that kind of thing. It was clear from the toxicology report that they’d smoked at least two hours before their deaths, and so any effects would have been blunted by that time lag.
Some of the possible scenarios would seem to run counter to evidence presented at the Coast Guard’s hearings. Coast Guard reservist Aldo Guerino testified the Lady Mary’s safety equipment was up to code, had passed a voluntary inspection less than a year before she sank, and was well maintained.
Michael Duvall, a former captain on the Lady Mary, also testified “the boat handled great,” even in severe weather.
“I could lay her in a trough, 15-16 foot trough … with my coffee cup sitting right on the dash and never spill the coffee,” Duvall said. My favorite quote of the whole series “She was a good sea boat. (An) excellent sea boat.” About one thing there is general agreement among all the experts: The mystery of what sank the Lady Mary lies with a crushed ramp, a broken rudder and a bent propeller. What force could have mangled all that steel? Everyone acknowledges there are only two possibilities: She was either damaged on the surface in a collision, or she was damaged 211 feet down when she hit the sea floor. Now I’m torn – could hitting the ocean floor really cause that much damage? If this smaller craft got run over by a CONTAINER SHIP wouldn’t it have absolutely destroyed the boat, not just crushed the ramp, etc.? This seems reasonable, and did to us at first, except that in all likelihood this was a glancing blow, with the bulbous bow of the Cap B. essentially picking up the LM briefly before she slid off. Plus, all you have to do is read one of the reports or stories about a fishing boat that survived a hit with a container ship and realize there are very varying levels of damage that can be sustained depending on how and where and under what conditions a collision occurs. For instance, I mention somewhere about a fishing boat hit just a few months before we published, and all the container ship did was sheer off part of her bow. The fishing boat made it back to port otherwise safe and sound.
For seven months The Star-Ledger investigated the wreck of the Lady Mary, examining internal Coast Guard documents and 800 pages of testimony from the Coast Guard hearings, observing fishermen at work on a scalloper similar to the Lady Mary and in similar wind and wave conditions as on the night she sank, and testing the buoyancy of survival suits in cold sea water, especially when they are not worn properly. More than 100 interviews were conducted with some of the country’s foremost naval architects, marine engineers, wreck divers, maritime forensics specialists, fishermen present in the Elephant Trunk when the Lady Mary was lost, mechanics who worked on her engine on land, as well as Coast Guard officials and those involved in the rescue of José Arias.
The Star-Ledger asked more than a dozen maritime experts — among them a fishing boat stability expert, a hydrodynamicist who studies how ships sink, a rudder designer, and one of the few marine forensics specialists to inspect pieces of the Titanic — to examine videos, photos and Coast Guard investigation documents. None of these experts concurred with the theory that the Lady Mary’s stern was bent and crushed by the impact with the sea floor. Only representatives from one company believe this scenario. It would’ve been easy to get utterly obsessed with this story, and it sounds like you did. How did the obsession manifest itself at work and in your everyday life? Seriously, I wanna know. I was big-time obsessed. It was all I could think, talk, even dream about. I must have read the transcripts from the Coast Guard hearings – about 1,000 pages – at least 10 times, looking for clues or things that might have been missed, or inconsistencies. In fact, it was during one of my readings that I stopped at the statement from Jose about where the dredge was on the deck at the time the boat went down and realized he wouldn’t have been able to see it because the boat was already tipped hard to port and so the net of the dredge would have been underwater. It wasn’t significant, but it’s an instance of how I couldn’t stop thinking about the Lady Mary. The Coast Guard transcripts became my bedtime reading.
“It’s garbage for anyone to think the bottom caused all that destruction,” said George Edwards, a naval engineer at CSC Advanced Marine Center in Washington, D.C. “It’s just not possible.”
The preponderance of opinion, and much of the evidence found by the newspaper, point to a collision with another, much larger vessel — something powerful enough to bend and rip thousands of pounds of steel and send the Lady Mary to the bottom of the sea before she could even shoot off a flare. Navigation records from that night show there was only one such merchant ship in the area at the time — the 728-foot-long container ship Cap Beatrice. It’s a testament to the strength of the narrative that I, the reader, have gone back and forth over what might’ve happened; yet here you seem to leave no room for doubt about what happened – how much did you waver, or did you never waver? We wavered early on and made a conscious effort to really, really stay objective, but by the end, Andre and I were both convinced the Lady Mary was hit.
AN EXPERT’S OPINIONWe now have almost parallel narratives – the first was the story of that night and those lives, and now we have the story of an investigation, yet the fishermen are still there in our minds William Garzke is a pioneer in the field of shipwrecks. A long-standing member of the Society for Naval Architects and Marine Engineers, Garzke is also founder and chairman of SNAME’s renowned marine forensics committee, which devotes its time to the scientific investigation of sunken ships. He has consulted on a number of Coast Guard investigations and is probably most well-known for his work analyzing pieces of the Titanic, after which he concluded a flaw in the design of the hull’s joints likely doomed the “unsinkable” ship.
When Garzke and the 14 other members of the forensics committee, at The Star-Ledger’s request, examined the video and photographic evidence of the Lady Mary and analyzed Coast Guard documents and navigational records, they all agreed about the damage to the fishing vessel. Was it difficult, getting these guys to participate in this project? How willing were they? Were you there for their examination of the photos and their deliberations? They were reluctant at first, but I think because they were involved in maritime accident analysis they couldn’t stop themselves. Yes, I was in Washington, D.C.,and met with them to show them the photos and the video.
“It’s hard for me to believe it was just the sand that caused it,” Garzke said. “(It) was a collision with another object. That’s the likeliest possibility.”
Alexander Schulte, the head of Reederei Thomas Schulte in Hamburg, Germany, which owns the Cap Beatrice, has repeatedly declined to comment on the Lady Mary tragedy despite numerous calls and e-mails.
Oliver Kautz, the quality manager for OCEAN Shipmanagment, owned by Reederei Thomas Schulte, initially spoke about the incident, but later said he was told by his superiors to say no more. Kautz oversees the parent company’s fleet. In earlier conversations and e-mails he said the company had conducted an “intensive internal investigation” in which it assisted the Coast Guard, but “unfortunately both investigations have not brought the case forward.”
The dockside manager in Philadelphia for Hamburg Sud, the company that leases the Cap Beatrice, allowed The Star-Ledger to board the ship in April when she was in port and sailing under a new captain, but refused a second request in July when the Cap Beatrice returned once again under the command of Capt. Vasyl Stenderchuk, who was in charge the night the Lady Mary sank. Several e-mails sent to Stenderchuk’s Linkedin.com profile also have gone unanswered. How else did you try reaching him? What were you able to learn about him as a person and as a pilot, and did you leave that material out of the story for a reason? As I note somewhere else, I found a phone number in the Ukraine for Stenderchuk and tried to reach him there but was told he no longer lived there. Not sure if that person was telling the truth or not. The language barrier was considerable. I had a photo of him, from a maritime database, but no other information, except that he had an interest in photography. As noted, not all the experts consulted by The Star-Ledger agreed with the collision theory. The professionals in the marine division of Robson Forensic in Lancaster, Pa., which provides investigative and consulting services to lawyers, Did RF have an official role in this case? Anything at stake for them? They had no offical role and there was nothing at stake, except that one of the members of the team was a former NTSB official, and so might have felt some loyalty to the department, although she claimed she was independent. As it turns out we had quite a debate as to how – and how much – to include from Robson. I found them after searching online but we realized later that none of them had nearly the background the D.C. group had in terms of expertise in the mechanics and physics of maritime accidents. And when I asked follow-up questions about specific aspects of their theory, they were less than convincing. But we contacted them, so we could hardly leave them out of the story concluded the Lady Mary was swamped — perhaps by a bow wake from a passing container ship — and that all her stern damage was the result of hitting the sea floor.
“If she develops even a slight port list, which is what we believe happened,” said Bart Eckhardt, president of Robson Forensic, “then the Lady Mary could not shed water. When this happens, and there’s wave action, the water becomes trapped between the bulwark and the house. … The situation becomes catastrophic.” Eckhardt and his three-member team believe the Lady Mary sank, stern first, at a speed of 4 to 7 meters per second, basing their conclusions on the Coast Guard’s assessment of the Lady Mary’s terminal velocity — the speed she was traveling when she hit bottom. A copy of the assessment was obtained by The Star-Ledger and provided to various experts. Robson says that if the boat did have a port list and was traveling at the speed estimated by the Coast Guard she would have hit the sea floor at a 49 degree angle — which they believe accounts for the damage to the stern.
However, SNAME’s marine forensics committee, which viewed those same Coast Guard calculations, believes they are flawed. ”(They) are very off-the-cuff and can’t stand up to rigorous examination because there are too many vaguely qualified assumptions,” said Sean Avery, a hydrodynamicist who models the various ways ships sink. “If you simulated the free fall through the water column 10 times, you would get 10 different answers. … This is tricky to do right.”
The experts who point to a collision say the following points support their conclusion:
• The severity and direction of the damage, which suggests a sudden and powerful impact from a very large moving object.
• The rudder stock, which appears to have been sheared off in a collision as opposed to breaking due to corrosion and metal fatigue.
• The severely contorted propeller stock, which is bent down, as if from contact with a much heavier object, as opposed to up, which would be expected with a bottom hit.
• The marks on the propeller blades, which indicate they were still turning when the propeller was pushed against the rudder. That scoring could only have happened on the surface, when the Lady Mary’s engine was still engaged, say proponents of the collision theory. When she finally sank she lost all power, which means the propeller was no longer turning when the Lady Mary hit the sea floor.
• The way the port side of the transom is bowed-in, indicating an impact from a rounded object, such as a container ship’s bulbous bow. One of the Coast Guard assumptions in the terminal velocity calculations, according to members of the forensics committee, is that the rudder buckled when the boat hit the bottom.
“I don’t agree with that,” said George Edwards, a committee member and naval engineer at CSC Advanced Marine. “That would only apply if the boat went down on a fairly even keel,” that is, if it sank right-side up, such that the end of the rudder hit first and the rudder was vertical.
The problem with this scenario, he said, is that “sinking on an even keel also results in the lowest possible terminal velocity.” In other words, the slower the sinking, the softer the landing; the softer the landing, the less damage.
Instead, said the forensics committee, to even consider the possibility the Lady Mary crumpled when she hit the sea floor, she would have to sink stern first at a nearly vertical angle. Like the other divers, Steve Gatto, who was in the first group to dive on the wreck of the Lady Mary, believes the vertical-hit scenario is improbable because of the pristine condition of the gallows, a large rectangular frame that supports the dredge. It rises high over the deck and is angled over the stern’s ramp.
“If the Lady Mary sank nearly vertically, the gallows would have hit the bottom first,” he said. “Yet we inspected it carefully and it had no damage whatsoever, not even a scratch.” I mean I’ve got nothing here. Maybe not definitive but all clearly laid out. Any insights about this particular bit of summary reporting/writing? Were there differing opinions within the newsroom about what happened to the LM? There were no real differences of opinion, just reminders to stay open to all the possibilities. We went over and over and over again all the scenarios, wrote down the pros and cons, and every time the collision theory came out on top.
Gatto has nearly 30 years experience diving on wrecks. He has helped raise sunken fishing boats and assisted in the recovery of bodies. If the Lady Mary struck the bottom either vertically or at a 49 degree angle as Robson suggests, he says, the propeller stock would have bent upward, not downward, as the dive photos and video show.
“With that angle and force, I’d expect to see the (propeller) blades bent back, too, maybe even broken, but they’re not,” he said. “The blow came from behind and pushed the boat down.”
Robson said it used the Coast Guard’s calculations to do a complete reconstruction, and it stands by its analysis, including the 49 degree angle of impact. The SNAME forensics committee counters that a reconstruction entails far too many variables to be accurate and that the only thing that explains the damage done to the Lady Mary is a surface collision.
Another issue, says SNAME’s Avery, is the rudder. If it was damaged when the boat hit the sand, its “shoe,” the bracket underneath the rudder that holds it in place, should still be there, he says.
The divers, however, never found it. The only plausible explanation for the shoe not being in the vicinity of the boat, says SNAME’s marine forensics committee, is that it was knocked loose by impact on the surface.
“I’ve designed rudders for boats that size,” Edwards said. “I’ve done the calculations for that type of rudder. What’s left, where the rudder shoe came off, is consistent with it being hit from above and forced down.”
The conditions out in the Elephant Trunk on the morning of March 24, 2009, were rough, but not excessive as far as commercial fishermen are concerned. According to the nearest offshore buoy, seas were 6 to 9 feet and the winds 25 to 30 mph, from the north by northwest.
What has puzzled many of those involved in the case was how quickly the Lady Mary appeared to sink. In the debris field there were unused survival suits, emergency flares and hand-held distress signals, and no one in the empty life raft.
For this reason, many experts find it hard to believe the Lady Mary simply foundered and sank. A boat without power, even in rough seas they say, does not go down in a matter of minutes.
”You can be dead in the water, it still takes time to sink,” said Bruce Belousofsky, a retired Coast Guard commander, former vessel safety inspector and president of Blancke Marine Services, a naval architecture and engineering firm in Woodbury. “Flooding in those conditions is a process, and there are high-water alarms. It’s hard to be taken by surprise.”
When he heard the Lady Mary went down, he thought it was unusual.
“It had to be something very, very dramatic to sink that vessel without giving those guys much time to get out.”
A CRUCIAL CLUE
If there is a smoking gun in the sinking of the Lady Mary, divers Gatto and Harold Moyers believe they found it.
When they filmed the wreck underwater, each diver said he noticed that the stay wires on the stern ramp, which run from the top of the gallows to the lowest corners of the ramp, were broken at the welds. The port stay wire, encased in a steel sleeve, was tied back with rope, albeit haphazardly, to a cleat on the stern.
Gatto and Moyers believe that in rough seas, after a collision, and with the boat essentially dead in the water, the heavy cable would have been swinging around the deck “like a club.” They theorize a crew member, perhaps Frankie Credle, Why him? Because we know basically where nearly everyone else was, and because we know Credle was the one yelling something from that area of the boat when Jose was ascending the ladder to the wheelhouse. quickly tied it out of the way.
The broken stay wires, which would have been mended if they had both suddenly broken on their own earlier in the trip, are the key for Gatto. ”You can’t tie back a stay wire on the bottom of the ocean,” he said. “Something happened before it sank.”
Gatto, Moyers, Belousofsky and the SNAME marine forensics committee all believe the Lady Mary was moving — or trying to move — hard to port when she went down, perhaps trying to get out of the way of an approaching ship. Photos of the interior of the Lady Mary’s wheelhouse and control panel, specifically the open throttle and the rudder gauge, said Belousofsky, appear to confirm the boat was turning when she foundered. The slashes in the rudder also seem to confirm this, he and the others say, because the prop had to be turning to gash the rudder in this way.
In a collision, with the boat trying to take evasive action, the rudder could have been pushed up against the propeller by the larger ship’s rounded bulbous bow, according to these experts, at which point it would bend the propeller shaft downward and in the process stove in the transom.
In seas of 6 to 9 feet, say Gatto, Moyers, Belousofsky and the others, a collision with a ship 10 times the size of the Lady Mary could have pushed her stern down so far that her decks were awash in a matter of seconds.
A TWO-MONTH WAIT
In the course of its own investigation, The Star-Ledger also found possible problems with the Coast Guard inquiry.
It was not until Memorial Day 2009 — two months after the Lady Mary sank — that the Coast Guard finally contacted the Cap Beatrice on her way back in to the Port of Philadelphia. The ship anchored at the southern end of Delaware Bay where Coast Guard officials interviewed the crew, and scuba divers from the New Jersey State Police entered the choppy seas to examine the ship’s bulbous bow.
Coast Guard officials offered no explanation In general or to the newspaper? What reason, if any, did they give you guys? To me, and they gave no reason except that was the earliest they could. as to why they waited to inspect the Cap Beatrice when she returned to Philadelphia, but 48 hours after the crew was interviewed, the Coast Guard released a statement announcing no evidence of a collision had been uncovered.
A number of people, including Belousofsky and Garzke, are critical of the Coast Guard’s investigation.
In June 2009, Gatto invited Cmdr. McAvoy to a meeting of the SNAME forensic committee in Washington, D.C., which McAvoy accepted. The committee made a number of recommendations, including the necessity of raising the rudder, and also provided McAvoy with a copy of its guide to marine investigations, because, Garzke said, McAvoy seemed “mystified about forensic techniques.” Did anyone want to raise the boat, or was that too expensive, too much trouble, and would it even have proven anything? It’s very, very expensive. Fuzzy had no insurance and it would have been his money used to bring it up. It certainly could help in terms of being able to look inside, especially, in the wheelhouse and inside the lazarette and to be able to inspect the pumps.
McAvoy says he has spent his entire 20-year Coast Guard career in the field of marine safety, specializing in inspections and marine casualty investigations. He also has two master’s degrees in the field of marine engineering from the University of Michigan.
Much of his experience, he says, has been with large commercial ships, freighters, tankers and passenger vessels. Now based in Washington, D.C., at the Coast Guard’s Office of Traveling Inspections and National Centers of Expertise, McAvoy says he has taken part in 20 to 24 casualty investigations over the past two decades — none involving sunken fishing vessels.
The requirements to become a Coast Guard marine investigator include a three-week course in Yorktown, Va. A number of performance qualification standards must also be met, such as “initiating an investigation” and “generating a timeline.” Speaking of timelines, did you use one to help with the reporting? Oh, yes. I had an extremely detailed timeline that included not only what was happening on the LM, but what was happening on shore, with the satellites overhead, with other boats in the area, etc.
A 2008 audit of marine casualty investigations by the Office of the Inspector General found 68 percent of the casualty investigators the panel interviewed and tested were “substandard.” Good detail; sourcing? This was from an official, and publicly accessible report McAvoy was interviewed five times by The Star-Ledger. He discussed the process — and progress — of the investigation of the Lady Mary, as well as his background, but would not speak about the specifics of the case. When McAvoy was contacted last week, Lisa Novak from Coast Guard public affairs in Washington, D.C., spoke for him. “We are not giving any interviews until the investigation is over,” she said, but could not predict when that would be. Interested to know the CG’s reaction to the series as/after it ran When I called McAvoy to see if he wanted to comment – he did not, and was clearly told by superiors to no longer do so – he said it was “impressive.”
The Star-Ledger also uncovered evidence of problems during the search and rescue mission. Testimony at the hearing suggests the Coast Guard might have been hampered by the fact the helicopter crew was unfamiliar with the use of its new 406 EPIRB direction finder when trying to locate possible survivors. Instead, the crew had to rely on an older device with less range, potentially delaying the first sighting of the life raft.
After then locating José Arias in the water, the helicopter was too low to radio back to land information about how many fishermen were still missing. That meant another delay before the officers at Sector Delaware Bay could send an urgent marine broadcast.
Finally, when a Coast Guard communications officer in Philadelphia eventually did radio all the mariners in the vicinity of the sinking, the officer failed to use the frequency most likely to reach them — a mistake he acknowledged in a Coast Guard report. How did this series change regulations and CG training procedures, if at all? The story makes it clear that they have some work to do Sadly, none at all, as far as I know.
In addition to the Coast Guard, the National Transportation Safety Board, which assisted in the investigation, has declined further comment until their official reports are made public.
A BODY IN THE NET
When the phone rang inside Coast Guard headquarters in Cape May at 10:35 a.m., Wednesday, May 20, 2009, it was Richard Gibbs, captain of the scalloper John & Nicholas, on the line. He had a grim message. Under a tarp on the back of his boat lay a body.
The John & Nicholas had been fishing in the Elephant Trunk, a few miles from where the Lady Mary sank. When they lifted the dredge after a run they found tangled in the net, among the fish and shells, the partially decomposed body of an African-American male. Gibbs was pretty sure he knew who it was: Frankie Credle.
At age 56, Credle had been fishing for more than 40 years. The 13th of 14 children from Mesic, N.C., he was Fuzzy’s cousin and the two grew up just a couple miles from one another. When he was in his 20s, Frankie helped Elwood Jennett build the Sea Pal, a 50-foot fishing boat, behind the Mesic service station. Great detail, that little extra something One day when they were out shrimping in Pamlico Sound in rough weather, the Sea Pal capsized. Credle saved Jennett’s life by helping him swim out from under the boat, and if Frankie hadn’t been such a strong swimmer, both would have died.
With the confirmation the body in the net was Frankie Credle, How’d they get confirmation? Just curious Dental records, I believe two men from the Lady Mary remain missing: Frank Reyes, so panicked he could not get into an immersion suit before the boat went under, and Jorge Ramos, the youngest fisherman, whom Arias never saw in those last, desperate minutes before the Lady Mary disappeared into the black Atlantic.
In July, however, the John & Nicholas, the same boat that scooped up Frankie Credle’s body from the chilly depths, plucked Reyes’ driver’s license from the sea. How’d they spot a driver’s license? Or did it get trapped in their nets? Found in the net
The men of the Lady Mary were not the only New Jersey fishermen who died last year. On Nov. 11, 2009, just days after the Coast Guard announced it was stepping up inspections of safety equipment aboard commercial fishing vessels, the 44-foot scalloper Sea Tractor sank in a storm off Cape May. Three men, including a father and son, were lost.
Six weeks later, the 38-foot Alisha Marie went down with two of its three crew. When 2009 finally came to a close, 11 commercial fishermen had lost their lives in the waters off New Jersey. Within months, changes in safety practices in the fishing industry were being considered.
This past March, the NTSB issued a recommendation to the Federal Communications Commission regarding EPIRBs. Although the Lady Mary’s device was incorrectly registered, it also lacked a $100 GPS transmitter, which could have been attached to the EPIRB and would have identified the location of the boat, if not its identity. Currently, the GPS transmitter is not required, but the NTSB cited the Lady Mary as a reason why the law should be changed.
“If a rescue helicopter could have been launched after the first EPIRB signal was received,” the NTSB’s letter reads, “(it) is possible that the two victims found in the water wearing immersion suits would have still been alive when the rescuers arrived.” The letter was a matter of public record and/or part of a public statement? You developed various confidential sources for this series – how did you manage it, and what challenges did you run into? Yes, the letter was public record. As for confidential sources, we had one very, very close to the Coast Guard investigation and it was difficult because he was a believer in the C.G. theory of a swamping.
NOAA also has instructed its contractors when recording EPIRB registration forms to now read the printed code on the manufacturer’s label — if it is provided — not just the handwritten code copied onto the form by the owner of the vessel. Did you ever talk to the clerk who miscopied the code? How did you decide not to name this person and/or get into the personal consequences of the clerical mistake? This person must’ve felt partly responsible for the deaths, no? NOAA would not release the name. In fact, because it was a contractor, the agency said it wasn’t sure it even had a name.
Recently, a bill mandating safety inspections of all commercial fishing boats, and safety training for all vessel operators, passed both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate. Last month, President Obama signed the legislation and it became law. I like that you didn’t get into penalties; why didn’t you? I just think it would have taken us too far afield, since there was a lot of explanatory information in this part already.
In the meantime, many of the families of the men who died continue to struggle with their grief. The day before the Smith brothers were buried in North Carolina, Stacy Greene, Bobo’s longtime girlfriend, answered a call from Adele’s Jeweled Treasures in Cape May. The consignment shop wanted her to know it was the last day to reclaim Bobo’s gold chain. Stacy raced down and paid the bill.
Ten-year-old Jonathan, one of Stacy and Bobo’s sons, believes he’s seen his father.
“I was walking around the yard and I looked up above the house and saw my Dad. His arms were spread out and he flew down and hugged me.” In another installment of Annotation Tuesday! – ”The Falling Man,” by Tom Junod – the child of a dead man also claimed to have seen her father; what do you make of it? I have to say this was one of those times when it was hardest not to cry. In fact, I had to keep wiping my eyes. This boy had the most angelic face and spoke with such a quiet, intelligent power for a boy his age. He was very, very earnest, and I believe children, either because their imaginations are still so very fertile, or, because they are more open to things than adults who have become cynical and skeptical about such things, they can sense – or somehow “see” – the dead. Carinna Smith, Tim’s wife, still keeps her husband’s truck parked in the driveway and every now and then sneaks out of the house just to sit in the driver’s seat. Tim’s Bible is still there, and the little sea horse he once caught still hangs from the rearview mirror.
Before Bernie’s body was found, Edith Jones would lie in bed every night and call his cell phone just to listen to his voice-mail message from somewhere out in the ether. Such poignant details; they require a great deal of sensitivity and humaneness. What questions did you ask in order to arrive at this material? It was very hard, but I gently probed, asking the same question a few different ways spread out over an interview. She was both shy, and yet incredibly open, wanting to share the relationship and the memories, even the most painful ones.
José Arias, the only survivor of the wreck of the Lady Mary, has lost weight since the accident and still needs medication to sleep. The TV at the foot of his bed is always turned to a Spanish-language station, a kind of white noise to distract him from his thoughts.
His eyes pool with sadness when he speaks. Lovely; thank you for not using “tears” or some variant of “tears spill down his cheeks” or “his eyes overflow with tears” or etc. You’re welcome! Through an interpreter, he says he has worked a bit on the docks since the accident, but not on a fishing boat, and that he won’t, not ever again.
A NEED TO KEEP MOVING
Fuzzy brought his sons home to Bayboro to be buried in his backyard, and that’s where he finally buried Bernie’s ashes, too. Hazel, his wife, says she’s out there “from sunup to sundown.” She puts fresh flowers on the graves every week and keeps an eye on Bobo and Tim when she’s on her exercise bicycle in the shed next to the graves.
“There’s my babies,” she’ll say. “I love you, babies.” At any point during the reporting did you lose your composure? I came close to losing composure a number of times, this being one of them, and often when talking to Fuzzy, who remains so haunted.
Sometimes she even hums to them.
For Fuzzy, who lost his only children as well as a brother and a cousin, nothing gives him comfort.
“It’s like somebody punched a hole through me,” he said. “I get up and get ready to go, but instead I look out the window. My energy is like seeping through a crack.”
A descendant of slaves, his ancestry can be traced to Elizabeth Jennett who survived the shipwreck of the English bark Good Intent off Cape Hatteras in 1767. Most of the 300 Africans being brought to America to be sold into slavery perished that day, but Jennett survived. Interesting fact. How did it aid the narrative, do you think, showing that eerie legacy with regard to shipwrecks? Also, where did this info come from and how did you confirm? I wanted to include this information mainly because of the terrible ironies. When I realized the Smiths and Credles had lived in North Carolina for a long time, I researched the genealogies online and confirmed the link through two sources. Fuzzy confirmed a few of his ancestors but was not familiar with the story of Elizabeth Jennett. Fuzzy has not read the series, by the way, and I totally understand why. The sea gives and the sea takes.
Fuzzy says he has to keep moving. He drives mile after mile, hour after hour, back and forth between Bayboro, N.C., and Cape May, though none of his remaining fishing boats goes out anymore. On one of those trips home to North Carolina, right after the accident, he pulled off the highway into a Burlington Coat Factory to buy a suit and pair of shoes to bury Bobo in — the socks came two in a pack, he said. The other pair remain in the back seat of the truck. How did these incredibly touching details come to you? Thru the interviewing? Or did you see the socks in the truck and ask? Both, actually. He doesn’t have the heart to fish anymore, Fuzzy says, but every couple of weeks he still hits the road in his Ford pickup anyway, just to check in on his other rusting boats.
“It feels like someone pushing at me,” he said. “Doesn’t matter how many trips I take on the ferry and come back, it’s going to be the same. It took me awhile to figure that out. … Now I get to where I don’t want to be neither place.” Fuzzy has always known what to do on the sea. “You work on the boat with the motion of the boat,” he likes to say. It’s how to be on land that’s hard for him to figure out. How difficult was it, getting the families to let you in? how did you manage it, and how did you speak with them – always in person, sometimes by phone, both? Multiple meetings? Were they immediately receptive or did it take them a while to trust you? What other reporting did you do, regarding the families that informed the storytelling but that isn’t apparent within the storytelling? Because we had many months, we had many, many interviews. All of them were in person, although there were many follow-up conversations on the phone. We probably met with Fuzzy, both in Cape May and in North Carolina, at least a dozen times. He was always remarkably open with us, although sometimes it was a matter of letting him fill in the silence and NOT asking questions, because he was rarely not thinking about his boys. Most of the families were also very open. Only the wife of Jorge Ramos refused to be interviewed.
Last summer he bought a new lawn mower and to fill the time spends warm weather weekends cutting his lawn in Bayboro. When he first bought the machine he not only trimmed his own grass, but also the empty lot across the street, then his neighbor’s lawn, then the town square. A few days later he received a letter from the mayor who wanted to thank him for making the town look so much better.
For the most part, though, Fuzzy avoids friends and acquaintances.
“When I go places where I don’t know people, I feel better,” he says. “I quit going to the place where I get my oil changed because he was too nice. … It’s not so much what they say, it’s what they’re thinking.”
For Fuzzy, life now is entwined by the vocabulary of loss. So on many days, in the quiet before dawn, he gets in his truck and heads north again, past Credle’s Salvage, past the Play Boy Barbershop, past the Original Free Will Baptist Church, until all that he’s left behind is swallowed by darkness. An echo of the swallowing sea; how many kickers did you consider and what were a couple of the others? Or was this the original kicker? Oh boy, I had a huge argument with my editor over the ending. I was even in tears over it. Initially I ended the story at the Fisherman’s Memorial, only because a certain image there seemed to sum up the story. The main metaphor I wanted to end with had to do with the fact that the names of the Lady Mary’s drowned crew were not well etched into the stone of the memorial. Most of the other names were deeply carved, but the six most recent names were very lightly etched, so much so that at least the edge of one of the names was beginning to fade. It was clear to me that within a few years, unless something was done, their names would be gone, and this idea really spoke to me about how easily and quickly we forget, how unkind Time is, and how the elements of sea and air wear away all of us, and yet remain as ever. As soon as I noticed this, I knew that’s where I wanted to end the series, because I also kept thinking about one of my favorite poets, John Keats. When he was dying of “consumption” he asked his friend, the painter Joseph Severn, to make sure that when he died they put these words on his tombstone, “Here lies one who name was writ in water.” (Many people say Keats died of a bad review.) Severn, god bless him, honored his friend’s request, but added a nice little caveat – “This grave contains all that was mortal of a young English poet who, on his deathbed, in the bitterness of his heart at the malicious power of his enemies, desired these words to be engraved on his tomb stone: Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” My editor’s complaint was that ending the story at the memorial was too cliched, too expected. Ordinarily, I would have agreed with him, but I felt very strongly about ending the story with a kind of philosophical summary. Not heavy, or heavy-handed, but I felt the scope of the story suggested an ending that wasn’t just about one character. Another editor suggested I end with the startling image of Fuzzy mowing all those lawns. I was adamant that was not the right place, but I decided, under pressure from my editor, to end with Fuzzy, who remains, at least for me, the most tragic, most poignant character.
Newark Star-Ledger reporter Amy Ellis Nutt won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing and was a finalist in that category in 2009, for “The Accidental Artist,” which became the subject of her first book, Shadows Bright As Glass. She is a former Nieman Fellow at Harvard. Before going to the Star-Ledger she worked as a fact checker, reporter and golf writer at Sports Illustrated, and before that she taught philosophy at Tufts. She is at work on a new book of nonfiction.