The Coast Guard Searches For The Large Ship That Collided
With A Maine Fishing Boat, Sinking It And Apparently Killing Three Men.
By David Hench
Portland Press Herald
Just before 1 a.m. Sunday, James Sanfilippo, a crewman aboard the fishing boat Starbound, reportedly notices a large ship heading toward the much smaller vessel. He shouts, but only the captain makes it out before the freighter hits. The captain, Joseph Marcantonio, says the boat went down “in about ten seconds.”
1 a.m. Sunday: The Coast Guard detects an emergency beacon.
1:45 a.m. Sunday: The Coast Guard confirms that the beacon is somewhere near Sewell Ridge and dispatches a Coast Guard HU-25 Falcon jet. The jet locates debris and flashing lights.
5 a.m. Sunday: The Coast Guard directs the Eulah McGrath, a fishing boat, to Marcantonio in a life raft. crew-members pull him aboard and head to their home port in New Hampshire.
6:45 a.m. Sunday: Fishermen recover the body of Sanfilippo, who lived in Thomaston.
2:30 p.m. Monday: The Coast Guard suspends the search for the other two crew-members.
Joseph Marcantonio, age unknown, of Gloucester, Mass. Ship’s captain. Survived collision; rescued in life raft.
Mark Doughty, believed to be 33, of Yarmouth. Crew member. Asleep below deck at time of collision. Missing, presumed dead. Leaves a wife and two young daughters.
James Sanfilippo, 36, of Thomaston and formerly of Gloucester. Crew member. Was at the ship’s helm during collision. Body recovered. Leaves a wife, Aimee, a stepdaughter, Ariana, 9, and a son, Sebastian, 1.
Tom Frontiero, age unknown, of Gloucester, Mass. Crew member. Asleep below deck at time of collision. Missing, presumed dead. Leaves a wife and children.
Coast Guard inspectors are scouring the Eastern Seaboard for a tanker or cargo ship that collided with a Rockland-based trawler, apparently leaving three crewmen dead.
The captain survived, swimming free as the 92-foot Starbound sank swiftly in 600 feet of water. He climbed into the life raft, which had automatically inflated, and pulled the boat’s emergency beacon, which had alerted the Coast Guard.
As the lights of the huge ship disappeared into the night just before 1 a.m. Sunday, Joseph Marcantonio of Gloucester, Mass., called out for his crew but got no answer.
Coast Guard boats and aircraft were joined by a half dozen fishing boats as they spent the next 36 hours searching for survivors. The body of James Sanfilippo of Thomaston was recovered, but crewmen Mark Doughty of Yarmouth and Tom Frontiero of Gloucester were not found.
The Coast Guard called off the search Monday afternoon. Marine safety inspectors are checking all incoming tankers and freighters for damage, scrapes or chipped paint on the port side.
Coast Guard Rear Adm. George Naccara said the captain of the vessel that hit the Starbound could face criminal charges.
The steel-hulled Starbound left Rockland late last week for the Georges Bank to fish for herring, Saturday night the boat had started home with its catch.
Marcantonio told Coast Guard investigators he left Sanfilippo at the helm and went below to sleep along with Doughty and Frontiero.
He woke to the sound of Sanfilippo screaming. A huge ship was about to slam into them.
“When he came out of his stateroom, he saw a tanker or freighter – a large ship – bearing down on them on the port side,” said Coast Guard Lt. j.g. Tony Soliz. “The helmsman left the helm and went down below to holler to the two crewman to wake up and get survival suits on.”
But it was only a matter of seconds before the collision occurred. The Starbound had no time to change course and the crew no time to get out.
Marcantonio told investigators that the port side of the fishing boat scraped along the length of the tanker, the forward hull of the boat collapsing.
“According to the captain, the boat did not disintegrate but there was a definite collision,” Soliz said. “Shortly after the collision and as the freighter or tanker passed by, that’s when the fishing vessel sank.”
Marcantonio told the Coast Guard that the boat went down “in about 10 seconds.” The boat was 130 miles east of Cape Ann, near a place called Sewell Ridge.
Marcantonio tried to grab his survival suit, but it had snagged on some rigging and he was unable to pull it on. The last Marcantonio saw Sanfilippo, he was still inside the pilot house.
Marcantonio swam from the boat as it sank bow-first, and he spotted the life raft. Once inside, he saw floating nearby the electronic positioning radio beacon, which automatically activates when a boat sinks.
The beacon has a radio signal that alerts rescuers and a blinking light they can use to pinpoint its location. Marcantonio pulled it into the boat with him.
The seas were relatively calm, with visibility of between a mile and mile and a half. Nearby boats later reported a series of rain squalls in the area.
Marcantonio told investigators that his boat was heading north-northwest, and the ship was heading south-southeast. He could see the stern lights of the ship dwindling in the distance until they disappeared about two miles away.
He was in the raft two hours before the arrival of a Coast Guard Falcon jet, which had been sent from Cape Cod when the beacon activated. The jet was over the Georges Bank at 3 a.m. and spotted Marcantonio quickly.
The searchers contacted the Eulah McGrath, which was fishing in the area, and gave its crew directions.
The boat, based in Newington, N.H., arrived two and a half hours later and brought Marcantonio on board. Another boat, the Jacqueline Robin, recovered Sanfilippo’s body.
The Coast Guard sent helicopters, jets and a cutter, which were joined by a Canadian Coast Guard ship, six U.S. fishing boats and another from Canada. They searched an area of 250 square miles. Even though the search was helped by calm seas and little current, which kept the debris from the boat concentrated in a small area, they could not find Doughty or Frontiero.
“It’s very troubling for us and very demoralizing for our troops,” said Rear Adm. Naccara.
The Coast Guard said the owner of the boat is Frank O’Hara, of a prominent Rockland fishing family that owns several boats.
But a lawyer representing the boat said it is owned by Atlantic Mariner Inc. He would not identify the owners of that corporation.
Another uncertainty involves the boat’s size. The Coast Guard lists it at 83.5 feet, but former crewmen and others who know the boat said it was 92 feet.
The 20-year-old fishing boat was in good condition. It had a dockside inspection in April and checked out, although some components were being worked on and couldn’t be tested.
One deficiency that inspectors noted during the voluntary safety review was that the life raft was improperly installed, said Arn Heggers, the Coast Guard’s commercial fishing boat inspection coordinator for Maine and New Hampshire. As it was installed, the raft would not have automatically deployed, but would have sunk with the boat.
The installation was corrected, so the raft worked as intended Sunday morning.
Heggers said most boats that request the voluntary safety checks – a small percentage of the fleet – have life rafts installed incorrectly.
When Marcantonio met with investigators in New Hampshire, he told them the boat’s radar and navigational equipment were working fine.
Tim Carolan Jr., who worked as an engineer on the boat when it was called the Atlantic Mariner, said rain can interfere with a fishing boat’s radar.
Carolan was fishing on the boat about six years ago, having left the Searsport area in the middle of the night in thick fog, when the huge bow of an oncoming tanker suddenly appeared 50 feet away. The Starbound is large for a fishing boat, rising up almost three stories, but the bow of the tanker still rose nearly 20 feet above the top of the trawler’s wheelhouse, he said.
The tanker hit the boat’s port side, Carolan said. The boat rolled, and escaped with damaged rails and visor on the upper deck, he said.
“At least the first time there wasn’t any loss of life,” he said.
The capabilities of modern electronics suggest human error played a major role in the accident, said Heggers of the Marine Safety Office in Portland.
All ships are required to have someone in control of the ship on watch when under way. Large transport ships must also have radar with collision avoidance systems that set off alarms when another ship gets close.
“There have been cases in the past, where a crewman will place a vessel on a certain course and speed, then doze off, take a nap or go below and grab a cup of coffee,” Heggers said. “It’s not something that should happen and it’s not something permitted, but it does happen.”
“I’m sure a bunch of mistakes were made on both parts,” he said.
Running on the vast, open ocean, it is easy to believe there is little chance of hitting anything, so people sometimes stop paying attention, Heggers said.
“Could you hit a boat and not know it – absolutely,” he said. “These vessels are thousands and thousands of dead-weight tons moving through water at 12-15 knots.”
But other Coast Guard officials say it is highly unlikely a tanker hit the steel trawler with enough force to rupture the hull without alerting the ship’s crew.
Coast Guard inspectors are trying to find that ship, and the job becomes harder as the days pass.
Marcantonio told investigators he could see a bulbous extension on the bow of the towering ship, a fixture that is typically below the waterline if the ship is loaded. That means once the ship takes on a load, at least some of the damage is likely to be submerged and harder to spot.