Hearings into boat sinking

April 14, 2009 4:06:52 PM PDT
A Coast Guard helicopter pilot said she did everything possible to rescue the crew of a fishing boat that sank off southern New Jersey last month, killing six. Lt. Cmdr. Tina Pena told a Coast Guard investigative panel Tuesday how the crew on her helicopter found one survivor and two bodies after the Lady Mary went down on March 24. All three were floating in bright red survival suits. She said she never saw the four other men before heading back to her base in Atlantic City because she was running low on fuel.

"If I had seen another soul on the water, I would have made the decision to pick him up and land on the beach," she said in an interview.

The three-member Coast Guard Board of Investigation opened hearings on the accident Tuesday. The board is gathering information for a report on how the 71-foot scallop boat went down 75 miles off Cape May and how similar accidents could be avoided. The National Transportation Safety Board is also participating and will issue its own report.

The hearings are expected to last at least three days and will include testimony from other rescuers and, later this week, from the lone survivor, Jose Luis Arias. Arias, 57, is a native of Chiapas state in Mexico and lived in Wildwood, N.J. and Raleigh, N.C.

Roy "Capt. Fuzzy" Smith Sr., who owned the Lady Mary and had two sons die when it sank, is also allowed to question witnesses.

On Tuesday, he said the emergency equipment seemed to be working correctly.

"I can't help but think someone else didn't do what they were supposed to do," Smith said. "There would have been three survivors instead of one."

A few mysteries emerged from Pena's testimony. One is why it took authorities more than two hours to hear a distress signal. Another is why other fishing vessels nearby did not respond to the Coast Guard helicopter's call for help.

The bodies of Smith's sons - Roy "Bobo" Smith Jr., 42, and Timothy "Timbo" Smith, 37, both of Middle Township, N.J. and Mesic, N.C. - were found by Pena and her crew. The extensive search failed to turn up any trace of Bernie "Tarzan" Smith, 59, of Wildwood, N.J., the boat owner's brother; William Torres, of Wildwood, N.J.; Frankie Credle, who had been living on the boat; and Frank Reyes of Cape May Court House, N.J.

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