Fishing boat rescue attempt highlights stretched Coast Guard

Thursday, December 23rd 2004, 8:02 pm
By: News On 6

BOSTON (AP) _ In the end, the fishing boat captain's urgent cries for help from the Coast Guard proved futile. His own efforts were all that would matter.

According to a radio transmission released by the Coast Guard, Tony Alvernaz had set off the Coast Guard search for five New Bedford scallopers lost in the raging sea: ``It's an emergency! You need a chopper! You need a chopper out!''

But the 40-hour hunt for the Northern Edge and its crew was marked by brutal weather and major mechanical problems, including malfunctions in all four of the Coast Guard's available helicopters. The problems left a three-hour gap in the middle of the night when no Coast Guard personnel were searching the area.

Alvernaz and his crew on the Diane Marie saved the only survivor of the fast-sinking wreck, pulling Pedro Furtado aboard after he clung to a life raft for a half hour early Monday evening.

Coast Guard officials said despite the problems, they were confident they'd done all they could. But the search and the difficulties it encountered highlight how multiple responsibilities have stretched the Coast Guard's resources thin.

``I think the American people know we work with what we have, and we work hard,'' said Coast Guard Petty Officer Andrew Shinn.

The first sign of problems on the Northern Edge came at 4:44 p.m. Monday when Coast Guard operators received an emergency distress signal from the boat.

At 5:08 p.m., Alvernaz called, identified the Northern Edge as the vessel in distress and gave coordinates, according to the radio transmission.

``Ma'am, all I see is flares,'' he later said. ``I lost the contact on radar! I lost the vessel. I lost the contact on radar. ... Come as soon as possible with some lights. We need ... some lights.''

The operator soon informed Alvernaz, ``OK, sir, I just wanted to let you know we have a helo en route, a helicopter en route, and we have some of our cutters en route at this time, also.''

But the first Jayhawk helicopter was forced to land because of a de-icing problem almost immediately after it took off from Air Station Cape Cod at 5:45 p.m.

The Coast Guard immediately began to prepare a second helicopter in the 6-degree weather, which took off at 6:38 p.m. and reached the scene a half hour later. It searched for more than three hours, hampered by a malfunctioning radio system, and returned to base. The crew switched to a third helicopter, but it was grounded by a frozen switch.

The same crew took the fourth helicopter up at about midnight, but was forced back by an engine problem. A second crew eventually took over at about 3:10 a.m. _ about two hours after the first cutters arrived.

That left roughly a three hour gap when no Coast Guard personnel were at the accident site _ between the second chopper's departure between 9:30 and 10 p.m. and the cutters' arrival. Shinn said the problems with the helicopters were due to the extreme weather, rather than their age.

``While certainly that's frustrating, it's not something we feel would have made a difference in this case,'' Shinn said.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the Coast Guard's responsibilities have increased greatly and it's been a battle to get proper funding, said Steven Schwadron, Chief of Staff for U.S. Rep. William Delahunt, who served in the Coast Guard. Recent years have seen increased funding for the agency, founded for search in rescue missions, but now involved in everything from coastal security, to the drug war, to breaking ice in frozen harbors, he said.