In “The Wreck of the Lady Mary” the Newark Star-Ledger’s Amy Ellis Nutt told a deeply reported, literary story about a scallop-boat sinking that killed six of the seven fishermen aboard. By its very nature the story calls to mind The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger; from a policy standpoint it was important because it revealed holes in maritime safety regulations. The series won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for feature writing and is a model for marrying expert reporting with storytelling.
I also love this story for its interactivity: Amy and colleague Andre Malok—who created the video, photos and graphics—told this story from the coolest angle: 360 degrees.
Amy’s work beyond newspapers is also deeply intelligent/authentic—her first book, Shadows Bright as Glass: The Remarkable Story of One Man’s Journey from Brain Trauma to Artistic Triumph, is a beautiful, fascinating read; you’ll especially love it if you’re into stories about the mysteries of the human brain. (Here’s a fun “page 99 test” derived from the Ford Madox Ford quote, “Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you.”)
A few Q’s to start:
p) The 24-minute video adds important dimension to the Lady Mary story, particularly w/r/t mapping/graphics. To actually see/hear a mariner say, from the deck of his boat, “In five or 10 minutes a fast-moving ship can be on top of you before you know it,” makes the danger feel all the more real. Cross-platform/multimedia applications are part of what make this such an exciting time for storytelling—look, for example, at The Atavist’s richly layered narrative model (disclosure: I’m signed on to write for them) and you’ll see that technology is allowing us to take storytelling—the fundamentals of which we all know by now should and will never change—to clever new levels. How did you decide to do the multimedia?
a) There was never a question about it, and because we figured video was even more important than photos, Andre, who is one of our best videographers, was assigned to do both PLUS the graphics, which is his main background. I want to add that I believed the video MADE this story and I asked Andre to accompany me to the Pulitzers because he was such an integral part of the story. I wish the feature writing award had included the video.
Did you write the script for it?
I helped with it a lot, edited it and added to it, but it was Andre’s baby and his voice narrating.
How did you simulate the scene of the Lady Mary sinking, particularly the presence of the approaching ship?
We spent a good deal of money shipping out the reconstruction to a contractor who did the amazing animations with detailed instructions from us, although he didn’t EXACTLY follow our instructions about how to depict the glancing blow of the container ship.
(Note! These annotations are like a little part-time job—but unpaid—for the incredible journalists who agree to transcribe their experiences/insights. In Annotation Tuesday! #1, Michael Kruse line-by-lined his terrific St. Petersburg Times story about a woman who disappeared in her own home, and in Annotation Tuesday! #2, Tom Junod marked up his iconic 9/11 piece “The Falling Man,” from Esquire. And I have to tell you Amy finished her line by line while covering Hurricane Irene. You can thank them with your goodwill, and with liquor.)
The Wreck of the Lady Mary
Amy Ellis Nutt
The Newark Star-Ledger
November 21, 2010
Riotous waves pummel José Arias. In the frantic scramble to abandon ship, he zipped his survival suit only to his throat and now the freezing Atlantic is seeping in, stealing his body’s heat.
The cold hammers him, a fist inside his head. <How did you decide to tell the story in present tense? Did you play at all with past tense?/pw
I played a bit, but early on I knew exactly where I wanted to start the story, and for the effect of immediacy knew present tense was best. There were several possible scenes I could have opened with – at any point as the boat is going down, in fact – but I wanted to be able to return to that action, to the final minutes of the boat, and build up to it, so the next best dramatic point is really with Jose in the water, wondering whether he’s going to live or die./aen
Seesawing across the ocean, he cannot tell east from west, up from down. At the top of a wave the night sky spins open, then slides away. Buckets of stars spill into the sea. <lovely image, particularly the verbs—spins, slides, spill; how did you arrive at “spins”?/pw
I consider myself a fairly visual person and after going over and over with Jose about the conditions that night, what he saw and heard and felt, I wanted to put the reader in the water, see-sawing up and down the waves. Imagining myself in the same situation, floating on my back, in heavy seas, I realized that looking up at the sky as you’re moving up and down will make the stars seem to move to. I worked on the wording of the lede for many many hours, tweaking it many times over the days before publication. When I did, I always read the lede out loud. I do this with stories whenever I can, to make sure the rhythm and flow is right, and of course alliteration and assonance is important in that regard./aen
“Sálvame, por favor. Sálvame.”
Save me. Please save me, he prays to Our Lady of Guadalupe.
In the chilly, early morning hours of March 24, 2009, 57-year-old José Arias fights for his life, floating in the water 66 miles from Cape May. The nearest lights are from another fishing vessel, which does not see him, anchored less than a half-mile away. A little farther out, a mammoth container ship steams toward Philadelphia.
Although Arias does not know it yet, all six of his friends and fellow fishermen are dead, and the red-hulled scalloper, the Lady Mary, is resting, right-side up, <such a great, specific detail; what’s the source, photos?/pw Video and photos, taken by professional divers with whom I worked closely in researching the story./aenon the sandy bottom of the Atlantic. The mystery of what sank her, which continues to haunt the maritime world, has just begun. <interesting move—takes us out of straight narrative and allows for a traditional nut-graf-y moment, which then hour-glasses us back to narrative. The next seven grafs provide context and cue the reader to settle in for Story—I’m curious about the thought that went into using this particular tool of newspaper writing, which seeks to establish immediate relevance (before the jump, if possible) and declare the story’s (and newspaper’s) authority and intentions. Sometimes nut grafs and nut-graf passages work against the story, though, by derailing/defusing it and by turning a distracting amount of the attention on process—did you worry about that here?/pw Ahhh, the nut graph. The bane of many a reporter’s existence! At a newspaper it’s almost impossible to get away without one – especially with my editor! – but the story is also a complex one. It’s part narrative, part investigation, part profile of an industry, etc. So I actually do think it was important to help the reader out a bit in terms of what to expect./aen
For months, what happened to the 71-foot Lady Mary baffled the Coast Guard, marine experts, fishermen, divers and heartbroken loved ones — all of whom wanted to know how a sound and stable boat with an experienced crew could disappear from the ocean’s surface in a matter of minutes and leave so few clues behind.
This story is about a tragedy no one lived to tell — except Arias, the only crewman plucked from the ocean alive, but who was asleep below decks when the sea suddenly began to swallow the boat. But from the tormented memories of its sole survivor, hundreds of pages of Coast Guard documents, the analyses of more than a dozen marine experts and the Lady Mary’s own ghostly remains, a picture has slowly emerged.
No single event doomed the six fishermen, rather a cascade of circumstances set in motion years earlier by a slip in penmanship on a vessel safety form, compounded by a clerical error. Darkness, deteriorating weather, a tired crew and an open hatch contributed to the vessel’s vulnerability. Then, a floating behemoth 10 times the size of the little scalloper came plowing through the fishing ground at nearly full throttle.
The men of the Lady Mary were like thousands of others who earn their living from fishing, toiling in a Wild West sort of world, in hazardous, ever-changing conditions with scant safeguards and few legal protections.
On today’s oceans, endangered whales have more protection than fishermen, though scores are killed each year.
And when fishermen die at sea, their deaths often remain unexplained, their bodies never found and their lives soon forgotten by the public.
As one mariner said, “There are no skid marks on the ocean.” <amazing quote. Did this person say it to you or did you find this in documents?/pw My favorite quote in the whole story. It came from a naval architect who said he did not feel right about commenting on the evidence we showed him, but was happy to talk about the issues of accident investigations in general, and so because I did not use him anywhere else I decided best not to name him. All that being said, when he uttered those words I felt my heart leap. It pretty much encapsulated so much of what the story was about, and how hard it is to solve these mysterious sinkings./aen
‘SEE YOU WHEN I GET BACK’
On the morning of Wednesday, March 18, 2009, a week before the Lady Mary disappeared, José Arias lingered on the dock of Cold Spring Fish & Supply in Cape May. Arias, like most commercial fishermen, lived frugally. He shared a spartan one-bedroom apartment in Wildwood with another fisherman and used a bicycle to get around town. A trip to the area known as the Elephant Trunk, the richest scallop grounds on the East Coast, meant he and the other six men aboard the Lady Mary might pocket $10,000 to $15,000 each — more for the captain — for a week to 10 days at sea. <such lovely writing. It’s clear that you think about cadence. And I’ve heard you recite—beautifully, hauntingly—the final paragraphs of The Great Gatsby, so I know you think about lyricism./pw Thanks. Yes, Fitzgerald and Gatsby are particular favorites. Fitzgerald was so astute to cadence and the music of words that he removed more than a thousand commas from the final draft of The Great Gatsby before publication. /aen
The federal government strictly regulates commercial fishing, placing limits on the number of trips and the size of the catch. So at the beginning of each season, usually around March 1, fishermen are eager to get back to work. <interesting that you drop in exposition rather than work it in, say, via Arias’ POV; how did you arrive at that choice?/pw There was so much explanatory information that I needed to weave into the story – about the fishing industry, commercial fishing boats and the various regulations, that I knew I had to have these “pauses” in the narrative to keep the reader up to speed. The eagerness to get back to work in the spring is true of all scallopers, I learned, so it was certainly not just true of Jose. I also wanted to drop in hints along the way about all the various reasons why the Lady Mary was doomed, including, obviously, the need for fishermen to get out as soon as possible when the season opens./aen
Waiting for the rest of the crew to arrive at the dock that Wednesday morning, Arias noticed an 8-foot-long wooden plank leaning against the ice machine, not far from where the scallops are weighed and packed for shipment. Perfect, he thought to himself. He would use the wood to fix one of the bins in the boat’s fish hold. Arias picked up the plank and carried it onboard, placing it on the bow, or front, <why include “or front”? were you worried readers wouldn’t understand “bow”?/pw My editor’s suggestion, at least early on in the story, to help non-boaters./aen of the ship, next to the life raft.
According to the vessel tracking system operated by the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Lady Mary cast off shortly after 10 a.m. <here’s an interesting point of difference between newspaper and magazine writing. A magazine writer might have written “The Lady Mary cast off shortly after 10 a.m.” and let it go at that if the backup contained NMFS documents affirming the fact. Do you think newspaper writers often feel an undue burden to show our work at the local level even when the reporting backs up the story? Did you attribute the shove-off time because it was a contentious point?/pw Certainly it’s true that newspaper reporters feel more of a burden to show attribution, but in this case, the vessel tracking system almost becomes a kind of character in the story—especially when it comes to trying to figure out what the Cap Beatrice was doing in the hours after the accident — and I wanted the reader to know early on that there was a lot we DID know, and CAN know, about a ship’s whereabouts, which to me underscores the terrible tragedy of the accident – that despite the most sophisticated technology in the world, a boat can sink 65 miles off shore and take six men down with her, and yet no one knows until hours later./aen Among the seven men were two brothers, Capt. Royal “Bobo” Smith Jr., 41, and Tim “Timbo” Smith, 39, the only children of 64-year-old Royal “Fuzzy” Smith Sr., who co-owned the boat with son Tim. One of Fuzzy’s brothers, Tarzon, (nicknamed Bernie) 59, was also aboard, as was a cousin, Frankie Credle, 56. The other two members of the crew were 23-year-old novice Jorge Ramos and Frank Reyes, 42.
Pointing the boat east, Bobo picked up his cell phone and called Stacy Greene, his 39-year-old girlfriend and the mother of two of his three biological children.
A teller at Crest Savings Bank in Wildwood, Stacy couldn’t answer, but she knew Bobo would leave a slew of messages.
“Babe, we’re leaving. We’re pulling away from the dock,” he said after Stacy’s voice-mail message played.
A few minutes later, according to phone records, <again, why did you choose to attribute? Was this point in question?/pw It may not have been necessary, but again I think I wanted the reader to know how much we DID know about the Lady Mary’s last days, etc., and yet not the ultimate reason why she sank./aen he called again. The boat had probably cleared the lighthouse by then. Soon it would be out of range.
“Babe, got the outriggers out. See you when I get back, okay?” <you handled this quote so nice and cleanly—we know just who’s speaking/pw
When they were fishing, and well out of sight of cell-phone towers, Bobo often called Stacy on the satellite phone. Because they worked virtually around-the-clock, he sometimes dialed her at crazy hours, ringing her at 2 a.m. to ask what she was doing.
“What do you think I’m doing?” she’d say in mock anger.
Over the next six days, Bobo called Stacy on the satellite phone 10 times, not always reaching her. He called Fuzzy twice on Saturday, March 21. The first time was just after 2 in the afternoon, to tell him the crew was catching a good load of scallops and things were going well.
“Go bag ’em up, and don’t be guessing how much you got,” Fuzzy told Bobo.
He never liked to hear from his sons when they were out fishing, <great detail—how’d you get it?/pw heWe – photographer/videographer Andre Malok and I —spent hours and hours with Capt. Fuzzy and he was very open and generous and told us this quite straightforwardly/aen just wanted them to get the job done and come home.
He worried about them, especially when they were on the same boat. Usually they took two boats and kept an eye on each other. When one of them called Fuzzy in the middle of a fishing trip, he always thought something was wrong.
At 10:37 that night, Bobo called his father back to tell him they had 200 bags of scallops — big ones, he told his father — and would probably be heading back on Tuesday, the 24th.
Three minutes later, Bobo called Stacy. The couple had broken up so many times over the years, often because of his drinking, but when he moved back into the house in Whitesboro in June of 2008, he quit and told her he wanted to be a real father to his kids.
The next eight months were blissful, according to Stacy. Bobo fixed breakfast for the children, attended every one of 8-year-old Jeremiah’s basketball games — in fact, every one of his practices — and on weekends drove the kids to the Family Dollar Store in Rio Grande to buy them presents.
Of course, that was when he was just back from a fishing trip and had money in his pockets. When he did have cash, he spent it freely, usually on the kids, but sometimes on complete strangers.
The previous November, when they were all driving down to Virginia Beach for a big family reunion, Bobo spotted a homeless man wandering on the side of the road. He pulled over, handed him all the food they’d just picked up at KFC and gave him $10 in cash.
“Here you go, man,” he said. “I hope you can make it.”
When fishing season opened in March 2009, Bobo was broke again. Just before leaving on the first trip of the year, he stopped by Adele’s Jeweled Treasures in Cape May and, according to store receipts, <how/why the decision to attribute?/pw pawned In this case, there was no other way we could have known this. The reader already knows Bobo is dead, and so he couldn’t possibly have told us, and his wife didn’t know about the chain until the shop called after the boat went down/aen the gold chain he always wore around his neck for $200.
Like Bobo, younger brother Tim was utterly and completely a fisherman. He even married a fisherman’s daughter. Carinna often went down to the boat before a trip, clean sheets in her arms, and made her husband’s bed. <great detail/pw
She also liked to pack Tim’s duffel and sneaked “sea letters” — love notes, really — into the pockets of his clothes. Each day, when Tim dressed, was like Christmas morning, and he tucked the little presents into his shaving kit for safekeeping.
“Tell (the Realtor) I’ll have the money for the house when I come back in,” he told Carinna right before leaving that Wednesday morning.
He was going to use his share from the trip to make a down payment on a new home.<students and I often talk about the pros and cons of single-sentence grafs—how and when to use them, and when to combine material and keep powerful ideas streamlined. Obviously it depends upon the story but generally how do you view single-sentence grafs? Do you ever worry about their potential to overdramatize certain material?/pw In this case, the single sentence graph wasn’t meant to be dramatic. It’s just that I switch to a new subject in the next sentence, so I couldn’t run it in with that graph./aen
On the same block in Whitesboro on which Tim and Carinna lived, 37-year-old Jeannette Rodriguez was reluctant to see Frank Reyes leave on his first fishing trip of the year. The two had been together 20 years and although they’d never married, they had three children. Jeannette and Frank met at a Christmas Eve party in Wildwood. She was 18 and had just arrived from Puerto Rico. He was five years older, and conscious of the age difference, so he allowed their relationship to develop slowly over the months. Eventually, they moved in together.
Reyes, 42, was a cook at the Lobster House in Cape May and loved his job, but during the slow winter months the restaurant cut back on staff. Fishing was one way to fill the gap financially.
”Don’t go,” she would say to him. “It’s so dangerous.”
And sometimes he wouldn’t. Reyes never wanted his family to worry about him. So when he did go out, he never called his parents back in Puerto Rico and he always left before the kids were up. <fascinating, these personal rituals/superstitions—I wonder if it’s the same for people in similarly dangerous lines of work/pw Personally he didn’t much care for fishing, but he had no fear of the water. In fact he loved it. Nearly every weekend in the warm weather he would go swimming off Sunset Beach, at the western edge of Lower Township. Early in the season the water was always too cold for Jeannette and the kids, but not for Frank.
“Only God would separate us,” he would tell Jeannette before leaving on a fishing trip, “so you have to trust me.”
On the morning of March 18 she drove him to the dock and kissed him goodbye.
“I’m going to be home Monday morning,” he said. “Take care of the kids.”
On the first two days of fishing, the crew had little luck and kept moving, until they were at the outer edge of the Elephant Trunk, named for the shape of the sea’s floor in that area. That’s when they hit the mother lode, dredging up shells with plump scallops the size of half-dollars inside.
On Monday, March 23, Arias got up early, ate a breakfast of ribs and bacon, then spent the next 18 hours in the cut room, separating scallop meat from their shells. Two-hundred bushels later, he finally ducked into the forepeak bunk room, below the galley in the bow of the ship, and slipped into bed, exhausted. It was just after midnight. <so streamlined and visual/pw
The other six men continued to work: Capt. Bobo kept watch in the wheelhouse; Tim, Bernie, Frankie Credle, Frank Reyes, and Jorge Ramos were all either on deck dredging or in the cut room shucking.
The boat was about 60 to 70 miles east by southeast of Cape May and carrying close to a full load: 18,000 pounds of scallops packed neatly into 50-pound muslin bags. <great specificity: east by southeast, FIFTY-pound MUSLIN bags, 18,000 pounds of scallops/pwOne more shift, and the Lady Mary would probably head for home.
The boat was well-equipped for long voyages and included up-to-date <so glad you didn’t use the clichéd “state-of-the-art”—possibly because that’s not what the reporting actually showed; with “up to date” you seem to be making a technical distinction about on-board inspections and the required equipment but you didn’t hit us over the head with it. it’s a small move but if I’m reading it right it shows precision reporting/pw Thanks, that’s just what I wanted to convey. It certainly wasn’t state-of-the-art, but it’s a detail that helps underscore the coming mystery – that despite all the navigation equipment and the apparent safety of the boat, it is somehow doomed./aen navigational and safety equipment, including a covered life raft and an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon, or EPIRB, which automatically emits a distress signal when it’s submerged in water.
Staggering their shifts, two men usually slept while everyone else worked. Arias and Timbo were scheduled to knock off <love this moment of lingo/pw at the same time, but Tim didn’t turn in right away. At some point after midnight he smoked a little marijuana, probably with Bobo, according to a toxicology report, <I appreciate the attribution here. although if I may be so bold/presumptuous, as an editor I think I’d have urged “a toxicology report would show” instead of “according to a toxicology report” because the future perfect would’ve sort of kept us in-narrative. Maybe you didn’t want to keep us in-narrative, tho, so whadda I know/pw Your point is very well taken. It would have been better to say “a toxicology report would show.”/aen before finally heading to bed.
Ramos was supposed to wake Tim and José at 6 a.m. when it was his turn to rest, but Arias wouldn’t have been surprised if Bobo told the others to take a break, too, then just let the boat drift for a few hours. It was getting difficult to work anyway. The seas were building and the wind was up. <I love this sentence/pw
In his bunk bed, Arias pulled a blanket up around his shoulders. He was used to the labored grunts of the engine and the high whine of the winches as they lowered and lifted the dredge, and though his hands and arms ached and the smell of fish and diesel fumes still oozed from the clothes he’d tossed in the corner, he fell asleep quickly. <gorgeous; how did you get the precise detail about where he tossed his clothes?/pw Many hours of interviews with Jose, almost all of it through a translator./aen
One-hundred-and-twenty miles to the north, the container ship Cap Beatrice was steaming from Antwerp, Belgium, toward the Port of Philadelphia at nearly 20 knots.<thank you for not converting this to mph; I think I as a writer would have done so, and it would’ve been wrong/pw There was discussion of this; I wanted to stay in character, so to speak, and not convert, because no one does that out at sea/aen Owned by the Reederei Thomas Schulte company in Hamburg, Germany, the Cap Beatrice was sailing under a Liberian flag and was leased by the Hamburg Sud shipping company, the 16th largest in the world. Since launching in 2007, her route was usually a 70-day round-trip to various ports between Australia and the United States.
For some reason in mid-March 2009, the Cap Beatrice had made a detour to Europe, perhaps for repairs, <I’ll bet you killed yourself trying to nail this down; would the company, Hamburg Sud, just not cooperate? Did those details not come out in the Coast Guard hearings?/pw Oh, Lord, there were sooo many of these details. First, no, unfortunately it did not come out in the hearings. Second, yes, neither Hamburg Sud nor the Coast Guard would answer the question/aen and on the 24th was headed to the United States, presumably to resume her loop to Australia and back.
Capt. Vasyl Stenderchuk, a 55-year-old Ukrainian, was in charge of the 728-foot-long <good God what a monster compared to the Lady Mary/pw ship, and spent most of his days in the wheelhouse, some seven stories above the deck. Radar, along with a sophisticated Automatic Identification System and other navigation tools, keep the officer on watch apprised of other ships in the area.
AIS, however, can only detect ships carrying the same system and virtually no fishing vessels carry the expensive equipment. <blockbuster detail. Source? General research? Coast Guard investigation?/pw Talked with a lot of navigation experts and fishing industry experts as well as fishing vessel inspectors, to confirm./aen
In the deteriorating weather, the 40,000-ton Cap Beatrice was headed straight for one of the most crowded fishing grounds on the East Coast of the United States.
Arias slept soundly, even as the Lady Mary rolled and pitched with the waves. The wind continued to scoop up barrels of water and sling them over the gunnels. <your verbs in this series are so good I had to make a partial list just to see them that way: scoop, sling, slap, shudder, lurch, scramble, slosh, brace, bang, clutch, dip, swerve, grip, grab, skid, tip, jam, crackle, sputter, huddle, split, nose, whirl, thunder, gun—nothing fancy, all power lifters/pw Ha! I always take F. Scott Fitzgerald to heart on this. He said “All fine prose is based on the verbs carrying the sentence.” Just re-read his description of the cocktail party at Gatsby’s house in chapter 3. For example, count all the verbs in just these three sentences—and he’s writing about a cocktail party, for crying out loud!: “The lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun, and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music, and the opera of voices pitches a key higher. Laughter is easier minute by minute, spilled with prodigality, tipped out at a cheerful word. The groups change more swiftly, swell with new arrivals, dissolve and form in the same breath; already there are wanderers, confident girls who weave here and there among the stouter and more stable, become for a sharp, joyous moment the centre of a group, and then, excited with triumph, glide on through the sea-change of faces and voices and color under the constantly changing light.”/aen Heavy cables slapped against the deck and hull, and the sound of metal grinding was enough to wake the deepest sleeper.
Fishermen, however, get used to the movement and noise of a boat — or they don’t stay fishermen for long.
At 5:10 a.m., the Lady Mary automatically reported her position to the fisheries service for the last time. The next electronic signal she sent was from her EPIRB hitting the water at 5:40 a.m.
The only other information that is known for certain is that a phone call was placed from the Lady Mary at 5:17 a.m.
What else happened between 5 and 6 Tuesday morning, March 24, 2009, has been reconstructed <I love that you did this—told the reader straight out that from here on we’re dealing with reconstructions from a variety of sources; it’s clear, honest (not to say a lack of disclaimer would’ve been dishonest)—it’s transparent, is my point/pw from vessel tracking reports, information from weather buoys, and interviews not only with José Arias, but with marine experts, other fishermen out there that night, as well as Fuzzy Smith, the co-owner of the Lady Mary, who knew the boat, the crew and the routine aboard the scalloper better than anyone.
AWAKENING TO TERROR
Around 5 a.m. something happened to the Lady Mary. <wonderful—even though you’ve just announced that you’ll be telling us what else happened, this simple phrasing is beautifully unexpected/compelling; you take us back by 40 minutes and into an intimate POV/pw Arias wasn’t sure what, but he jerked awake. The boat had shuddered, lurched hard to the left, and nearly catapulted him from his middle bunk.
“Come on, José, the boat’s sinking!” Timbo shouted as he dropped from his upper berth <very visual—sourcing of detail about where Timbo slept?/pw interviews with Jose/aen on the other side of the room. In emergencies, the crew is drilled to go to the wheelhouse on the upper deck. Arias and Smith were in the bow of the ship, the farthest point from the bridge.
They scrambled out of the bunk room and up the steps into the galley. The water was ankle-high as they sloshed across the kitchen to the port-side passageway. Moving slowly down the narrow hall, they braced themselves against the wall. The freezing water was now up to their knees. Through the cut room <I love that you included the route through the cut room—the notion of a “cut room” (I’d never heard of such a thing) echoes your earlier mentions so powerfully that I immediately see Arias there pre-storm, separating meat from shell/pw and out the double doors <nice/pw they In detailing the route so exactly I also wanted the reader to realize that it took a minute or more for him to actually get out on the back deck./aen finally emerged onto the deck. The Lady Mary was now leaning harder to port and a third of the stern was awash.
Frankie Credle, dressed only in black boxer shorts, banged a piece of pipe against the metal steps and yelled something up to Bobo in the wheelhouse, but Arias, who speaks little English, did not understand what he was saying.
At 5:17 a.m., about 80 miles away the phone rang in Stacy Greene’s house. She was sound asleep, but her mother, Janet, a light sleeper, answered. The voice on the other end sounded like Bobo, but all she heard was, “Hey!” and then static. <deft; we instantly remember that the last call from the Lady Mary went out at 5:17; I love that you delayed identifying who made the call/pw
“Hello? Roy?” she said, calling Bobo by his given name. When there was no answer, she hung up.
Reception from a boat that far out could be sporadic, and satellite calls from the Lady Mary were often dropped. Janet knew he’d phone again later, when he was closer to home, and went back to sleep.
Inside the wheelhouse, Bobo frantically tried to steer the Lady Mary. The engines were throttled up but it seemed to Arias as if the boat was somehow stuck and not moving. Outside the wheelhouse, on the upper deck, Frank Reyes clutched the starboard railing with both hands, frozen in fear.
“José, José, Qué vamos hacer?”
What are we going to do? he pleaded.
The two men, both Spanish speakers, were friends. Neither drank or smoked, which was unusual in the world of fishermen. Arias enjoyed spending time with Reyes and his partner, Jeannette Rodriguez, at their home in Whitesboro and eating the dinners Reyes loved to cook: spaghetti, turkey and gravy, mashed potatoes, rice and beans. Afterward, the two men would trade stories about their hometowns. Reyes grew up in suburban Hatillo, Puerto Rico, just two blocks from the ocean; Arias was raised in the rural state of Chiapas, Mexico, one of the country’s poorest regions. <nice condensing of back story, and because you’ve framed the revelations within exchanges between friends we not only see them, we feel them/pw
Aboard the Kathryn Marie, several miles from the Lady Mary, Capt. Antonio Alvernaz was shucking scallops and keeping an ear out for the ship’s radio. Around 5:15 a.m. it crackled to life.
That was all Alvernaz heard — one word, in a panicked voice.
He rushed back into the wheelhouse, hoping to hear the person identify himself or give the name or location of his boat. Instead, the next voice on Channel 12 was that of Capt. José Neves, aboard the Paul & Michelle, a few miles west of the Lady Mary.
“Come back with that more clearly,” Neves radioed. “Come back with the name of your boat and position.” <I literally have chills; how did you get the dialogue—radio recordings or reconstruction?/pw This is from Neves’ testimony at the Coast Guard hearing./aen
“I couldn’t make out a thing,” Neves radioed next, to anyone listening.
“It sounded like a mayday,” Alvernaz responded.
Neither man could be sure, and with no name or location, there was no point in calling the Coast Guard. Both went back to work. Mayday hoaxes were a common occurrence, and Neves and Alvernaz didn’t think about the aborted call until eight or nine hours later.
Six miles due west of the Lady Mary, Jim Taylor, on the Elise G., also heard a frantic voice over the radio, but couldn’t make out what was said.
Taylor, 34, was first mate on the Elise G. and was keeping watch at the time. While the captain slept, the rest of the crew was dredging and cutting. For awhile Taylor had been watching a large ship on the radar — a container or cargo ship, he thought — as it crossed straight through the fishing grounds. <this sentence is so haunting; I think it’s powerful because you cast the fact from Taylor’s POV, which is so much more visual than something abstract such as, “For a while a large ship had been crossing the radar as it made its way through the fishing grounds.”/pw Thanks. I think it also underscores, yet again, that there were people so close by, people who saw things, or thought they saw things, and yet for one reason or another were not in a position to be able to help the Lady Mary or even know she was in distress./aen
Only two vessels were within a mile of the Lady Mary, according to Coast Guard and Marine Fisheries records: The 728-foot container ship Cap Beatrice, and the 69-foot scalloper Alexandria Dawn, which was “laying-to” — using her dredge as an anchor — and so was not moving.
Other than the Cap Beatrice, the only other large merchant ships in the area were theEnergy Enterprise and the APL Arabia, but they were 20 to 30 miles north of the Lady Mary, moving in opposite directions. <all of this detail is so good and clear—it gives us almost a bird’s-eye view of that ocean sector/pw
As Taylor hauled back on the dredge, he noticed to the east a huge ship suddenly turn on its deck lights. <I gasped when I read this; to me, the ocean is terrifying; to me, massive objects are terrifying; so a massive object appearing in the massive ocean—hang on while I pass out/pw
“Like a Christmas tree, or a football stadium,” Taylor said. “It was the first time I’ve ever seen that.”
Anatoly Parayev, who later served as captain of the Cap Beatrice, said there is only one time he will turn on a ship’s deck lights in the middle of the ocean — when overtaking a fishing boat.
”To scare them off,” he said. “To warn them.” <holy crap; source of this quote? CG hearings?/pw No, this was from conversations with Parayev IN THE WHEELHOUSE OF THE CAP BEATRICE! Andre and I were able to secure permission to board the ship when it was in port in the spring of 2010. Our second request, a few months later, was denied, as was access to the rest of the crew./aen
On the massive, window-encased bridge of the Cap Beatrice, there are three satellite phones, a large-screen radar system with a maximum distance of 55 miles, and two pairs of high-powered binoculars. <so you were allowed on the CB only once, if I’m understanding correctly; did you scramble to get all the physical detail from that one visit or did you have to pair your observations with details from records? So often we don’t know what’s valuable from a scene until later, when we’re piecing together the narrative, so we’re inclined to suck in everything we see/hear, etc., knowing we might not get another chance, which is nerve wracking/pw Yes, a mad scramble indeed. Almost all the detail in this graph is from first-hand observation; other details from official records/aen Seeing other large ships, either electronically or with the naked eye, is no problem, but keeping an eye on smaller vessels is another matter entirely. With its deck stacked with metal containers and the wheelhouse set back 590 feet from the bow, according to Parayev, the person on watch is blind to everything on the surface of the water inside a quarter-mile from the ship. <wow/pw
Taylor, aboard the Elise G., has been fishing since he was 18 years old. To him, it appeared the container or cargo ship had slowed considerably, perhaps even stopped. Not far from the ship, he noticed the green mast-light of a fishing boat flickering in the dark. Normally, just below the green light, is a white light, part of a signal system that indicates to vessels in the vicinity that the boat is a fishing trawler and is underway. Taylor observed neither a white signal, nor the fishing boat’s bright deck lights, which are usually turned on whether the vessel is dredging or not. <I like that you stuck with the facts of what Taylor could see and let us draw our own conclusions about what it meant—that the boat was capsizing/pw
On the bridge of the Cap Beatrice, the AIS tracking system stopped transmitting the ship’s position shortly after 5 a.m. By law, virtually all deep-draft vessels (ships of 300 tons or more) are required to continually report their location when transiting international waters, except where the ship’s security is endangered. In these rare cases the nearest vessel-tracking service must be notified. Traffic monitoring is required by international law, mostly as a way for large ships to avoid hitting each other. AIS is a line-of-sight signal, and reception on land depends in large part on the height of the antenna.
That night there were no interruptions in the AIS transmissions from either the APL Arabia or the Energy Enterprise, according to the Coast Guard, although both were farther from shore than the Cap Beatrice. <I hate to be a dork but I got a little lost here about the takeaway; did the CB purposely stop transmitting? Just curious./pw This is one of the big mysteries, and because the Coast Guard would not answer our questions – they interviewed the crew of the Cap Beatrice months after the sinking – we don’t know who or why she stopped transmitting, only that she did, according to vessel tracking records. Our supposition is that someone turned off the AIS, but because we don’t know that, I could only intimate how unusual it was by comparing her to the other big ships out there that night./aen
ONBOARD THE LADY MARY
In the wheelhouse of the Lady Mary, Arias and the two Smith brothers pulled survival suits, also called immersion suits, out from under the captain’s bunk. The vessel was now listing 45 degrees to port. In a few minutes she would be submerged.
Arias knew he had to get to the highest point on the boat. He left the bridge and pulled himself up to the starboard railing. There, leaning against the outside wall of the wheelhouse, he put one foot into his immersion suit, then the other. His friend Reyes was just a few feet away, still gripping the railing, a look of desperation in his eyes. On the side of the wheelhouse, Arias grabbed a life ring off its hook and handed it to Reyes.
“Agárralo,” he shouted into the wind, “Te va salvar la vida.”
Hold onto it. It will save your life.
The Lady Mary dipped and swerved, skidding down one wave, then hurtling up another. The boat tipped hard again to port. Suddenly the 30-foot starboard outrigger swung up out of the water and jammed itself behind its cradle, high on the mast.
The water had risen to Arias’ waist. There was no time left, and no sign of Frankie Credle or Bernie or Jorge. Tim and Bobo had left the bridge, too, both in their survival suits. There was nothing more Arias could do for Reyes. He looked at his friend one last time, and let go.
A plunge into cold water, with the face unprotected, can set off a lethal series of physiological events. First, the shock of the frigid temperature causes a person to involuntarily gasp, which blocks the flow of air into the lungs. Drowning, more than anything else, is a kind of quick suffocation, and in frigid water the reflex to inhale can kill even the strongest of men in minutes. <brilliant idea, to include the physiological effects of hitting frigid water. What led you to the decision to include this? By doing so you give us added sensation/pw Drowning, I knew from research , is really so awful that I knew I wanted to detail it. Just saying “drowning” gives a reader absolutely no idea about what it’s really like. Also, I wanted the reader to understand how quickly you can die in frigid water and drown./aen
Arias slid into the water on his back. He tried to move away from the Lady Mary as quickly as possible, using his arms like paddles and making sure to keep his face out of the water.
A few yards from the sinking ship, a voice cracked through the wind and waves. Someone was yelling, but Arias couldn’t see him or understand what he was saying.
“Quién es? Dónde está?”
Who’s there? Where are you?
No one answered. The bright deck lights of the Lady Mary blinked out. The engine sputtered to a stop. She was sinking quickly now.
Taylor, at the wheel of the Elise G., looked out the window to the east. It was, he recalled, five or 10 minutes since he’d spotted the container ship with its deck all lit up. The lights were off now, and the green light of the fishing trawler was nowhere to be seen. Taylor figured the boat was obscured from view behind the container and turned his attention back to dredging.
When the sea started to crest the wheelhouse,the only part of the Lady Mary still visible to Arias was the long arm of the starboard outrigger, pointing heavenward. <good Lord, what a haunting image; did this one come to you right away or did you have to beg it?/pw I specifically asked Jose what was the last thing he saw and went over the last few minutes of the sinking with him so much that I had a very, very clear picture in my mind of what he saw and when I saw it in MY mind, I shivered./aen
AN INCREDIBLE TWIST OF FATE
Rolling over the waves, his survival suit slowly filling with water, Arias hears <back to present tense; why the shift?/pw I wanted to end the story where I began – back with Jose in the water./aen nothing — no voice, no engine — only the wind thrashing wildly at the waves and the sound of his own heavy breathing.
Bobbing and weaving in the mountainous seas, he spots a piece of debris floating toward him and can’t believe his eyes — it’s the 8-foot-long board he picked up off the dock before the Lady Mary left port. <wow; so he saved his own life/pw Another point that I shivered when Jose told us this story. I had to resist mentioning Moby Dick and Queequeg’s coffin!/aen After placing it on the bow of the boat, he’d never had time to use it to make repairs.
Now, reaching out, he lifts his arms wearily across the plank, then lets the waves take him where they will.
José Arias, a slender, middle-aged fisherman, a grandfather with graying temples, is alone in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
And dawn is still another hour away.
All his life, Royal “Fuzzy” Smith has followed the sea. One of 13 children from rural Bayboro, N.C., he took his first fishing trip with his father when he was just 4 years old. By the time he was 18, he was working full time on shrimpers plying the Intracoastal Waterway, a 3,000-mile ribbon of inlets, rivers and bays that stretches south from the Jersey Shore to Key West, Fla., then up into the Gulf of Mexico all the way to Apalachicola, Fla.
From a young age, Fuzzy could read the water — where it ran warmer, faster or deeper — and knew the tides without checking the charts. He fished from October to June, at night, when the shrimp came out to feed in the shallows, and especially around a full moon, when they rode the currents out to spawn. <again, such graceful writing—I’m guessing you read your work aloud/pw You bet./aen <having heard you read Fitzgerald I’d like to hear you read this whole series aloud. You should record it and add it to the Star-Ledger archives—for the blind, for posterity, for the hell of it. But that’s just me./pw Ha! You might be interested in an 8-minute video we will be posting on Sept. 8. I was asked to write an essay kicking off our week-long 9/11 anniversary coverage, and the assignment, believe it or not, was to visit historic places of hallowed ground. We started at Ground Zero, then Gettysburg, then Arlington National Cemetery, Oklahoma City and finally Pearl Harbor — all in 10 days! It was exhausting and exhilarating. And my colleague John Munson has done an incredible job making a video out of an essay. For this I did write the script and did the narration…/aen I’ll link to it here once it’s up/pw
He followed the shrimp south, catching Georgia whites and Key West pinks, and then followed them up into the Gulf of Mexico, hauling in Pensacola reds and Texas brownies. <I like the repetition of “follow” here and that you didn’t force yourself the switch up the verbs—thought behind that?/pw The repetition reinforces the visual of the travels and its linearity/aen
Over the years, Fuzzy moved from mate to captain to owner, and when scallops became the big moneymaker, <thank you for not giving us the history of scalloping/pwThe photographer/videographer on the project, Andre Malok, is also a graphic artist and he did a beautiful word graphic describing the life of the scallop – another reason why other elements like graphics and video and photos are so key to good storytelling — so that the writer doesn’t have to shoehorn EVERY explanation and piece of information into the story./aen he gave up shrimping and moved his boats from North Carolina to Cape May. By the time his sons Bobo and Tim were of age, Fuzzy had a fleet of scallopers and was content to let his sons do the fishing while he managed the business on shore.
His office in Cape May is a one-room apartment in a squat, cinder-block building at the back of a parking lot across from the Lobster House. Photos of boats and family fill the room. The most recent is a picture of Bobo and Tim taken in November 2008 at a large family get-together in Virginia Beach. It’s almost dusk, and the sons are framed against a cornflower-blue sky. They smile into the camera, both dressed in crisp, white “Smith Reunion” T-shirts inscribed with a quote from Proverbs 3:5.
“Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.”<such a closely observed detail that adds meaning/depth/even comfort—how do you go about gathering details when you’re on scene? My hands always start to shake when I find something that I know will be vital to a story./pw Instead of shaky hands I get jumpy eyes and feet! I pride myself on picking up as many details as possible, always with the thought that you never know what detail can enhance or illustrate a theme, character or event. And sometimes I use the details to go do more research. For instance, I always look into the history, geography, even geology of a place where my story is centered, looking to see if those bits of information can inform a metaphor or image or theme./aen
From his desk in Cape May, Fuzzy kept watch over his boats and his boys. Looking out the window, he could see the clammers and scallopers huddled up against the dock and watch Bobo and Tim steer in and out of port. When they were on a trip for a week, two weeks, Fuzzy followed their progress using a special program on his computer, mainly to help them stay within the federally designated fishing grounds. If they strayed, fines would be levied.
But in truth, he was anxious about their safety. They usually fished together in two boats, so they could keep an eye on each other. But if it was a quick trip, it was easier to go out in one, and the best boat was the Lady Mary.
Those solo trips were when Fuzzy worried the most. If something went wrong, there was no second boat to help out. He kept the TV tuned to the Weather Channel, and when he couldn’t sleep at night he’d get up, turn on his computer, and in the sea-green glow of its screen look for his two sons somewhere out in the Atlantic.
Fuzzy was good at all the nuts and bolts. Although he filed his mail in a tall kitchen garbage can, <I’m with Fuzzy on this one/pw he knew where everything was — bills and boat records, tax papers, trip reports and safety equipment registrations.
He wrote everything out in bold, black letters and numbers — in print, mostly, not cursive — and if, on the hundreds of forms he filled out every year, occasionally a “C” looked like an “0,” what could it possibly matter? <nice foreshadowing/pw Credit for this goes to my editor on the project, David Tucker/aen
A CALL FOR HELP
At 5:40 a.m. on March 24, 2009, a geostationary satellite 22,236 miles <great, specific; source?/pw NOAA records as well as interview with NOAA satellite scientist/aen above sea level wakes up. <I may be stretching here, but you almost anthropomorphize the machines in this story—from the beginning they seem to have a life of their own, which for me adds a layer of mystery/pw This is purposeful – so many things happened that conspired against the Lady Mary that they acted almost like characters in the story. I also think anthropomorphizing makes these “accidents” of timing , etc., more poignant/aen Its antennae have picked up a maritime distress signal from an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon.
About the size of a large flashlight, an EPIRB is a required piece of equipment on most commercial fishing vessels. When submerged — that is, when a ship begins to sink — the device automatically releases from a bracket attached to the outside of a ship’s cabin or wheelhouse and floats to the surface.
The EPIRB emits a distress signal, in bursts, every 52 seconds <nice/pw on a special radio frequency (406 megahertz), <it might be easy to dismiss this as over-detailing but in fact it’s critical to understanding what happens later/pw reserved for emergencies. Embedded in the signal transmitted in the early morning hours of March 24 was a unique 15-digit code identifying the Lady Mary and its owners. <huh; kind of like a digital license plate; thank you for not giving us those 15 digits/pw Well, I do later!/aen There, it’s perfect; here it would’ve been gratuitous, which of course you knew/pw
The geostationary satellite is the first link in an electronic rescue chain, and it immediately notifies the nearest automated “local user terminal,” which is an unmanned computer at U.S. Mission Control Center in Suitland, Md. The center is operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and its Search and Rescue Satellite-Aided Tracking program, or SARSAT, is in the same building on the Suitland campus. Atop the flat roof of the office, radio dishes sprout like mutant mushrooms, scanning the skies 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. <deftly described/pw
Normally, the local user terminal attaches the EPIRB registration information to the electronic message it sends to the mission-control computer, and when the SARSAT computer receives the emergency data, it notifies a watch-stander — the officer in charge — at a rescue coordination center.
In the case of the Lady Mary, that’s the Fifth Coast Guard District’s headquarters, or Atlantic Area command center. But there’s a problem: The local user terminal can’t match the signal coming from the Lady Mary’s EPIRB with one of the more than half-million registered beacons in SARSAT’s database. Without a matching registration, there is no vessel name, and without a vessel name, the mission-control computer takes the local terminal’s information and “tables” it. The Lady Mary’s EPRIB also did not have a GPS, which was not mandatory.
No other alert is sounded. No one is notified. <why the double passive here? Totally works/pw I think it emphasizes the finality/aen With the lives of seven fishermen in the balance, and despite the most sophisticated communications technology in the world, those who could save the men of the Lady Mary remain oblivious to the unfolding disaster.
At 5:45 a.m., Petty Officer 3rd Class Lake Downham is still asleep in one of the second-floor bedrooms in the hangar of Coast Guard Air Station Atlantic City. The heliport is actually 10 miles from the city’s neon signs and casinos, next to a commercial airfield in the Pine Barrens.
Downham’s 24-hour shift will be up at 2:30 p.m. The previous day he flew a training mission, checked and rechecked his gear, then lay in bed and watched the Philadelphia Flyers beat the New Jersey Devils for their third win in a row. <interesting how you nudged this detail one step further with “third win in a row;” some writers might’ve let it drop at “Devils”—why the little something extra?/pw You’re right. I didn’t need it. I think it’s a case where I may have gotten carried away with showing how much reporting I did. On the other hand, Downham is a Flyers fan, so it would have meant something to him – not to the reader, though, since I don’t mention he IS a Flyers fan!/aen Shortly after 9 p.m., he turned off his light and went to sleep.
At age 28, the 6-foot-4, square-shouldered officer has been in the Coast Guard for nearly a decade, the last three years as a rescue swimmer. Although he grew up in Pennsylvania, he spent summers with relatives in Ocean City, and the summer after graduating from high school worked as a lifeguard during the week and surfed on the weekends.
Almost every day as he sat in the lifeguard chair he would look up and see one of those orange-and-white Coast Guard helicopters zipping back and forth, either on a rescue or training run. Flying a chopper and making mid-ocean rescues seemed a lot more glamorous than blowing a whistle from the beach and occasionally pulling someone out of a riptide.
Tired of being a lifeguard and with little interest in filling out college applications, Downham joined the United States Coast Guard at the end of the summer of 2001. He spent the next few years as a boatswain’s mate on a cutter in Hawaii, carrying a gun and inspecting fishing vessels. <such efficient writing; I see his life in these couple of paragraphs, and while I often think gerunds dilute the situation I love “carrying a gun and inspecting fishing vessels”/pw Two months before his enlistment was up, he rescinded his discharge papers after realizing he’d never followed through on what he originally joined the Coast Guard to do — save lives.
ANOTHER CHANCE <ok so here’s something I’m wondering. We use subheds as mileposts/cues, but in this story we already know the fishermen’s fate because of the nut-graf passage, so one could argue that “another chance” doesn’t sincerely appeal to a deep sense of drama; in terms of structure, why not draw out the mystery of what happened and who lived/died—it might’ve been slightly more challenging, and definitely atypical of newspaper structure, but… discuss?/pw I actually think it would have been more typical to pretend not to know what happened to the men, and even too easy to build the story that way. I also decided ahead of time that the bigger mystery was why the boat went down and why the men died, as opposed to merely whether they lived or died. And by telling readers ahead of time about the men’s fate, I focus them on the “what happened” question not the who lived or who died question. I also felt there was SO much drama in the reconstruction of the event that knowing the fate of men – and perhaps especially because of that – gave readers a sense of the enormity of the tragedy. It’s more agonizing, too, to follow them in the days and hours and minutes up to their deaths, knowing their fate ahead of time. Finally, telling the story this way mimics the great Greek tragedies, where we know in advance the horrible outcome that awaits the main characters – which is NOT to say that I am comparing myself to the Greek tragedians! — only “borrowing” their device./aen <You convinced me./pw>
Luckily, the high-altitude, geostationary satellite rotating in sync with the Earth is not the Lady Mary’s only hope. A lower, earth-orbiting satellite can get a fix on her even without a beacon number or name, but there is only a small, 15-minute window of opportunity when the satellite passes directly overhead. By the time the EPIRB aboard the Lady Mary activates at 5:40 a.m., the low earth-orbiting satellite is 20 minutes beyond her and just out of range.
Not until it passes over this patch of ocean again — an hour and 16 minutes later — will the satellite have another chance to hear the ship’s distress signal.
At 7:07 a.m., Petty Officer 1st Class Cullen Rafferty has been on duty as watch-stander at the Fifth Coast Guard District headquarters in Virginia for less than an hour. The morning has been slow, until a computer next to Rafferty clacks to life like an old teletype announcing breaking news. Rafferty prints out the distress message from mission control. No boat ID, no owner name, just a notice that an EPIRB signal has been detected by a low-orbiting satellite.
What will not be known for months is that a contractor for NOAA, which handles EPIRB registrations, made the tiniest of errors. In December 2006, Fuzzy purchased a new EPIRB and filled out the required paperwork from NOAA by copying the code that came with the device onto NOAA’s form. On Jan. 18, 2007, a clerk working for NOAA transferred the ID from Fuzzy’s form into the agency’s system, but misread the 13th digit in the 15-digit code.<love that you get that specific: the clerk didn’t just misread the code, he/she misread the THIRTEENTH digit/pw
Instead of ADCD023C3542C01, the clerk wrote down ADCD023C3542001. <ah and NOW deliver the code—nice/pw And here again is the beauty of the “art” that accompanied the story, because we had a copy of that form and we published it, highlighting the wrong digit and how close it was to the correct sticker on the form./aen Fuzzy’s “C,” the third to last digit, was just the slightest bit sloppier than the other letters and numbers, and the clerk copied it down as “0.”
Just to the right of the code on the registration form Fuzzy filled out was a neatly typed sticker with the correct ID. The contractor, however, was trained only to look at the middle of the form — at the spaces filled out by the owner — according to the testimony of a NOAA official. <attribution—again, you know where this info came from, you source it in your About This Story box—were there discussions about whether to attribute this at the local level? I’m not saying you shouldn’t have attributed it, I’m just wondering about specific choices. Some would argue that with solid backup—and without causing doubts—you could’ve ended the sentence at “owner.”/pw Honestly, in this case I don’t remember. I know right before publication my editor was nervous that there weren’t enough attributions, so this may be one that was reinserted. Call it over-due diligence./aen A good thing/pw
For more than two years, the wrong EPIRB code for the Lady Mary had been kept on file in NOAA’s Maryland office. Which means that as the 71-foot scalloper sinks to the bottom of the sea, a half-billion-dollar satellite passing overhead is all but blind to her. <neat switchback to the present moment/pw Also, notice again the anthropomorphizing of the satellite being “blind.”/aen
When the low-earth satellite finally does register an alert with mission control, a computer indicates there are two possible locations for the signal: Sac City, Iowa <thank you for not characterizing the unfortunately named Sac City/pw — or a point somewhere out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
Eight minutes later — at 7:15 a.m. — the satellite resolves the ambiguity to latitude 38 degrees, 35 minutes, 42.8 seconds north; longitude 073 degrees, 41 minutes and 27.8 seconds west. The alert is coming from 66 miles east by southeast of Cape May. Rafferty’s watch partner picks up the phone and calls Sector Delaware Bay in Philadelphia, which will contact the Coast Guard air station near Atlantic City.
Normally, an Urgent Marine Information Broadcast, or UMIB, is also sent out to all mariners in the area telling them to keep a lookout for a ship in distress. But at Sector Delaware Bay, the communications specialist responsible, Shayne Kendrick, who graduated from Mount Vernon High School in Virginia less than three years earlier, is feeling “overwhelmed” in his new job, which he later admits in a signed statement.<good attribution here/pw
Forty-six minutes pass before Kendrick sends out the first UMIB at 8:01 a.m., and when he does, he makes a mistake. Petty Officer 1st Class Trista Fisher, also on watch, tells him to send the UMIB on two frequencies, VHF Channel 16 and HF Channel 2182, both reserved for emergencies. The signal emitted by VHF is line-of-sight, and only as good as an antenna is tall.
Most recreational vessels and fishing boats will only pick up a VHF message when they’re no more than 20 to 25 miles offshore. The high-frequency channel, HF 2182, can transmit much farther, up to 3,000 miles.
When Kendrick finally punches the information into his computer, he sends it on Channel 16, but not on Channel 2182. The radio message disappears some 40 miles short of the two dozen fishing boats working near the stricken Lady Mary. <I like how you phrase this—by making the message the subject of the sentence you give it action/power. Instead of saying something like “The boats near the LM never receive the message” you force us to follow, almost by sight, the message going out over the ocean; the phrase “40 miles short” creates an instant visual; the “disappears” echoes the disappearing vessel/pw I have to say “The Wreck of the Lady Mary” was one of my most visual stories – I felt like I could see the radio signal just drop down and dissolve into the ocean./aen
LEAPING INTO ACTION
Lake Downham is up and showered and has just spread his gear out on the long tables in the crew room when the station’s Klaxon alarm goes off shortly before 7:30 a.m. — WHAAA-hoo! WHAAA-hoo! WHAAA-hoo!
“EPIRB signal 60 miles offshore,” a voice over the intercom announces. “Put Ready Helo on line. Launch Bravo crew.” <great detail; sourcing?/pw Downham/aen
That means Downham. An aviation survival technician, second class, he’s one of the guys helicopters drop into hellacious seas to save people’s lives. <Ok don’t kill me but I have to play editor for a second and say this may have been one of those moments when you didn’t need to switch to an expository graf. You might’ve done this: “… ’Launch Bravo crew.’ Downham quickly changes from his flight suit into his orange, waterproof and fireproof dry suit. An aviation survival technician, second class, he’s one of the guys helicopters drop into hellacious seas to save people’s lives. While the pilot and co-pilot are briefed on weather and rescue coordinates, Downham repacks his mask…”/pw In retrospect, I totally agree! It should also be obvious to the reader that that’s what this guy does./aen
Downham quickly changes from his flight suit into his orange, waterproof and fireproof dry suit. While the pilot and co-pilot are briefed on weather and rescue coordinates, Downham repacks his mask, snorkel, fins, flashlights, three knives, gloves, extra batteries, extra straps for his fins, and several chem-lights — small, taffy-shaped flares. <I love lists/pw
Before heading out of the hangar to the helicopter, he also grabs breakfast — a chocolate protein shake — from the crew-room refrigerator. <why set this info off in a new graf? It seems to beg for attention yet it doesn’t belong with the previous graf or with the one that follows. Is the graf even necessary?/pw I don’t know why it’s a separate graph, actually. Should be attached to the one above. Don’t know if it had anything to do with layout./aen
Three hundred miles to the south in Virginia, Coast Guard Petty Officer Rafferty frantically makes survival calculations: air temperature offshore (33 degrees); water temperature (40.6 degrees). <great—love that you fold this information into the narrative—that you put the action into a character’s hands rather than just delivering information. Did you play with the idea of giving water temperature above, as the ship begins to sink? So glad you didn’t/pw As much as possible, I wanted there to be a person behind the numbers and the details./aen He feeds the information into a cold exposure survival model and what spits out is not comforting: Based on the approximate time of sinking and the height and weight of an average man wearing some protection from the cold, Rafferty gives the fishermen just 1 to 1.5 hours of functional time, which means the ability to move, and a survival time of 1.5 to 3.1 hours.
At the hangar, the pilot and co-pilot are briefed on weather conditions and the EPIRB coordinates, and the helicopter is slowly cranked up. Downham, along with the pilot, Lt. Cmdr. Tina Peña; co-pilot, Lt. Matt Tuohy; and the flight mechanic, Petty Officer 3rd Class Jason Oyler, are strapped in and ready for takeoff. Peña pushes down on the throttle <how did you report this precise fact of pushing down on the throttle/understanding how that particular aircraft flies?/pw Believe it or not, I read an operating manual for this helicopter./aen of the Coast Guard MH-65C and slowly noses the helicopter up and forward.
At 7:53 a.m. they are airborne, lifting quickly away from Atlantic City. Peña banks to the left and whirls southeast out over the ocean at 140 mph. With a strong tail wind out of the north, they should be on the scene in less than 30 minutes. By that time, and if found right away, the men of the Lady Mary will have been in the water close to three hours.
A SUDDEN RUSH OF HOPE
Dawn arrives early out in the middle of the Atlantic, and sometime before 7 a.m., as José Arias continues to pray to Our Lady of Guadalupe, the first few cracks of light split the bruised horizon. He is losing feeling in his fingers and toes and struggles against exhaustion to keep his face out of the water.
Rising to the top of a wave, he suddenly catches sight of what looks like an enclosed orange life raft about 100 yards away. His vision is blurry and his mind confused, but he’s sure of what he’s seeing and a surge of hope makes him think the others might be alive. As Arias slides into the next trough, the raft disappears behind a wall of water. <horrifying; dare I ask about sharks?/pw I have to admit the question never even entered my mind! Yikes!/aen <Well, I obsess way too much about certain things, including sharks/pw
“Tim! Frank! Bernie! Bobo!” he yells into the wind.
At the crest of the next wave, he sees the raft again and tries to kick his way toward it, but within seconds stops, exhausted and limp. Expending energy causes heat loss, and humans lose heat 25 to 30 times faster when they’re in water than on land. <interesting Moment o’ Exposition—how did you decide to drop that in? obviously it’s relevant, and I think it’s not that distracting, but some might argue that reading this sentence right after watching poor Arias go limp is like watching a movie only to have the director poke his head in front of the camera and say, “Expending energy causes heat loss and …” Could you have located this information up where we’re learning, from the rescue crew, about the survival conditions? (Asked with love! I mean no disrespect!)/pw I think I did move this sentence around a bit and it does interrupt the narrative a bit, but it was important for the reader to know how quickly life can slip away in the ocean as opposed to on land. A second explanatory sentence definitely would have been over the top!/aen
The blood flowing to Arias’ muscles has thickened and slowed. Hypothermia is beginning to set in.
As the Coast Guard helicopter thunders across the ocean, it’s too noisy inside for conversation. Downham sits uncomfortably on a pad on the floor — there is room for only three seats in the chopper, so the rescue swimmer is odd man out. The ride is bumpy as the helicopter is buffeted by the wind. Strapped to the inside wall of the craft, and left to his own thoughts, Downham stares out the window at the shifting mosaic of whitecaps below.
He’s taken so many wasted trips — maybe 100 — when an EPIRB is set off either accidentally or by a raucous teenager, or someone on a boat who’s had too much to drink. The crew has to launch on every alarm, but they never know until they arrive at the beacon’s location whether it’s a real rescue situation or not.
Since 2006 Downham has helped save a dozen or so fishermen from their boats or life rafts, two jet skiers stranded in a marsh, and the pilot of a Cessna airplane that went down in a blueberry patch not far from the hangar. None had life-threatening injuries. <another annoying editing question but I wondered whether this graf could have been located after the shifting mosaic of the whitecaps, keeping us slightly more in-narrative. So it would’ve been something like: “… stares out the window at the shifting mosaic of whitecaps below. Since 2006, he has helped save a dozen or so fishermen from their boats or life rafts … Yet he’s taken a lot of wasted trips, too—maybe 100—after an EPIRB…” Then you’d have segued from “…whether it’s a real rescue situation or not” to “The visibility is better than 10 miles…” Don’t hate me because I’m anal./pw You’re a good editor because you’re anal!! I agree with your suggestion. As an aside, I am one of those writers who sings the praises of my editors because without them I’d look like an idiot./aen not possible/pw
The visibility is better than 10 miles and the cloud ceiling high, but pilot Tina Peña and co-pilot Matt Touhy are having trouble with the chopper’s new 406-frequency EPIRB direction finder. It keeps pointing back to land.
Peña decides to switch to an older direction finder 200 times less powerful. For it to work the helicopter must be within five miles of the source to pick up the signal.
By 8:20 a.m. the crew finally spots a debris field. If they’re not over the spot of the distress call, they’re damn close. <any damn kerfuffle?/pw Nope/aen
A couple of miles south by southeast of the life raft, José Arias sees the helicopter booming in <wow, nice/pw from the east and frantically waves at it, trying to get the attention of the pilot.
During his nearly three hours in the water, he has been clutching the religious medal of Our Lady of Guadalupe that he wears around his neck and repeating to himself, “Me van a salvar. Me van a salvar.” I’m going to be saved, I’m going to be saved.
The orange-and-white helicopter descends from the sky like a quetzal <Imma tell ya I hadda look this one up. M-W: “a Central American trogon (Pharomachrus mocinno) that has brilliant green plumage above, a red breast, and in the male long upper tail coverts”/pw Truthfully, I was surprised my editor allowed me to keep this in. I’m stretching it here, I know./aen <Not stretching it at all—I love having to look things up./pw from the cloud forest. Arias’ Mayan ancestors called the colorful bird “God of the air,” and as the helicopter’s rotors thump overhead, happiness floods the fisherman’s heart. <wow wow wow/pw
“Gracias, Dios mío. Gracias,” he says to himself. Thank you, my God. Thank you.
He tries to shout to the helicopter, but the wind scatters his voice. Ensconced in his immersion suit, he waves one arm, then the other, making sure never to let go of the board, but it’s not easy. Even when dry, the survival suit weighs 12 pounds, but because so much water has seeped in, it probably weighs twice as much. <in the sourcing box you say a similar survival suit was tested twice—did you do the testing? If so, wow, tell me about that/pw
My colleague, Andre, and I bought two suits and tested them in the water off a Cape May beach. He zipped his all the way up, but I wanted to know what it was like, and how the water got in, if I zipped it only as far as Jose, Bobo and Tim did. One thing I realized was how difficult it is to maneuver in a survival suit when you’re floating in the water, making it even clearer to me how crucial it was that Jose went into the water on his back, and that Bobo and Timbo likely did not. A lot of people make fun of immersion journalism – wow, I just realized this was literally immersion journalism! – but it was so important to this story. For instance, being out on the scallop boat in gale-like conditions made me realize several important things. First, that rough conditions like that do not phase fishermen in the least and that the boats are built to sustain these conditions. Second, that at night, with the deck lights blazing, it is impossible to see anything beyond a few feet past the boat’s gunwales. And third – because we actually saw a container ship pass by us on one of our trips – that these big ships are actually not well lit at night and that it is easy to come close to them, especially when you are working, and not be aware how close you truly are. This helped me a lot when people would ask after reading the series how it was possible that Jose did not see anything. As it turns out, very possible./aen
Did you have safety backup when you were testing those suits? Any seasickness while out on that scallop boat?/pw
When we tested the suits we did it one at a time so that one of us was right there on the beach. As for seasickness: Oh. My. God. I was violently ill, and so was Andre, but luckily not until a couple of hours after me, because it rendered us both helpless. It was fine going out, flat water, then the wind picked up — and up and up. I was getting sick over the side of the boat but it was SO rough — even though they kept working — and so slippery with the rain and the water sloshing over the sides of the boat, that the captain told me he needed to lash me to the gunwales for my safety, or I needed to go back into the covered portion of the boat. At that point I wouldn’t have cared if I’d washed overboard, but I acceded to the last request and he gave me a bucket. After 13 or 14 hours, when we finally pulled into the dock the next morning, I told the captain, in all honesty, that I’d been through 18 months of chemo (for breast cancer) five years earlier and I would go through that again — in a heartbeat — before I’d ever go out on a scallop boat again! He was both amused and shocked, and told me that was worse than the guy who told him he’d rather go back to jail!! It was truly an invaluable experience, and truly the worst experience of my life…I did, however, lose three pounds but for at least a week, even standing in the shower, I felt seasick!/aen
The helicopter, tightening its search pattern, moves a little north of Arias. <ooh nice head fake/pw
“Me ven, no?” They see me, don’t they?
“That’s a life raft, 3 o’clock!” Downham yells out. <I love that you didn’t do something typical and Dramatic like “But they did see him. Downham spotted Arias and yelled, ‘That’s a life raft…’”; the juxtaposed points of view are perfect/pw He’s spotted a swatch of orange, bobbing in the heavy seas, and he thinks he can see an arm waving. It’s 8:36 a.m.
The helicopter hovers, just 300 feet from the surface of the roiling sea. It is a delicate dance, trying to hold position in 35-knot winds above a moving, surging surface. An MH-65C helicopter normally carries 1,600 pounds of fuel, which it burns at a rate of about 600 pounds an hour when flying. When hovering, however, it burns more, as much as 750 pounds an hour. <now see I like this expo moment here tho I’d have argued for pulling the following graf into this graf this way: All of which meansBravo crew has less than two hours — maybe a lot less — to make a rescue and get back to base./pw
Adrenaline surging, Downham removes his helmet and takes out the ear plugs that help save his hearing from the violent roar of the rotors and engine. He puts on his fins, mask and snorkel, and hooks onto the hoist that will lower him into the water.
When the flight mechanic, Jason Oyler, pats Downham on the chest — the “go” sign — he detaches himself from the safety belt tethering him to the inside of the helicopter.
Oyler uses the hoist to raise Downham a couple of inches off the floor to make sure the harness is secure, then swings him out and slowly lowers him into the sea.
Even in his dry suit, Downham is staggered by the cold. At 80 miles an hour, the rotor wash scalds his face, <visceral/pw and with his flotation vest, lifting harness, radio, strobe light, pocket flares and knives, he has added another 45 to 50 pounds to his already considerable frame.
Disconnecting from the hoist, he is in essence a 300-pound man swimming toward a moving life raft, in 10-foot seas, half a football field away.
Before he gets to the raft, Downham realizes the “arm” waving at the helicopter is actually the flap over the entrance to the covered raft. Peeking inside, his spirits sink again. No one. Just a few supplies — food, a radio, the usual survival items, wrapped in plastic, unopened. <did he remember seeing these specific things in that chaotic moment or did you later learn what the raft contained or likely contained?/pw Both – from Downham and from Coast Guard reports/aen
After radioing the information to the helicopter, Downham slits the lifeboat with his knife and deflates it. <wow/pw He can’t leave the raft floating, since it would likely result in more alarms being called in to the Coast Guard by other vessels.
Once back in the helicopter, Downham removes his mask and fins. As Peña turns the craft in a circle around the raft, she loses her bearings for a moment.
“Where’s the raft? All I can see is a red buoy down there,” she says.
Downham, looking out the window, knows that’s not right.
“I got a plank in the water, 2 o’clock and there’s a survivor suit on it,” he shouts out.
The survivor suit moves.
“There’s someone in the water!”
Quickly, Downham dons his gear again, and about 8:40 a.m. is lowered on the hoist and swims out to the man in the water. Six-foot swells carry the rescue swimmer up and down the heaving seas. Every few seconds, José Arias catches sight of the man in the dry suit, his neon-yellow arms thrashing powerfully toward him.
“I’m a Coast Guard swimmer and I’m going to get you out of here,” Downham announces to Arias, just like he’s been taught. <neat form of attribution—“just like he’s been taught”—because his “greeting” is almost formal/pw The middle-aged fisherman is still clinging to the piece of wood he carried onto the Lady Mary before the trip began.
“Thank you. Gracias. Thank you,” Arias says, over and over, switching between English and Spanish. Downham struggles to pull the man’s arms off the plank and push it away, but Arias resists. The piece of wood has saved his life. Downham will have none of it. His job is to rescue people in distress, and that’s what he does, even if it means he has to manhandle them a bit. <was there info here that you held back? What did Downham have to do to get Arias off the plank?/pw I was purposefully a bit vague because Downham couldn’t remember exactly, just that he had to quickly “convince” Jose to let go./aen
A NEW, POTENTIALLY LETHAL DANGER
The fastest way up into the helicopter is the harness, or lifting strop, since it’s secured under the arms and legs, but when someone has been in cold water for any length of time, it’s also more dangerous. Hanging vertically from the strop, the body’s blood will suddenly drain away from the core where it was redirected in the frigid water to keep the heart and lungs warm. Saved from hypothermia, the victim could easily go into cardiac arrest before reaching the helicopter door. <never knew that/pw Me, neither, until Downham explained it to me./aen
Downham gives Oyler a thumbs up, which means drop the 4-foot-long metal basket. Buoyant cushions attached to the top edges of the basket allow it to float, and Downham pushes Arias in, headfirst. The slack cable whips around both men, threatening to entangle them, so when Downham signals Oyler to start the hoist, the rescue swimmer clings to the bottom of the basket until the cable is taut, then drops 5 feet back into the water. Oyler will send the hoist down for him after Arias is safely aboard.
When both men are in the helicopter, Downham opens a special hypothermic blanket and drapes it around Arias’ shoulders. Then Oyler taps Downham on the back. The flight mechanic points out the door of the helicopter, and down. Someone else has been spotted in the water.
As he’s lowered a second time, Downham sees the orange survival suit is facedown, and he’s worried he’s too late. Swimming through the churning water, he can tell the man’s eyes are open.
“Hey! Hey!” he yells as he turns the body face up, just as he’s been taught. He rubs hard on the man’s sternum with his knuckles to try to get a pain response. The technique can sometimes rouse a person from unconsciousness, but Downham’s sternum rub produces no reaction at all. The victim’s eyes are fixed, his mouth is open slightly and a white cable is wrapped around his legs.
Downham calls again for the basket, pushes and pulls the body into it, then gives Oyler the thumbs up. When it’s his turn to be hoisted, Downham just reaches the helicopter door and sees Oyler again pointing downward — another survival suit in the water. <unbelievable/pw
The helicopter has been hovering for nearly 20 minutes, quickly burning through its “bag” of gas. Before Downham is lowered again, co-pilot Tuohy gives him a sign: five fingers, or five minutes to “bingo,” the cutoff time for the chopper to get back to land with a safe margin of fuel.
When Downham reaches the second body, it, too, is turned facedown, eyes open and unresponsive. It’s clear from the stiffness of the arms and legs that rigor mortis has set in. Downham realizes he can’t call for the basket — it’s only 4 feet long and is meant for sitting. This man is at least 6 feet tall and has rigor mortis. He doesn’t even know Tuohy has been unable to move the first body out of the basket. The strop is the only alternative.
This is his fourth time in the water, and Downham tries not to think about his screaming muscles. The cold is starting to numb his fingers, even though he’s wearing special gloves, and he fumbles to secure the harness to the body. When he finally does, he hooks himself onto the hoist, just above the body, and the two are lifted together. <this is all so tightly/rivetingly told/pw
After he unhitches, Downham helps Oyler pull the body in, but the man’s legs are so rigid they stick out the door of the helicopter. Peña has to head back — now — or she risks ditching the chopper in the sea. But she can’t go until the door is closed. It takes all the strength Downham and Oyler have to bend the body and get the legs inside. <amazing details; did the specifics come up in the hearings or did you have to get them to walk you thru every single moment? Often when people are reconstructing stories they skip over details/pw This was entirely from repeated interview questions/aen
It’s close to 9 a.m. when Peña points the helicopter northwest. They had a tail wind out. Now they’re in a head wind. The trip back will not only take longer, it will use up more fuel.
After Downham removes his mask, snorkel and fins, he feels helpless for the first time. Neither body appears to have vital signs, but he can’t just sit there. With Oyler’s help, he reaches into the basket and pulls on the man’s legs until his back is flat against the bottom, then begins CPR.
Arias tells Downham the man on the floor of the helicopter is Capt. Bobo; the one in the basket, Timbo. <nicely delayed detail; we’ve been wondering which two they are/pw
Hunched over in the tail of the chopper, Arias watches solemnly as Downham unzips Tim’s survival suit, then takes out his knife and cuts the suit at the waist to expose more of his chest. When he does, seawater gushes out. Downham flinches, <again, amazingly tight, precise details; how’d that happen? Basic interviewing or a process of re-interviewing and/or documents or …?/pw Interviewing. It was a moment that stood out for Downham, so it wasn’t hard to get./aen worried all the saltwater might short-out the helicopter’s electronics. After slicing through Tim’s wet undershirt, and applying several conduction pads to Tim’s chest, Downham tries to shock the fisherman back to life, twice.
Every time he looks up from his work, he catches Arias’ eyes, and when he does, Arias asks, almost pleadingly, “He okay, yes?”
Downham pulls an oxygen mask over Tim’s face and begins CPR: 30 compressions, then two pumps of the oxygen bottle; 30 compressions, two pumps, over and over for 45 minutes, all the way back to the air station.
When the helicopter lands at 9:30 a.m. with a nearly empty tank, two ambulances are on the tarmac. Arias, flopping around in his bulky survival suit, is escorted into one of them and taken to AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center, 12 miles away in the heart of Atlantic City.
Bobo is placed in a body bag and carried from the helicopter on a stretcher.
Tim, still cradled in the basket, is carefully lowered to the ground. The entire time, Downham continues CPR, even as Tim is lifted onto a gurney.
Both bodies are put in the second ambulance, to be taken to the morgue at Shore Memorial Hospital, nine miles from Atlantic City.
Finally, Downham stops the compressions.
“Is there anything else I could have done?” he asks the EMT.
“No,” the man replies. “Nothing.” <dialogue reveals D’s state of mind so clearly/pw
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 q’ton—how’d you get? Obviously via interviews but was there a particular line of questioning that took you there?/pw I noticed a photograph on a coffee table – the one of the couple in their matching red outfits – and asked Edith about it./aen
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 the grieving families of the dead tend to make martyrs of their loved ones. Please understand I do NOT mean to malign this man—far from it—but I’m wondering whether you as a reporter questioned whether, really, seriously, really?!, COME ON!, he always started a comeback conversation with “I love you, honey.”/pw 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./aen I guess what I’m really saying is: Please find me a man like that. Is that over the top/inappropriate?/pw Not at all!! (I always tell people that journalists are a strange breed — “Oh, wow, three people killed in a domestic dispute, and there was a police chase, too, at 100 miles an hour up the Garden State Parkway causing numerous car accidents? Fantastic!”/aenSo, so true/pw The two talked for 15 or 20 minutes, past the lighthouse and the Coast Guard buoys, <love this because it puts us two places at once/pw 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/pw 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?/pw 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./aen
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./aen
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 grafic, and also whether you considered getting back to Fuzzy before the subhed./pw 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./aen
‘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/pw 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/pw
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’s amazing to me that in the face of known catastrophe families often just want to know where their loved one is/pw 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./aen 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/pw
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?/pw The Coast Guard hearings included a map of the boats that were nearby and I spoke with many of their skippers./aen
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?/pw 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./aen
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?/pw 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./aen 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/pw 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. <just, wow/pw
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 /pw Yep./aen 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?/pw I think it emphasizes the finality of death and is actually more respectful./aen 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?/pw Carinna “re-enacted” the moment for us./aen 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?/pw 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./aen
Carinna reached toward the body of her husband. His lips were so blue and when she bent to kiss them, so cold. <it sounds awful to compliment such a sentence, but this is a beautiful sentence/pw
“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/pw 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./aen
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?/pw 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.”/aen
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/pw I didn’t know it either, until I started doing the research./aen 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/pw
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 thru cinematically and go ‘wait, how’d he have any clothes?’ or did he volunteer this info and you took it deeper?/pw 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./aen
Climbing the rickety staircase <rickety = gr8; observation?/pw We climbed them a number of times./aen 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/pw 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./aen
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?/pw Oh, boy, I am a classic “over-doer,” but I’ve always had fabulous editors to rein me in./aen 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 just right, and essential to the chronology; to have written “just past 5 a.m.” would’ve been lazyish/pw
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?/pw 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./aen
“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?/pw 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./aen
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?/pw The C.G. had no good explanation, except to say that was the earliest they could interview them/aen 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?/pw 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./aen
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?/pw 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./aen
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/pw 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/aen
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/pw 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?/pw I probably should have mentioned that the visible damage is very localized./aen <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./pw
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. <this is such a picayune thing but along the lines of the SSG, I’m curious about the use of em dashes. Some people despise them but I’m a fan and use them a lot; in this case I don’t particularly think you need it because the material is already dramatic. Did this kind of thing get discussed in your own private head and/or during the editing?/pw I tend to rely on them too much. And in this case, yeh, I didn’t need them./aen
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?/pw 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./aen
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?/pw Yep, you can see these things in the ghostly video footage/aen
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?/pw He had audio attached to the video camera and it actually picked up the sound of the whales./aen
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?/pw 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./aen 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?/pw 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./aen <I love your editor./pw
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?/pw In retrospect, I think you’re right. I shouldn’t have “told” it, especially since I “show” it in the next sentence. Nice catch./aen Yeah, well, easy to do when there’s no ticking clock/pw 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. <ok 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 thru files, or both?/pw 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./aen
“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/pw 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./aen
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/pw
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?/pw Yep./aen
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?/pw Yes, although not through the Coast Guard, but rather the divers who made copies of the reports they made/aen
“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./pw As soon as Mazranni told me what he said, I knew that’s where I wanted to end this chapter of the story./aen
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 to me all along; what do u think?/pw 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./aen 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?/pw 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./aen
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/pw “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. though I dunno, 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.?/pw This seems reasonable, and did to us at first, except that in all liklihood 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./aen
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./pw 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./aen
“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?/pw 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./aen
AN EXPERT’S OPINION
I like how we 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/pw 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?/pw 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./aen
“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?/pw 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./aen 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?/pw 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/aen 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. All fascinating and 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?/pw 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./aen
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?/pw 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./aen 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?/pw To me, and they gave no reason except that was the earliest they could./aen 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?/pw 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./aen
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?/pw 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./aen
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?/pw This was from an official, and publicly accessible report/aen 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/pw 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.”/aen
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/pw Sadly, none at all, as far as I know./aen
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/pw 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/pw Dental records, I believe/aen 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. wow, how’d they spot a driver’s license, or did it get trapped in their nets?/pw Found in the net/aen
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?/pw 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./aen
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?/pw 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./aen
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?/pw I just think it would have taken us too far afield, since there was a lot of explanatory information in this part already./aen
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.”
this is incredible. In last week’s 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?/pw 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./aen 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. these are all such poignant details and require a great deal of sensitivity and humaneness—what questions did you ask in order to arrive at this material?/pw 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./aen
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./pw You’re welcome!/aen 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.” dear lord; at any point during the reporting did you lose your composure? I’ve always managed to wait till I get home to lose it, but man, this must’ve been hard/pw 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./aen
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.
<such an interesting fact; how did it aid the narrative, do you think, showing that eerie legacy w/r/t shipwrecks? Also, where did this info come from and how did you confirm?/pw 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./aen 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?/pw Both, actually./aen 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 w/r/t the families that informed the storytelling but that isn’t apparent within the storytelling?/pw 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./aen
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?/pw 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./aen
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.
p) How did this story come to your attention?
a) It was mostly a back-of-the-paper story because we don’t really cover South Jersey, so I kept track of the news for a few months and there were occasional updates about the Coast Guard hearings. Towards the end of 2009, I realized that there was still a fundamental mystery about why the boat went down and that’s when I decided it would make a great project.
p) How did you begin, and how long did you work on it?
a) I think the first thing I did was drive down to Cape May – it’s a long trek, about 2.5 hours – to meet with Capt. Fuzzy. There were two things we absolutely had to have for the story to work: Fuzzy and Jose, the only survivor. We worked on the story beginning in January and if you include the writing, didn’t stop until right before publication in late November.
p) What were the biggest reporting challenges?
a) The biggest COULD have been Jose, who was the second person I tried to contact. Unfortunately he was an illegal alien – long story about whether to include this, because Jose told me this and said he didn’t care if we published it; but I believe he was also still in a depression – so he had no permanent address or landline. Even Capt. Fuzzy didn’t have an address for him. So I took several trips down to Cape May and canvassed the docks talking to fishermen who might have known him. Eventually I found out that he probably lived in Wildwood, which is next to Cape May. So I drove to Wildwood and decided to go to the first Catholic Church I saw and ask if there was a particular parish that served the Hispanic community. But as I was about to pull up to a church I noticed a Mexican market in a little strip mall and went in and asked the manager if she might know him. I showed her a photo and she said she was pretty sure he did come in on a regular basis. I was fully prepared to stake out the store for days on end if need be, but miraculously this woman said she knew someone who might know where Jose lived. Turns out his apartment was just around the corner.
The only other reporting challenges were the lack of cooperation from the Coast Guard regarding their inspection of, and interview with the crew of, the Cap Beatrice. More than anything else, I really, really, really wanted to talk to the captain of the Cap B. I found him online and also found a phone number in the Ukraine. When I called, the woman who answered, who did not speak much English, said he didn’t live there anymore and didn’t know where he lived.
p) Were you present for any of the hearings, etc., or did you do everything via documents/interviews/reconstruction?
a) By the time I decided to do the story, the hearings were over, so yes, everything was from documents, interviews, reconstruction, etc.
p) What information did you want but couldn’t get, if any?
a) An explanation of what the Cap Beatrice was doing in the hours after the accident and why her AIS was turned off. Also, that interview with the captain of the Cap B. Also, I would have loved to interview the wife of Jorge Ramos. I tried a number of times, and even met with her – she did not speak English, so I was also with a translator – but she said she was still too sad.
p) What’s happening, if anything, with this case now?
a) The Coast Guard still hasn’t issued its final report. Also, a maritime lawyer is considering filing a lawsuit on behalf of the families of the victims and Jose, against the German shipping company.
p) What did you read to prepare yourself for this series/immerse yourself in the subject?
a) First, I always try and read some literature pertaining to the subject of a project before I start. It’s a way to steep myself in the feeling of it more than anything else, and get myself in a certain frame of mind – I suppose it’s kind of like the way an athlete listens to a certain piece of music before a big game. For instance, when I wrote a series of articles about memory research, I read Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past for the first time and totally loved it. For this project, I re-read Moby Dick – I hadn’t read it since high school — and Joseph Conrad’s Typhoon. As for preparing to write about the particulars of the subject matter, I do loads of research reading, including everything from sailing terminology to the history of navigation. I really run up my bill from Amazon.com before every project!
p) Before this project what kind of relationship did you have with the sea? What about now?
a) Interesting question. I grew up in New Jersey, which is a coastal state, and I was born in Staten Island and often visited my grandparents there, and stayed at their summer house at the beach for several weeks as a young kid. For 50 years – I’m 56 – my family has always gone to the Jersey Shore for vacation during the summer. So the sea, the ocean, was something I grew up with. I never really sailed or fished; I was a swimmer mostly. And becauase I’ve always been drawn to poetry – both the writing of it and the reading of it – the sea has always been evocative for me, and as a writer, I’ve mined it for not a few metaphors. As for what my relationship is now, I’m not sure it’s much different, except for one thing: Everytime I’m in or near the ocean, I think of the crew of the Lady Mary.