By Anastasia Millicker
SANDY HOOK–The call came in a little after 4:20 p.m. Monday from a caller radioing from either New Jersey or southern New York.
Calm and believable, said Capt. Gregory P. Hitchen, a male caller reported an explosion aboard a large vessel 17 nautical miles off the coast of Sandy Hook with a reported 21 people on board including several people with major injuries. The yacht, The Blind Date, was sinking and everyone aboard the vessel was loaded onto life rafts, the caller said.
Seven helicopters including two coast guard helicopters, New York Police Department helicopters, a Nassau County helicopter and several medevac helos, ambulances, medical buses and fire trucks from across Monmouth County reported to the scene and to staging areas across the state between 4:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. looking for signs of smoke, oil slicks and life boats.
More than 200 first responders assembled mass casualty receptions areas in Newark, and Coast Guard Station Sandy Hook, preparing to receive the reported injured passengers, said Cmdr. Kenneth Pierro, of Coast Guard Sector New York. But by 7 p.m. rescuers were unable to find the debris from the boats or lifeboats and crews were dismissed from the staging area set up at the Gateway National Recreation Area by the North Beach area of Sandy Hook.
After four hours of searching 638 square nautical miles, the Coast Guard was still unable to find any debris from the boat or the lifeboats. At 10 p.m. the search for the reported yacht was suspended and an investigation into the hoax call began.
“Many hoax calls, you can tell immediately,” Hitchen said at a morning Tuesday press conference. “This one was somewhat calm but was giving a convincing story as to what the nature of his emergency was.”
Monday’s hoax, made from an on-land radio, cost the Coast Guard an estimated $88,000 but that number is expected to increase.
“People like the attention they can cause by watching the helicopters and boats go out and actively search,” Hitchen said.
Making a false distress call is a federal crime that carries a penalty of five to 10 years in prison, a $250,000 fine and a reimbursement to the Coast Guard for the cost of the search.
“In addition to being a federal crime, false distress calls waste tax payer dollars, put Coast Guard and other first responders at unnecessary risk and can interfere with the Coast Guard’s ability to respond to actual distress at sea,” according to a written Coast Guard statement.
The Coast Guard is offering a reward of up to $3,000 for information leading to the prosecution of the person responsible for making a false distress or hoax calls to the U.S. Coast Guard.
The Coast Guard and other state and local agencies responded to more than 60 suspected hoax calls in the northern New Jersey, New York City and Hudson River region in 2011, according to a Coast Guard statement.
Last year rescuers dealt with a similar situation off the coast of Sandy Hook.
On June 14, 2011 an early morning distress call about a 33-foot sinking sailboat named Courtney Lynn led to a 10-hour search costing about $88,000.
About an hour later, the caller sent out another report stating the boat was 90 percent submerged and four boaters were transferring to a dinghy. The boat was never found and an investigation into the false distress call was launched. No one has been prosecuted.
The Coast Guard said it is investigating whether there is a connection between last year’s Sandy Hook hoax because of the similar antenna locations.
Anyone with information regarding false distress calls is encouraged to anonymously contact the U.S. Coast Guard Investigative Service at 646- 872-5774 or 212- 668-7048.