Search suspended for missing fishermen

March 25, 2009 7:34:07 PM PDT
The Coast Guard suspended its search Wednesday night for four missing crew members of a fishing boat that sank off the New Jersey coast. Two crew members of the 71-foot Lady Mary scallop boat died after it went down in rough seas early Tuesday.

Killed were Roy Smith Jr. and Timothy Smith, sons of the boat's owner, Roy Smith Sr., of Bayboro, N.C. The elder Smith's brother, Tarzan Smith, 59, of Wildwood, N.J., was among the missing, along with Frenki Credle, Frank Reyes, and William Torres, whose ages and hometowns weren't immediately available.

Jose Luis Arias, 57, a native of Chiapas state in Mexico who lived in Wildwood, N.J. and Raleigh, N.C., is the only one known to have survived.

Coast Guard Petty Officer Chris McLaughlin said late Wednesday the 37-hour search for the men had been exhaustive and would be resumed only if new information about their whereabouts developed.

"We haven't found any sign of the four individuals," McLaughlin said.

Early Tuesday morning, Arias was asleep in his bunk on the boat, with his cold water survival suit on the floor next to him. The suit's proximity would save his life. He was jarred awake by a fellow crew member yelling that the boat was filling with water.

"Jose, Jose, the boat is sinking!" Tim "Timba" Smith screamed.

Arias grabbed the suit and put it on; the ship was listing as he made his way outside, wading through waist-deep water inside the cockpit and kitchen. He and Smith, both wearing survival suits, stepped right off the boat's deck into the frigid Atlantic Ocean.

Within three minutes, the boat was gone, and the men were alone in the roiling sea, 75 miles from land.

By the time a Coast Guard helicopter arrived, 3 1/2 hours later, Arias apparently was the only one of the boat's seven-man crew left alive.

Arias said in an interview Wednesday that he and Tim Smith were near each other in the water.

They called back and forth to each other in the darkness: "Tim! It's me, Jose! I'm here!"

But Smith stopped responding after five minutes. The water numbed them immediately, making it impossible to climb into a life raft that was nearby.

"The only thing one is thinking in that moment is to try and survive and not to panic or become too desperate," Arias said in Spanish. "It's not possible to say I was staying calm, but I tried to control myself and tell myself I would wait for rescue, but also started to resign myself to the fact that I couldn't fight nature.

"You start to think of your family, like everything flashes before your eyes," he said. "I thought of my parents, who are still alive, who are elderly, but still alive. I thought, `I needed to see them again,' and that thought kept me going."

He never saw any of the four other crew members.

When a Coast Guard helicopter arrived, the raft was empty.

Arias, Tim Smith and Roy Smith Jr. were in the water nearby, but only Arias was conscious.

Rescuers hauled them onto the chopper using a rescue basket, Arias first, followed by the Smiths.

"What happened?" Arias asked a rescuer when his two colleagues were aboard.

"They're dead," came the reply.

After six days at sea, the boat had 200 bags of scallops aboard, each weighing 50 pounds, Arias said. He added it is normal for the ship to list slightly as a net of seafood is hauled aboard.

He suspects whoever was at the wheel at the time lost control of the boat, letting it dip beneath the surface of the water. But that's just a theory, he acknowledged.

Relatives of the missing had prepared themselves for the worst Wednesday.

"People are still hoping for the best, but only an act of God can save them at this point," said Paul Thompson, who runs a charter fishing boat out of the same Cape May dock where the Lady Mary was based. "The only way they could still be alive is if they got up out of the water onto something. But if they had done that, the Coast Guard probably would have seen them."

Sean McKeon, executive director of the North Carolina Fisheries Association, said other scallop boat captains from his state were fishing the same waters when weather conditions suddenly worsened.

"I was told the weather got real bad real fast out there yesterday," he said after speaking to several boat captains who were in the area.

Arias, a widower with five children and four grandchildren, said he barely slept Tuesday night after his ordeal. He said he repeatedly woke up trembling and screaming, replaying the images of the shipwreck in his mind.

Yet he plans to return to the sea to fish someday.

"It's my job," he said.