Boat's sole survivor: Wood plank saved life

May 5, 2009 9:39:55 AM PDT
Jose Luis Arias knew it was time to abandon ship. The scallop boat he and six crew members were on was listing 30 degrees to the left; 12-foot waves were crashing against the sides, water was spilling onto the deck, and the captain seemed unable to control the vessel. The motor was straining, but the Lady Mary wasn't moving.

When water reached the engine room, knocking out all power, Arias jumped into the roiling sea, floating on his back so water would not seep into the survival suit he had donned seconds before.

He furiously paddled away from the boat, fearing it would suck him under when it went down.

He spied an 8-foot board from the boat that was now floating in the water. He grabbed it and clung to it as he watched the top of the boat's rigging slip beneath the waves.

For two hours, he clung to the board in the icy darkness. The voices he had heard yelling in desperation were silent now.

After the sun rose, he heard a helicopter overhead.

"It was a great joy," he told a panel on Tuesday. "I felt like I had a chance to be born again."

Arias was the only one of the Lady Mary's crew to survive the vessel's March 24 sinking about 60 miles off Cape May. He testified before a joint Coast Guard-National Transportation Safety Board investigating the disaster.

During his testimony, Arias recalled details that support a theory offered a day earlier by the lawyer for the boat's owner - that the Lady Mary's fishing gear might have become entangled with something, pulling the boat down.

In the three to four minutes between being jarred awake by a fellow crew member who was screaming that the boat was going down, Arias noticed that the ship's engines were still fully engaged. But the boat was not going anywhere.

"The engine was running but the boat seemed like it was at a standstill," Arias testified. "The boat wasn't moving. The captain was trying to maneuver it, but it didn't seem like it was going anywhere."

In other testimony, a toxicologist testified that autopsy results showed the captain and one of the crew members had used marijuana at some point before the accident.

Dr. Anthony Costantino, who runs a drug screening facility in Warminster, Pa., said Capt. Royal Smith Jr. and Timothy Smith both had marijuana in their systems.

But the doctor could not say how recently the men had used the drug, or whether it might have impaired them at the moment of the sinking.

Stevenson Weeks, a lawyer for the Smiths' father, said the captain's level was low enough to have been caused by second-hand smoke from Tim Smith's use.

Weeks said authorities have no evidence that either man was impaired, but added that illegal drugs have no place on a fishing boat.

Arias said the boat had no mechanical problems on the morning it sank. The captain, Royal Smith Jr., was capable if somewhat inexperienced, he added.

"There were a couple of times during rough seas that he had a little bit of trouble maneuvering," he said.


NEW YORK AND TRI-STATE AREA NEWS

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