By JOHN T. WARD
Ambulances, including a “mass-casualty” vehicle capable of handling more than a dozen injured at a time, manned by dozens of volunteers from across Monmouth County. Fire trucks. A handful of helicopters standing by, and four others aloft, scanning hundreds of square miles of ocean in a desperate race to effort to help.
All mustered, apparently, on a hoax.
Roughly five hours and an estimated hundreds of thousands of dollars in expenses after it began, a search for the 21 “victims” of a yacht explosion at sea that purportedly left up to nine people badly burned was suspended by the U.S. Coast Guard Monday night.
Now, the incident is a matter of investigating who set it all in motion, the Coast Guard says.
More than 200 emergency responders stepped up after the 4:20 p.m. distress call, purported to be from the crew of a yacht called the Blind Date, which the caller said had exploded 17 miles east of Sandy Hook in the Atlantic Ocean, the Coast Guard reported Monday night.
All 21 people aboard the boat had abandoned ship and were in life rafts, the caller or callers said.
Over the course of the next two hours, ambulances and fire vehicles streamed into Sandy Hook, directed first to a staging area at the Coast Guard station, and when that filled up, to a parking lot, where dozens of emergency responders milled with reporters and onlookers anxious for information. Medevac helicopters assembled on a nearby beach, while news copters hovered over Sandy Hook Bay.
Information that filtered through appeared to be specific: all 21 victims were accounted for. Seven to nine had burns second- and third-degree burns, which are moderate to severe.
At about 6 p.m., word was that a vessel or vessels would bring the victims ashore in about 20 minutes. Copters would immediately ferry them to the Burn Center at St. Barnabas in Livingston. Hazmat treatment was on scene to decontaminate any who might have been exposed to raw fuel.
But then came a buzz that, in fact, no victims were en route. Moreover, no boat had been found, nor any trace of one that might have sunk.
“They haven’t even found the boat?” said Rumson EMS Captain Max Ross, speaking by cellphone to someone at the main staging area.
“That’s a pretty extensive hoax, if that’s what it is.”
By 7 p.m., word came from the Coast Guard command at the scene: “Break it down.” Volunteers from Highlands and Sea Bright were asked to hang in, just in case. Responders, accustomed to false alarms, began packing it up and making calls for Chinese take-out.
If determined to be false, it would be the second such large-scale hoax in a year. At 3:15 a.m. on June 14, 2011, the Coast Guard received a mayday call purported to be from the Courtney Lynn, said to be a 33-foot sailboat that was taking on water with four aboard. After a 10-hour search that cost an estimated $88,000, the call was declared a hoax.
From a Coast Guard statement issued late Monday:
Making a false distress call is a federal felony with a maximum penalty of five to 10 years in prison, a $250,000 fine and reimbursement to the Coast Guard for the cost of performing the search. 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.
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 Guards ability to respond to actual distress at sea.
“More than 200 first responders assembled mass casualty receptions areas in Newark, and Coast Guard Station Sandy Hook, N.J., preparing to receive the reported injured passengers, said Cmdr. Kenneth Pierro, of Coast Guard Sector New York.
The Coast Guard offers a reward of up to $1,000 for information leading to the arrest and prosecution of anyone responsible for making a false distress or hoax call to the U.S. Coast Guard. 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.
The Coast Guard plans a press conference in lower Manhattan Tuesday.