HOAX CALL TAB: $330,000 AND COUNTING

An ambulance arriving at Fort Hancock Monday evening, above, joining a growing number at two staging areas. (Click to enlarge)

By JOHN T. WARD

Calm and collected, the anonymous caller said he was standing in three-and-a-half feet of water on the bridge of an explosion-damaged yacht 17 miles offshore.

In a recording of the mayday call released by the U.S. Coast Guard Tuesday, the male voice goes on to claim “three deceased on board” and 20 “souls” in the water.

The call triggered a massive response that included an intensive air and sea search and an all-hands readiness turnout of emergency first aiders, firefighters and others, most of whom raced to Sandy Hook to help.

But the call, the Coast Guard says, was in all likelihood a hoax. And unless the caller is found and forced to cough up, it will cost taxpayers at least $300,000.

From Wednesday’s Star-Ledger:

Monday’s massive emergency response and 5½-hour search that followed a mayday call about a yacht explosion off the coast of Sandy Hook has cost the U.S. Coast Guard $318,000 and the New Jersey State Police $16,750 for aircraft and marine vessels, authorities said Tuesday. That amount does not include the cost of triage and ambulance stations which were stationed along the shoreline.

A number of local agencies were also involved in the effort and once those expenses are factored in, the total cost is sure to climb.

In all, more than 200 first responders participated in the effort, officials said.

The Coast Guard and the FBI are investigating the call, and the possibility that it was made by the same person who called in a false report of a sailboat sinking off Sandy Hook almost a year to the day earlier.

More from the Sledger:

Tuesday, Coast Guard officials said the voices in the two incidents were “similar but not necessarily alike.”

“They are not ruling out that it could be the same person They are taking a look at any possible correlations they could have between the two people,” Coast Guard Petty Officer Jetta Disco said. “There are similarities, but there are also a lot of differences … It could be a coincidence. We don’t know that yet.”

Making a false distress call is a federal felony with a maximum penalty of six years in prison, a $250,000 fine and reimbursement to the Coast Guard for the cost of performing the search. A $3,000 reward is being offered for information leading to the arrest and prosecution of the person responsible for making Monday’s false distress call.

Authorities who police the nation’s coastlines acknowledge they can do little to prevent hoax emergency calls.

From the Canadian border down to Sandy Hook alone, the Coast Guard received 300 suspected hoax reports last year. The Coast Guard and other state and local agencies responded to more than 60 suspected hoax calls last year in the northern New Jersey, New York City region.

Officials say they have to take such calls seriously — especially those like Monday’s, which contained minute details.

The Coast Guard has a new command, control and communications network, Rescue 21, which aims to reach mariners in distress — but also zeroes in on fake reports. The system operates on a very high frequency, which will provide clearer playback of distress calls, including hoaxes.

But “we hope that informing the public about the dangers of hoaxes will keep people from making the calls,” Disco said.