As a storm pounded the Rockaways, the Coast Guard devised a daring plan to rescue seven fishermen stranded on a scallop boat.
The seven fishermen aboard the Carolina Queen III, a 76-foot scalloping boat that set out from Norfolk, Va., had been at sea for four days when the skies darkened off the coast of the Rockaways.
A powerful storm system that had already lashed the East Coast, bringing tornadoes, thunder, lightning, high winds and heavy rains, was barreling down on them. Homes had been flattened, vehicles had been tossed like Tinkertoys and trees had been ripped from their roots. At least seven people had died. The crew knew they were in for nasty weather, but they were scallopers. Weather comes with the job.
As night fell on Feb. 24, the winds started to blow across New York City. At 8:45 p.m., a large section of a facade collapsed on Fordham Street in the Bronx. At 9:19, a tractor-trailer was blown over on the upper level of the George Washington Bridge. By midnight, there were reports of downed trees and power lines around the region.
Off the coast, winds were gusting up to 69 miles an hour, according to data collected by the National Weather Service.
The men on the Carolina Queen had a decision to make. One successful 11-day scalloping trip can pull in a profit of $500,000. Each fisherman can make $40,000 on a good voyage. The crew was open-sea fishing, about 30 miles off the coast, as the storm approached. The men decided to steer the vessel closer to shore — past a predetermined demarcation line that would stop the clock on their allotted 32-day yearly limit at sea.
The Carolina Queen had only 50 bags of scallops — 60 pounds per bag — on ice in the hold. With the scallop season drawing to a close, this trip was the crew’s last chance for a major haul. When the skies cleared, they expected, they would get back to business.
But shortly after 2 a.m. on Feb. 25, the vessel, battered by wind and waves, ran aground. Soon, one of its generators failed and the Carolina Queen issued a desperate mayday, setting in motion a harrowing rescue operation.
In the next few hours, a Coast Guard boat capsized and Fire Department vessels were unable to reach the stranded scallop boat because of the weather. Ultimately, the Coast Guard decided to undertake a daring airlift operation by a crew dispatched from Atlantic City.
“Nothing about this really was routine,” said Deputy Chief George Healy of the New York Fire Department. “This was a very treacherous operation.”
The airmen and women at Coast Guard Air Station Atlantic City keep a goldfish in their “survival shop,” where they gear up before missions. The swimmer, as they call it, is named Ashton, a reference to Ashton Kutcher in his role as a Coast Guard rescue swimmer in the widely mocked, cliché-ridden 2006 movie “The Guardian” — and a wry acknowledgment that the Coast Guard is not always accorded the kind of respect reserved for other branches of the military.
But the Coast Guard plays a vital role in protecting the nation’s maritime interests. Since it was absorbed into the Department of Homeland Security, combating terrorism has been added to the sprawling mission carried out by its 88,000 active-duty, reserve, civilian and auxiliary men and women serving around the world. Despite the expanded responsibilities, its budget has been buffeted; in his 2015 State of the Coast Guard Address, Adm. Paul F. Zukunft, the Coast Guard commandant, said 40 percent of the acquisition budget had been slashed over the previous four years.
“I’m concerned that aging platforms and crumbling infrastructure continue to hinder mission success,” Admiral Zukunft said. “Today we’re seeing significant increase in demand across all of our daily activities, and it limits our ability to respond to major contingencies. Indeed, we are facing a time like none other in our nearly 225 years of service.”
Air Coast Guard Station Atlantic City, at the William J. Hughes Federal Aviation Administration Technical Center at the Atlantic City International Airport, is the closest air station to New York City. It was formed in 1998 when Coast Guard Air Station Brooklyn and Group Air Station Cape May, New Jersey, were merged. The squadron comprises 10 MH-65D Dolphin helicopters. Its crews are responsible for covering hundreds of miles of coastline in Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia — as well as interior bays and rivers such as Chesapeake Bay, the Delaware and Hudson Rivers and Long Island Sound. Two helicopters are always ready to be airborne within 30 minutes.
Lt. Mark Bruno, 31, was the aircraft commander on duty on Feb. 25 when the call came in that a fishing vessel off the coast of the Rockaways was in trouble. At 4:30 a.m. his team was dispatched to New York City.
The Dolphin helicopter can fly faster than 160 m.p.h., but it would still take about 45 minutes to reach the Carolina Queen.
The helicopter crew members — including Lt. j.g. Maggie Champlin, 32, the co-pilot; Petty Officer Second Class Kensuke Caldwell, 34, the flight mechanic; and Petty Officer Third Class Joe Glaser-Reich, 27, the rescue swimmer — took off in darkness shortly before 5 a.m., knowing very little about what they might find.
“We knew it was a fishing vessel, and fishing vessels are always tricky,” Lieutenant Bruno said. There are lines and riggings to contend with, and there often is very little room for error, especially when trying to pluck someone off the deck.
As the crew sped north, it was in communication with the Fire Department, which arrived on the scene shortly before 5 a.m. It was soon clear that this would not be a straightforward operation.
The first distress signal to the outside world from the Carolina Queen was an emergency flare that lit up the sky shortly after 4:30 a.m.
Aaron Bell, 25, a UPS worker who lives in an apartment near the water on Beach 56th Place in Queens, said it was so windy and foggy “you couldn’t even see the ocean” from the shore.
But someone spotted the flare.
Chief Healy said the first 911 call came in at 4:42 a.m. Emergency responders were on the scene at 4:47.
Chief Healy has 25 years on the job. He has seen all sorts of disasters and is not one for overstatement. The ship was not more than 80 yards from shore. But once contact was made with those on board, it was clear that the ship and its crew were in dire trouble.
“We directed the captain and crew to put on exposure suits,” Chief Healy said. “We had a fear that the boat was going to capsize.”
Waves were cresting as high as 14 feet and breaking on the ship.
The scallopers were as stranded as they might have been in the open ocean.
As the Fire Department was responding, a 25-foot Coast Guard rescue boat was also racing to the scene.
Dispatched by Coast Guard Station Jones Beach, the boat capsized in the rough waters near East Rockaway Inlet before it reached the Carolina Queen. Its crew members had to save themselves, swimming to shore.
The team aboard the helicopter learned of that accident as they made their way up the coast.
“You get a little nervous hearing that,” Lieutenant Bruno said. “But it was good to know they were safe.”
That part of the incident is still under investigation; the Coast Guard declined to answer questions about what might have gone wrong.
The Fire Department had rescue boats to deploy, but the seas were so severe that the F.D.N.Y. decided to wait for air support.
A Fire Department helicopter, only a short distance away at Floyd Bennett Field, was grounded because of the heavy fog.
The crew of the Carolina Queen would have to wait.
Scallop fishing may not conjure up the derring-do of those catching crabs in the icy waters of the Bering Strait or the exploits of long-line tuna fisherman chronicled on shows like “The Deadliest Catch.” But the most dangerous fishing grounds in America remain those off the Northeast Coast — more dangerous than the Bering Sea, according to data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
From 2000 to 2009, the years covered by the agency’s data, 504 people died while fishing at sea and 124 of them were in the Northeast.
The scallop industry had the second-highest rate of fatalities: 425 deaths per 100,000 workers. Among all workers in the United States over the same period, according to the C.D.C., there were four deaths per 100,000 workers. The size of the crew and the time at sea contribute to the dangers.
Drew Minkiewicz, a lawyer who represents the Fisheries Survival Fund, said that since 2010, the number of vessels permitted to fish for scallops has been limited, and with fewer unregistered ships at sea, there have been fewer accidents.
The Atlantic sea scallop — Placopecten magellanicus — has been popular since the 1950s, when Norwegian immigrants first scoured the seas south of New Bedford, Mass. The supply could swing between scarcity and plenty, but in the 1980s huge algae blooms known as brown tides appeared several years in a row and threatened to destroy the scallops’ ecosystem on the East Coast. Even after those tides passed, the industry almost did itself in by overfishing. Only after regulations were passed in the 1990s and the industry banded together with the scientific community to improve fishing techniques did the fisheries rebound.
Now, scalloping along the Atlantic Coast from Maine to North Carolina is among the most lucrative fishing in the world. In 2014, the catch was estimated to be worth more than $424 million.
Most of the ships that fish these waters are registered with the National Marine Fisheries Service, including the Carolina Queen. The ship is owned by the Wells Scallop Company, a Virginia-based family operation that stretches back four generations.
Bill Wells, who runs the company, declined to talk about the incident. Through an industry spokesman, he said he wanted to thank both the Coast Guard and the New York City emergency responders and said that the incident had been classified as an accident, with no fault found on the part of the crew and no fines issued against his company.
The industry operates under strict guidelines, many aimed at ensuring sustainability of the fisheries. To fish some areas with known scallop beds, a permit is needed, and the haul is capped. Open-sea fishing, on the other hand, is restricted only by the annual 32-days-at-sea limit.
The clock is always ticking.
“We get so few days to go out, we have to find every efficiency to maximize our days at sea,” said Joe Gilbert, who owns Empire Fisheries and, as captain of a boat called the Rigulus, is part of the tight-knit scalloping community.
In preparation for the Carolina Queen’s voyage, the crew would have spent days getting ready, buying $3,000 in groceries, loading more than 20,000 pounds of ice and prepping the equipment on the twin-dredge vessel.
The vessel steamed north from the Chesapeake Bay, traveling 15 hours to reach the coast off New Jersey, where the crew would probably have started fishing. Then the work would begin.
It is pretty standard for a crew to work eight hours on and take four hours off, but in reality it often is more like nine hours on and three off. If you are a good sleeper, you are lucky to get two hours’ shut-eye before heading back on deck.
The huge tows scouring the ocean bed for scallops dredge for about 50 minutes and are then hauled up, their catch dumped on deck before the twos are reset and plunged back into the water, a process that can be done in as little as 10 minutes.
While the dredge did its work, the crew on duty on the Carolina Queen sorted through the muddy mix of rocks and sand and other flotsam on the ship’s deck, looking for the wavy round shells of the scallops.
“The biggest danger is handling the gear on deck,” Mr. Gilbert said. “It is very heavy gear on a pitching deck, and you get a lot of injured feet, injured hands.”
Once the scallops are sorted, according to industry regulations, they must be shucked by hand.
The crew spends hours opening the shells and slicing out the abductor muscle of the mollusks — the fat, tasty morsel that winds up on plates at a restaurants like Oceana in Midtown Manhattan, where a plate of sea scallops à la plancha costs as much as $33.
A single boat can haul 4,000 pounds in a day. By the time the Carolina Queen ran aground, it was carrying only around 3,000 pounds. As the Coast Guard helicopter circled overhead, however, the scallops on ice below deck were not the most pressing concern.
It was around 5:30 a.m.
“It was definitely a dangerous situation they were in,” Lieutenant Bruno said. “They had lost their generator and were taking on water, and I think that is when they made the decision that they had to come off.”
As the helicopter approached the Rockaways, the Coast Guard, in consultation with the Fire Department on shore, had come up with a plan. By then there were dozens of emergency workers on the beach.
Petty Officer Glaser-Reich, the rescue swimmer, would be lowered into the surf to assess the situation, and if all went well, swim each stranded fisherman to shore.
The fog was still thick as the helicopter made its first sweeping pass overhead. Circling around a second time, the fog had cleared enough to put Petty Officer Glaser-Reich into the water.
Petty Officer Glaser-Reich had joined the Coast Guard knowing he wanted to become a rescue swimmer. He had made up his mind after spending a summer working as an ocean lifeguard in Kitty Hawk, N.C.
He completed Aviation Survival Technician A School in December 2014 and is now, at 27, a fully qualified rescue swimmer.
In the course of his training, he had been part of scores of rescue drills. But he had never drilled on a ship that had run aground.
As soon as he splashed down in the churning surf, it was clear that putting the fishermen into the water would not work.
“I swam in to shore, where the helicopter picked me up and then subsequently deployed me to the bow of the boat,” he said. “It was really rocking, bouncing back and forth.”
“The ship was listing 45 degrees to port,” he said. “The crew was all dressed in their survival suits when I landed on the bow of the boat. They were very cooperative. Several of them had small black garbage bags filled with personal effects that they asked if they could bring with them. They definitely seemed ready to leave.”
Even if the rescuers had managed to rig some wires from ship to shore, which the Fire Department was prepared to do, the scallopers would have had to leap 25 to 30 feet into the water and then contend with waves more than 12 feet high.
“It had looked different from the air, but once I was on the ship it was clear that that plan would not work,” Petty Officer Glaser-Reich said.
The Coast Guard decided to lift each of the seven stranded men from the boat using a rescue basket — a delicate operation.
“Water was already in the hull, and the ship was moving in a way separate from the way the ocean was moving,” recalled Petty Officer Glaser-Reich.
Lieutenant Bruno hovered the helicopter some 40 feet above the vessel as Petty Officer Glaser-Reich loaded the scallopers, one by one, into the basket.
And one by one, they were ferried to shore, where the Fire Department was waiting.
As morning broke, the helicopter had been airborne for more than two hours, and there were still fishermen on the ship. Fuel was running dangerously low. Time was running out.
The seventh man — the captain — wearing jeans and a sweatshirt, was the last to leave the ship.
He asked about remaining with the vessel but agreed in the end that it was best to go. “His life being more valuable than a piece of equipment,” Petty Officer Glaser-Reich noted.
As the captain was loaded into the basket, Lieutenant Bruno looked at his fuel gauge. He had four minutes left.
With the captain safely deposited on shore and the mission complete, Lieutenant Bruno flew to Floyd Bennett Field and set the helicopter down.
All seven fishermen were safe and were transported to Jamaica Hospital Medical Center for observation. None was seriously injured.
The ship, too, was salvaged. It is now being repaired at a shipyard in Massachusetts.
Even the scallops on board were saved. They were sold to a dealer based in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
Petty Officer Glaser-Reich, reflecting on the rescue, said it was both the easiest and the hardest he had ever taken part in.
“It was my first,” he said.