Courtesy of the Gloucester Daily Times
A newly released book, “The Tragic Sinking of Gloucester’s Patriot” by maritime historian and retired U.S. Coast Guard Capt. W. Russell Webster, sheds light on the mysterious and sudden sinking of the fishing vessel about 15 miles east of Gloucester just after 1 a.m. on Saturday, Jan. 3, 2009.
Many in the nation’s oldest seaport still wonder what happened to the Patriot, Webster says, as the sinking resulted in the loss of the vessel’s beloved two-member crew, Capt. Matteo “Matt” Russo, 36, and his father-in-law, Giovanni B. “John” Orlando, 59. Webster takes time to explore the loss the community felt, and he has even included poetry by Gloucester poet John Ronan.
Both men were seasoned and safety-conscious commercial fishermen. The book (The History Press, May 2022) points out the vessel had passed a voluntary Coast Guard safety inspection less than six months before the sinking in which “no deficiencies were found.” “No violations” were found during a Coast Guard boarding at sea five months later.
The men likely perished within minutes in the frigid water. With the vessel going down so fast, they did not have time to send out a distress signal, don cold water immersion suits or get to the lifeboat.
The mystery of what happened is a theme the book explores in depth, but it also scrutinizes why it took nearly 2 1/2 hours for the Coast Guard to launch a search and rescue mission through the lens of a psychological tendency called ‘normalcy bias.’
“That’s a psychological tendency where humans deny, deliberate and often over-deliberate a situation before acting on it,” Webster said in an email. “Normalcy bias afflicts Coast Guard watch standers and fishermen alike.”
The book is a thorough critique of the Patriot case and Coast Guard policy at the time of the sinking, lessons learned, and what remains to be done to improve safety for commercial fishing vessels.
“What I want the readers to know is that I want this book to be the book of record for the Patriot case,” said Webster, the former Region I administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, in a recent interview.
“And I also want them to understand that the Coast Guard has learned some significant lessons and has changed as a result of the death of these two remarkable seamen,” Webster said. “There is nothing the Coast Guard could have done to save these individuals who died within five minutes, unfortunately, but what I want the reading public, especially the maritime public, to understand is that the Coast Guard is very much a different Coast Guard today than it was then in terms of its critical thinking and its ability to meet its motto of Semper Paratus, Always Ready.”
The loss of life and the delayed response, highlighted in articles by this newspaper, struck a nerve at the highest level of the Coast Guard.
“The rescue case wasn’t the venerable service’s finest hour,” writes Webster, who served in the Coast Guard for 26 years, and was engaged in or oversaw 10,000 search and rescue cases. “Within days, the media and the Coast Guard’s twenty-third commandant, Admiral Thad Allen, called for a greater understanding about what happened and why the government’s response was apparently so slow.”
The sinking took place around 1:17 a.m. — this time is known because that was when a land-based fire alarm activated — but there is no definitive answer as to why the Patriot sank so suddenly. Webster delves into theories that a submarine could have struck it or the fishing vessel may have come into contact with the long towing cable of a tugboat pulling a barge. He succinctly sums up the various investigations and reports, and efforts by the Coast Guard, State Police and the families to find a cause.
Coast Guard changes
But at its core, Webster’s book explores what went awry with the delayed response and its legacy in the lessons learned by the Coast Guard.
In an interview, Jay W. Woodhead, who appears in Webster’s book as Coast Guard Sector Boston’s senior search and rescue controller, said: “Some of the changes that have taken place, senior staff, senior command are brought into the fold much sooner and much quicker back than they were in 2009.”
“So basically watchstanders now are trained that any time they get a call for pretty much anything, that involves anything even remotely distress, or even uncertainty, that they brief up senior folks and bring them into the conversation much sooner,” Woodhead said.
U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Ryan Cuga said the book does a good job of telling the story from different perspectives.
“It speaks to the transparency the Coast Guard likes to have in assessing itself,” Cuga said.
Cuga liked how the book went into the different administrative and casualty investigations and reached out to get the perspectives of the community.
“I think it gave an accurate reflection to all those different perspectives,” Cuga said.
“I think first and foremost it’s for the families,” said Webster about the book, and how he had spent time getting to know who Matt Russo and John Orlando were, which also comes through in the book.
“Part of what I wanted to do is to create a book of record to not only memorialize them for their families, but also to remind Coast Guard watchstanders that they have this awesome responsibility, that these are real people that they are charged with caring for, searching for, finding and responding to their distress calls.”
Ethan Forman may be contacted at 978-675-2714,or at firstname.lastname@example.org.