CAPE MAY - Eerie underwater video and still photos of the red-hulled scallop trawler Lady Mary, which sank off the New Jersey coast March 24 with seven crewmen aboard, indicate that the vessel may have been struck by another craft, an attorney for the boat's owner said yesterday.
The images, captured in 180 feet of water, were made public at a Coast Guard hearing that reconvened here after a nearly six-month hiatus.
The five-member Marine Board of Investigation is trying to determine what caused the vessel to sink in rough seas shortly before dawn during a routine commercial trip in a fishing area known as the Elephant Trunk, about 60 miles off Cape May, according to Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Kyle McAvoy, who heads the panel. Only one crew member survived.
Shortly before the hearing was suspended in May, evidence emerged to suggest that the 71-foot Lady Mary had been struck by a larger vessel that left the scene, possibly without knowing it had hit the craft.
Maritime attorney Stevenson Weeks - who represents boat owner Royal Smith Sr., who lost two sons in the tragedy - was the first to offer the theory that the sinking had been a hit-and-run.
Investigators also were looking into the possibility that the vessel's rigging had become entangled with an underwater hazard or another vessel.
But new videos and photographs, along with key testimony yesterday, appeared to support Weeks' theory.
Based on the "nature and physics" of the accident, it appears that a larger vessel crashed into the Lady Mary, Weeks said during a break in the hearing.
The hearing board viewed more than an hour of clear video images and still photos collected over the summer during three dives conducted by an eight-member team of volunteers. The camera operators, led by Capt. Steve Gatto, panned across the deck, cutting room, and fish hold of what appeared to be an intact Lady Mary.
The computer screen, compass, depth finder, and other electronics in the pilot house appeared undisturbed in the video. An unzipped orange survival suit was laid out, as if a crew member had been moments from donning it.
Not until the video reached the stern of the Lady Mary was significant damage visible.
Gatto, a union electrician and deepwater diver who has aided in previous Coast Guard and law enforcement investigations, testified that he had seen a six-inch gash in the heavy steel panels of the port-side stern and other rear areas. The trawler was significantly damaged, he said.
Gatto's team recovered the body of crewman Tarzon Smith in the vessel's fish hold during the first dive on May 12. Smith was wearing sweatpants, socks, and no shoes, Gatto said.
"My assumption was, he was trying to get into his survival suit. You don't usually run around the deck in your socks," Gatto told the board.
Sections of the stern were "crushed in really good," he said. The rudder also was damaged, "and that's a sizable piece of steel," Gatto added, describing it as more than five feet long and weighing about 600 pounds.
Capt. Antonio Alvernaz, another witness yesterday, told the hearing board that he had been piloting another scallop trawler about four miles north of where the Lady Mary was when it sank.
Alvernaz may have received the only mayday call anyone heard from the Lady Mary. He testified that he had picked up a second of what could have been a panicked plea, tinged with a Southern accent, on his radio. He said he got no reply and, when no other captain confirmed hearing the faint call, did not contact the Coast Guard.
After weeks of testimony last spring, McAvoy suspended the formal hearing so the board could collect additional information, investigators said.
McAvoy said the Coast Guard and the Navy Dive Team went to the wreck site early last month and obtained key evidence, including the rudder. Investigators have indicated that the rudder is the most important artifact recovered so far.
During one of the dives, Gatto testified, he noted that the beige rudder had a red paint scrape on it, indicating that it might have come in contact with another vessel.
The rudder and other pieces of the wreck are being examined by investigators in a National Transportation Safety Board laboratory.
Alvernaz said yesterday that on the high seas, larger cargo vessels "come at" smaller boats such as fishing trawlers "from all directions."
"It's almost like they don't see you, or something, like there's no respect. I've seen them do a lot of damage to boats - cut one right in half in New England and kept going," said Alvernaz, who captains the Kathryn Marie out of New Bedford, Mass.