CAPE MAY, N.J. - The lone survivor of the shipwreck that killed six men off the Cape May coast in March haltingly described the chaotic scene yesterday, and a toxicologist told a Coast Guard panel that the scallop trawler Lady Mary's captain had recently smoked marijuana.
Jose Luis Arias, who said he survived the March 24 sinking about 65 miles offshore by wearing a Neoprene survival suit and clinging to an eight-foot plank until rescuers arrived, testified in Spanish through an interpreter before the five-member Coast Guard Marine Board as its inquiry continued into what caused the vessel to sink.
He said he was awakened by another crew member and told the 71-foot Lady Mary was going down.
"Come on Jose, the boat down, the boat down," was the frantic call Arias said he heard from crew mate Timothy "Timbo" Smith.
Smith, along with his brother, Royal Smith Jr., who was the ship's captain, died in the shipwreck. Also killed were crew members Bernie "Tarzan" Smith, Frank Credle, Frank Reyes, and Jorge Ramos. Bernie Smith was the brothers' uncle and the brother of Royal Smith Sr., a principal in the boat's management company.
"He says he noticed a lot of people were running around in desperation, some in panic," said Arias' Coast Guard translator.
As soon as he awoke in his bunk near the middle of the boat, Arias said, he noticed that the vessel was listing about 30 degrees to the port side, knee-deep water was beginning to creep into the galley, and the deck was covered in water. Stunned, he said, he stood on the deck for a few minutes contemplating his next move.
Finally he moved toward the wheelhouse where he found Royal Smith Jr., the captain known as "Bobo," clinging "frozen" to the ship's wheel trying desperately to control the vessel.
Arias testified that the ship's engine was running - straining - but didn't seem to be moving the vessel, and that furious 12-foot waves kept pounding the hull, spilling water over the sides and onto the deck.
Arias grabbed a survival suit and struggled to put it on. He barely noticed what anyone else was doing, but said he did see Credle climb to the top of a ladder on the dredge rigging where he was "yelling, banging."
When the water apparently reached the ship's engine room and knocked out power, making the red-and-white steel-hulled trawler go dark and silent, Arias knew it was time to jump off.
For more than two hours, Arias said, he clung to a board, hoping for rescue, watching the boat slip beneath the sea, hearing the voices of the other crew members eventually snuffed by the waves.
"It was great joy, I felt like I had a chance to be born again," Arias said in Spanish, with tears in his eyes as he recalled how he felt when he saw the Coast Guard rescue swimmer reaching for him.
His testimony, over more than five hours during a proceeding yesterday that lasted nearly 10 hours, seemed to support a theory being proffered by Stevenson Weeks Sr., a Beaufort, N.C., maritime lawyer hired by Royal Smith Sr., of Mesic, N.C. Weeks contends that the Lady Mary's dredging equipment - used to pull scallops from the ocean floor - may have become entangled in the gear of another vessel or became caught on something and pulled the ship beneath the sea.
"The engine was running, but the boat seemed like it was at a standstill, like it wasn't moving," Arias said. "Capt. Bobo was trying to maneuver it, but it didn't seem like it was going anywhere."
Earlier in the day, Dr. Anthony Costantino, who operates a Warminster toxicology lab, said both Smith brothers tested positive for levels of THC, the main active chemical in marijuana, in their bloodstreams when they died. He said the finding indicates that both had smoked marijuana sometime before the sinking, but he was unable to pinpoint whether the ingestion of the drug had occurred during the six-day fishing trip or before, or if it had impaired their abilities when the ship was sinking.
Michael Duvall, of Virginia Beach, Va., who had worked as the Lady Mary's captain for five years before Royal Smith Jr. took over the job two years ago, testified that he and Smith Jr. had often gotten into arguments over methods for controlling the vessel.
When Duvall was the captain, Smith Jr. was his first mate.
"He once told me he thought he needed anger management classes and I said I agreed with him," testified Duvall, who said he had witnessed Smith Jr. during fits of rage that had sometimes frightened him.
Duvall, who had been fired by Royal Smith Sr., testified that he didn't think the younger Smith had enough experience to properly handle the boat.
When Arias was called back as a witness late yesterday, he testified that Smith Jr., "didn't have a good way of communicating with people when he was angry."
"He would take objects and throw them," Arias said.
Arias also testified that he never witnessed any use of drugs or alcohol when the Lady Mary was at sea.