Coast Guard perplexed by Middle River distress call

The distress call over marine band radio channel 16 was alarming: A male voice reported calmly that his 28-foot Sea Ray power boat "Susie Q," with three children on board, had lost power and was taking on water somewhere on Middle River.

That triggered an eight-hour search Saturday that involved three helicopters, at least six boats and additional shore units from multiple agencies. But no trace of a sinking boat or its occupants has been found.

Nor were there any reports of missing persons or overdue boats that Coast Guard or Baltimore County Police investigators could link to the distress call. The caller said he had just pulled away from the pier at the River Watch Restaurant and Marina in Essex, but no one at the restaurant recalled any children on a boat there that night, or a vessel named Susie Q.

"The case remains open," said a Coast Guard spokesman, Petty Officer Brandyn Hill. "But nothing is being actively done at this time. If further information were to come from our partnering agencies, or the general public, we would certainly investigate further."

Asked if investigators believed the radio call early Saturday morning was a hoax, Hill said no. Authorities acknowledge they don't know what happened.

"The Coast Guard does not have enough evidence to lead us to believe it's a hoax call. Currently, the Coast Guard is treating this as an actual distress call," he said.

The call itself is quite convincing. In a recording released Monday by the Coast Guard, the caller says, "It's leaking pretty bad. I don't know what happened. It's like I hit something leaving the River Watch. Oh my God, there's a lot of water coming in. I don't know how long we're gonna be."

The caller said he was still within sight of the River Watch marina. When the Coast Guard dispatcher asks him about life jackets, the caller says, "I got three life jackets. The boys got them on. I'm sitting here trying to get the motors running. We're taking on water. There's something leaking in the bottom of the hull, Boss."

Prank calls over the marine emergency channel are not unusual. But such calls can be extraordinarily dangerous and costly. Pranksters also risk steep penalties if they're caught.

"We take these things very seriously," said Sgt. Art Windemuth, spokesman for the Maryland Natural Resources Police, whose agency was also involved in Saturday's search.

"The risks extend not only to the emergency workers that are responding to the scene," he said. "It puts people at risk that might truly … be experiencing an emergency elsewhere."

"By pulling resources away to search for an incident that has not happened, they cannot adequately respond to a real emergency," he said.

In 2006, Hill said, Coast Guard Sector Baltimore fielded 422 distress calls in its territory, which includes the Upper Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, including the Baltimore and Washington areas. Of those, he said, "15 percent of the cases were probably hoaxes."

Pranksters are taking a big risk. Anyone found guilty of making a false distress call to the Coast Guard can face penalties of up to six years in prison, a $250,000 criminal fine and a $5,000 civil fine," Hill said.

In addition, the perpetrators can be ordered to reimburse the Coast Guard for the costs of the search.

Saturday's incident began at 2:48 a.m., when the marine radio call was picked up at Coast Guard headquarters in Curtis Bay. The Coast Guard said a BoatUS commercial salvage boat was on the scene within 10 minutes.

Baltimore County Fire Department spokeswoman Elise Armacost said the county was alerted at 3:30 a.m. and dispatched five pieces of equipment and 13 personnel, including two engines and three marine units from the Bowley's Quarters and North Point/Edgemere volunteer fire companies.

The Maryland State Police twice launched the Trooper 1 helicopter out of Martin State Airport to assist with the search, at a cost of about $2,000 for the 48 minutes it was in the air, according to State Police spokesman Maj. Greg Shipley.

The Coast Guard, meanwhile, dispatched two 25-foot "response boats," one from Station Curtis Bay and the other from Station Still Pond across the bay in Kent County. They spent a total of 12 hours on the scene. The Coast Guard's standard hourly rate for the boats, charged to nongovernmental agencies, is $1,617, Hill said.

The Coast Guard also dispatched two 65-foot Dolphin helicopters from Coast Guard Air Station Atlantic City. They spent a total of 3 hours and 45 minutes in the search. The Coast Guard's hourly rate for the choppers is $9,855, Hill said.

The DNR Police sent a 22-foot Sea Ark boat with two officers on board. They spent more than seven hours on the scene, Windemuth said.

All told, Hill said, all the units on the scene logged 141 nautical miles in their searches, crisscrossing a relatively small search area confined to Middle River.

"The fact that the units traveled that far goes to show how saturated that area was with rescuers," Hill said. And they found nothing.

"We didn't find a boat in the water, and also, there were no reports of missing people, or anyone overdue that would correlate with this," he said. So the decision was made to suspend the search at 2:01 p.m. Saturday pending the receipt of further information.

Anyone with information about this incident can call Coast Guard Sector Baltimore, at 410 576-2530.

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