Lt. Cmdr. Tina Pena told a Coast Guard investigative panel Tuesday how the crew on her helicopter found one survivor and two bodies after the Lady Mary went down on March 24. All three were floating on a choppy Atlantic Ocean in bright red survival suits. She said she never saw the four other men before heading back to her base in Atlantic City because she was running low on fuel.
"If I had seen another soul on the water, I would have made the decision to pick him up and land on the beach," she said in an interview.
The three-member Coast Guard Board of Investigation opened hearings on the accident Tuesday. The board is gathering information for a report on how the 71-foot scallop boat went down 75 miles off Cape May and how similar accidents could be avoided.
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The hearings are expected to last at least three days and will include testimony from other Coast Guard officials and, later this week, from the lone survivor, Jose Luis Arias. Arias, 57, is a native of Chiapas state in Mexico and lived in Wildwood, N.J. and Raleigh, N.C.
Roy "Capt. Fuzzy" Smith Sr., who owned the Lady Mary and had two sons die when it sank, is also allowed to question witnesses.
On Tuesday, he said the emergency equipment seemed to be working correctly.
"I can't help but think someone else didn't do what they were supposed to do," Smith said. "There would have been three survivors instead of one."
Petty Officer 3rd Class David Downham, the swimmer who recovered the two bodies and Arias, said the dead men had water in their survival suits.
He said he performed CPR on one of the men for the entire 45-minute flight back to the Atlantic City air station. "The signs of death on the third victim were pretty extreme," he said.
A few mysteries emerged from the testimony. One is why about two hours elapsed from the time that Arias told authorities the Lady Mary sank until satellites seemed to have picked up a signal from its emergency beacon.
Petty Officer 1st Class Cullen Rafferty, who was working at the Coast Guard's Atlantic Area Command Center, said he had the helicopter search a narrow area because it was then believed the boat had just gone down, so survivors and debris could not have gone far.
Another mystery is why other fishing vessels nearby did not respond to the Coast Guard helicopter's call for help. Pena said that was unusual for people in the tight-knit fishing community.
The bodies of Smith's sons -- Roy "Bobo" Smith Jr., 42, and Timothy "Timbo" Smith, 37, both of Middle Township, N.J. and Mesic, N.C. -- were found by Pena and her crew. The extensive search failed to turn up any trace of Bernie "Tarzan" Smith, 59, of Wildwood, N.J., the boat owner's brother; William Torres, of Wildwood, N.J.; Frankie Credle, who had been living on the boat; and Frank Reyes of Cape May Court House, N.J.