False Distress Call Costs Taxpayers More than $330,000

June 15, 2012
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By Anastasia Millicker

SANDY HOOK – Monday’s hoax distress call about an explosion aboard a yacht was no joke for the U.S. Coast Guard or taxpayers.

The more than $330,000 bill taxpayers are left with does not account for the cost of triage and ambulance stations, which were stationed along the shoreline in various locations.

The Coast Guard is offering a reward of up to $3,000 for information leading to the arrest and prosecution of the person responsible for making the June 11 false distress call.

First responders and emergency equipment gather at a staging area at the Sandy Hook U.S. Coast Guard Station in response to a distress call that turned out to be a hoax.

Authorities are utilizing the Rescue 21 communication system, which the Coast Guard uses to locate distressed boaters and has helped locate hoax callers in the past. Among its capabilities, the system records the calls so they may be used for audio playback.

The Coast Guard is following leads from the public but as of the afternoon of June 13 no one has been arrested. The investigation is continuing.

Calling in a false distress report is a federal felony with a maximum penalty of six years in prison, a $250,000 fine and reimbursement to the Coast Guard for the cost of the search.

“False distress calls like this tie up valuable assets like helicopters and boats and put our crews at risk every time since we take every distress call seriously,” Rear Admiral Dan Abel, commander of the Boston-based 1st Coast Guard District, said in a prepared statement. “And, they impede the ability of first responders like the Coast Guard and our partners to respond to real distresses where real lives may be in genuine peril.”

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In 1991, the first year U.S. Coast Guard began keeping statistics on rescue hoaxes, Coast Guard units responded to 205 hoaxes. Since then the number has increased every year, according to the Coast Guard website. The Coast Guard receives approximately 600 to 700 suspected hoaxes each year, according to the U.S. Department of Home­land Security’s U.S. Coast Guard, 17th District.

Coast Guard and other agencies in the northern New Jersey, New York City and Hudson River region responded to more than 60 suspected hoaxes in 2011 alone, according to Coast Guard statistics.

Monday’s 4:20 p.m. distress call prompted a response of two Coast Guard boat crews, four Coast Guard aircraft crews, response units from the New York City Police Depart­ment, Fire Department of New York City, New Jersey State Police, and New York’s Nassau County Police Depart­ment as well as good Samaritans in boats and more than 200 first responders.

“In the Northeast alone, our crews respond to more than 6,000 search and rescue cases per year and save more than 350 lives,” said Lt. Joe Klinker, 1st Coast Guard District public affairs officer. “We’ve been performing these missions for 200 years, our crews are constantly busy, and their mission is dangerous. That’s why we have the tools in place to prosecute hoax offenders.”

In a 2010 prosecution of a false distress call, a 21-year-old Massachusetts man was sentenced to three months imprisonment and $56,460 in restitution to the Coast Guard for an Oct. 22, 2009 false distress call saying he was onboard a vessel that was sinking in Boston Harbor with four passengers onboard.

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The distress call on Mon­day was made by a male caller who reported an explosion aboard a large vessel 17 nautical miles off the coast of Gateway National Recreation area at Sandy Hook. He said 21 people were on board including several people with major injuries. The yacht, The Blind Date, was sinking and everyone aboard the vessel was loaded onto life rafts, the caller said.

The caller made the call from a location on land in southern New York or New Jersey, authorities said.
Anyone with information regarding false distress calls is encouraged to anonymously contact the U.S. Coast Guard Investigative Service at 646-872-5774 or 212-668-7048.

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