The Coast Guard pilot who opted not to investigate a distress signal from the ill-fated Fish-n-Fool defended his actions Monday, saying his plane was too low on fuel to make a search.
Lt. James Stinson told a Coast Guard Advisory Board hearing that he had no way of knowing that the alarm he picked up on Feb. 6 was coming from a vessel that capsized off the coast of Mexico, killing 10 of its 12 passengers.
Stinson, en route to deliver aircraft parts to La Paz, Mexico, for a joint law enforcement operation with the Mexican government, said he heard an emergency location transmitter (ELT) on a distress frequency while flying near San Quintin, Mexico.
The 12-year Coast Guard veteran said he advised officials in Long Beach to have another aircraft investigate the alarm, which turned out to be from the Fish-n-Fool.
Stinson told reporters that it wasn't appropriate for him to cancel the mission he was on which, he added, was already seven hours behind schedule when he picked up the distress signal about 2:30 p.m.
A Coast Guard spokesman likened an ELT signal to a "smoke alarm," saying they go off frequently and often are not serious.
ELT's are required on all commercial vessels and aircraft and often go off accidentally, said Lt. (j.g.) John Sullivan.
"When a pilot hears an ELT, he thinks, 'Oh no, not one of those again,' " Sullivan said.
Because a diplomatic clearance with Mexico would have been necessary if Stinson were to have canceled his mission, the Coast Guard decided that he continue on to La Paz, Sullivan said.
Also, Stinson would have had to return to San Diego to refuel had he been ordered to begin a search-and-rescue mission, Sullivan said.
The Coast Guard dispatched another aircraft to the area of the distress signal and eventually rescued Fish-n-Fool crew member Cathy Compton and passenger Jim Sims, who were the only survivors found by rescue teams.