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COLUMN ONE

When a 'Mayday' Isn't Heard

A wrong turn on a winter trip down the Intracoastal Waterway cost four family members their lives when their sailboat hit a jetty in South Carolina. At issue is what the Coast Guard didn't do in the accident's wake.

February 17, 2001|MIKE CLARY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHARLESTON, S.C. — Two months after her husband, two young sons and nephew died at sea, Libby Cornett got a surprise visit from a U.S. Coast Guard commander who played for her a tape-recording of a three-second radio transmission.

"May . . . Mayday, U.S. Coast Guard, come in," cried a tiny, frightened voice that Cornett immediately recognized as that of her 13-year-old son, Daniel.

In the silence that followed, Libby pictured the pounding waves, the cold rain and her family clinging to a sailboat as it was being torn apart on a rocky jetty just a mile from shore.

She had always thought Daniel and the others who lost their lives aboard the sailing vessel Morning Dew that awful day in December 1997 had died beyond the reach of any help, bobbing in the cold Atlantic for hours until the dark waters finally chilled the life out of them.

But this three-second tape told her another story: that she had lost those dearest to her not because help could not come but because those responsible for saving sailors from the sea, whose entire image rests on their ability to stage daring rescues, did nothing.

"I realized at that moment that they didn't have to die," Libby would later say. "I knew they could have been saved."

That realization triggered a series of state and federal investigations, congressional hearings and a lawsuit that is expected to be decided in coming weeks. Most of all, it has posed some difficult questions about the central mission and obligations of the Coast Guard, which saves more than 5,000 lives annually. In this case, the Coast Guard not only ignored the Morning Dew's radioed plea but then tried to cover up its inaction.

To Libby, awaiting a decision from a federal judge on her case, the lesson is clear.

"Do not depend on the Coast Guard," she says. "Even if you are the most experienced sailor in the world, unexpected things will arise. And the Coast Guard will not always be there to help."

*

For the Three Amigos--as their parents called Daniel, his older brother Paul, 16, and their second cousin Bobby Lee Hurd Jr., 14--a trip down the Intracoastal Waterway was to be their greatest adventure yet.

Libby's husband, Michael, a 49-year-old engineer and musician, had swapped a piece of land for the 34-foot sloop Morning Dew in November 1997 and was moving the boat from South Carolina to a berth in Jacksonville, Fla.

Mike loved the sea. Before starting a family, he and his wife had quit their teaching jobs to live aboard a sailboat, cruising around Florida and the Bahamas.

The boys were an eager crew. Paul and Daniel had sailed on a small mountain lake in Tennessee and had some experience in the Caribbean. To prepare for the journey, Libby, who had been home-schooling her sons, developed lessons on boating safety and map reading. The kids made lists of things they would need: bags of candy, their favorite CDs, the new foul weather gear they got for Christmas.

"The boys were so excited," Libby recalled. "They grew up together and were very close. And this was to be Bobby Lee's first sailing trip."

*

Even in the South, winter weather can mean powerful winds and freezing temperatures. But Mike's plan was to stick to the protected Intracoastal Waterway, an inside route of rivers, bays and man-made channels that runs more than 1,000 miles along the Eastern Seaboard.

Using the Morning Dew's auxiliary diesel engine, Mike figured, traveling the 300-mile stretch should take about a week.

Mike had never taken the Morning Dew out of the Lightkeeper's Marina in North Myrtle Beach. Indeed, the sailboat had not moved from the dock for five years, a fact driven home when he tried to start the engine on the morning of the trip and found the battery dead.

While picking up a new battery, Mike also bought $150 worth of charts, then carefully penciled in his route down the waterway.

"Mike was going over it from head to toe," said Mike's brother Harold, who had planned to go too but backed out because their father was ill. "Everything looked great."

The National Transportation Safety Board would later conclude that safety equipment aboard the Morning Dew barely exceeded the minimum required by the Coast Guard. The boat was outfitted with five life jackets, a strobe light, a marine radio, a depth sounder, a knot meter, a magnetic compass, six emergency flares and two air horns.

But there was no life raft, immersion suits to protect from hypothermia, global positioning system for navigation, backup shortwave radio, cellular phone or a transponder that could signal an emergency, the NTSB would later say. The captain, investigators found, had not "adequately prepared the vessel or its passengers for the risks presented by a winter voyage at night on the open sea."

*

The Morning Dew shoved off under clear skies at noon Dec. 27, 1997. After a brief stop for fuel, the sailboat headed south, passing the Little River Highway Bridge, at Intracoastal Waterway mile marker 347.3. The bridge tender logged the time: 1:10 p.m.

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