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$21 Million for Shipwreck Victims' Kin

Settlement: Coast Guard rescue effort was called 'substandard.' Government doesn't appeal verdict.

June 14, 2002|From Associated Press

CHARLESTON, S.C. — The federal government will pay about $21 million to two families of three children who drowned in 1997 after their sailboat wrecked on the Charleston Harbor jetties in a storm.

The wreck and the Coast Guard's failure to find the children after one boy radioed a partial distress call led to a nationwide review of Coast Guard rescue policies. A federal judge ruled last year that the children could have been saved had the Coast Guard conducted a proper search.

The government had until Wednesday to appeal but decided against it, said Charles Miller, a Justice Department spokesman.

The award to the families, $19 million plus nearly $2 million in interest for the time the case was on appeal, will come from a special Treasury Department fund to pay judgments.

"The loss for both of these families has been so dramatic and emotional," attorney Gedney M. Howe III said. "It's great that it's over and that they can heal and move on, hopefully in a positive way."

Michael Cornett, 49, of Hiltons, Va., and his sons, Michael Paul, 16, and Daniel, 13, died in the wreck of the Morning Dew in December 1997. Bobby Lee Hurd Jr., their 14-year-old cousin from Mountain City, Tenn., also died.

The families alleged that the Coast Guard botched the search after one of the boys radioed for help, and U.S. District Court Judge David Norton agreed.

"This tragedy was avoidable," Norton wrote in his ruling last year. "It was not an angry sea or cruel weather that impeded the Coast Guard's ability to rescue the ... Morning Dew's passengers. It was human error, the impetuous termination of a search and rescue mission."

As the boat foundered, Daniel Cornett radioed a partial mayday. A Coast Guard officer said he tried to return the call but got no reply. Later, the officer said he did not hear the word mayday.

Four hours after the call, a crewman on a container ship reported hearing cries for help from the water. A harbor pilot notified the Coast Guard and returned to the area, but no Coast Guard rescue mission was started at the time.

The National Transportation Safety Board concluded Cornett's failure "to adequately assess, prepare for and respond to the known risks" of an open ocean voyage was the probable cause of the wreck. But it also called the Coast Guard response "substandard."

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