The news began breaking Monday evening, and local TV stations quickly had choppers hovering over the scene and "Breaking News" blaring across their screens in red letters. A yacht with the memorable name of Blind Date had reportedly exploded off the New Jersey coastline, tossing 21 people into the sea and severely burning several of them.
A later call said three people on the Blind Date had died.
But on Tuesday, the Coast Guard said the terrifying report, which sent rescue workers scrambling and put ambulances on alert, was a hoax -- and a very expensive one.
According to the Coast Guard, at least two boat crews and four aircraft crews, in addition to New York and New Jersey fire and police units, spent several hours scouring about 638 square nautical miles of the Atlantic after the call came in at about 4:20 p.m.
Hundreds of first responders set up reception areas to handle mass casualties in Newark, N.J., and news helicopters hovered over the Coast Guard station in Sandy Hook, N.J., waiting for the arrival of those who had apparently been on the ill-fated yacht about 17 miles off the coast. Stretchers were laid out in the station parking lot as rescue helicopters were standing by.
"We see a lot of choppers not doing anything right now," an anchor on the ABC affiliate in New York announced to viewers as the station's news chopper flew over the oddly calm scene.
As the sun sank lower, the first responders found nothing but relatively calm, blue ocean -- none of the life rafts the mystery caller claimed had been set into the water, no seriously burned victims desperate for medical care, no bodies.
"We're scratching our heads. I mean, nobody's confirmed it's a hoax, yet nothing's been found -- no debris, no injuries, no victims, no nothing," Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer Troy Loining, one of the first responders, told New York's CBS affiliate late Monday.
By Tuesday, the Coast Guard was no longer thinking the report was a hoax. It was sure the report was a hoax, and it offered a $3,000 reward for information leading to the person who made the call.
At a news conference Tuesday in Manhattan, Capt. Gregory Hitchen, the deputy commander of Coast Guard Sector New York, said the response to the call was "the biggest" to a hoax call in regard to the number of helicopters, boats and other resources devoted to the effort.
Hitchen said that although the Coast Guard deals with scores of hoax calls every year, the one that came in Monday afternoon was unusually convincing because of the details provided and the "somewhat calm" demeanor of the caller as he related what appeared to be a tragedy unfolding at sea.
"We had a specific number of people onboard, who had injuries, a blow-by-blow on how the boat was filling up with water," he said of the caller, who investigators have determined was calling from a radio, not a cellphone, and was somewhere on land in New York or New Jersey.
If the perpetrator is caught, he or she could face a felony charge that brings up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
"This person put the public at risk and put our first responders at risk. It's always dangerous to launch a helicopter over the Atlantic for a search," Hitchen said. "More importantly, we diverted several first responders in the area ... from actual search-and-rescue areas to look for a vessel that had not actually sunk."
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