In the early morning hours of June sixth, 1993, we were ordered to patrol offshore of Sandy Hook, New Jersey and the entrance to New York Harbor for the possible arrival of a freight ship suspected of smuggling migrants. It was thought to be planning to anchor offshore and await boats from the city to illegally ferry passengers into the borough of Manhattan. I believe that the time was just after one o’clock am when we walked down to the Coast Guard docks and got the patrol boat running. I had two deck hands and two mechanics with me. I gave the order to cast-off our mooring lines, and slowly maneuvered the boat through the basin.
The Sandy Hook Coast Guard Station is located at the western tip of New Jersey’s Sandy Hook, a barrier spit running roughly north and south and about six miles in length and a mile wide. At twenty-nine years-old, I had been assigned there as a search and rescue boat captain for the past two years, and lived there with my wife, Laura and three young sons. She had given birth to our youngest, Brendan, just five month prior in January. I worked as many other public safety professionals did; two days on—two days off, and every-other weekend. It was a Sunday morning, and I had been on-duty at the station since Friday. My thoughts were with finishing this patrol and getting back at a decent hour, so I could be relieved by the on-coming crews on-time at eight o’clock am, and get home for my two days off.
I set a northeasterly course for Ambrose Channel, where we would be able to get a good look at the ocean approaches that freight ships follow on their way into New York Harbor. It was a clear and chilly June night at sea. Water temperatures still hovered just below sixty degrees, and the wind chill at sea was biting our faces, but due to the risk of hypothermia at sea, we wore anti-exposure coveralls. Continuing offshore, I had nothing on the radar but buoys and other navigational aids. It seemed to be a routine Sunday morning, and I called Sandy Hook on the marine radio to let them know all was quiet.
Rather than the boredom of drifting in our boat at idle, I decided to proceed further northeast to the offshore channel, and brought the engines up to make thirteen knots. I had no idea how long we were going to be on patrol, only that we were to check shipping traffic coming in, and I had doubts regarding the mission at-hand. I had done many of these patrols based on intelligence from the different federal law enforcement branches. Maritime intelligence and law enforcement agencies frequently tap local Coast Guard boats to be their eyes and ears near-shore. These missions were based upon best guesses and were sardonically referred to by the boat crews as “hot intel.” Intra-agency missions assigned to us normally led to hours of boredom and what we considered to be micromanagement: go here, go there, what do you see—so after an hour I was getting ready to request permission to return to the station. It was almost two o’clock, the ocean and the sky were black as coal, we had nothing on radar, and I’d wanted to catch at least a couple hours of sleep before getting off in the morning and going home to my family. I changed course to the northwest, brought the boat up to eighteen knots, and started heading back toward the Sandy Hook Channel.
We’d been watching the blackness of the Atlantic on that moonless night; so dark we couldn’t tell sea from sky, our backs turned from the lights of New York City. Now, as we steered toward that bright city, our eyes adjusted and I noted a something out-of-the-ordinary to the north of the mile-long Verrazano-Narrows Bridge spanning the distance from New Jersey to New York over the entrance to that great harbor. It was the flashing strobe lights of at least three helicopters, close-together, just at Rockaway Beach. I brought the boat’s engines down to neutral and radioed Sandy Hook, describing what I saw. The radio operator told us there was a freight ship aground on the beach with people in the water, and I was to head that way and assist with the rescue. The location of the incident was about twelve miles from us across the coastal waters separating the New York and New Jersey jurisdictions. The transit would take us thirty minutes at our top speed of twenty-one knots.
The scene was surreal—like nothing we’d encountered before. The ship’s 150-foot-long hull was glowing a filthy green under spotlights erratically bouncing across it from at least three police helicopters. Ocean waves crashed upon the hull, as countless emergency lights from vehicles on the beach framed the scene with their red, blue, and white strobes. Ours was the only boat in the deeper water east of the wreck. I could make-out at least one small rescue boat alongside the ship’s hull being battered in the surf. My boat was too large to do any good before grounding itself alongside the ship in the shallows. I radioed the New York Coast Guard and told them that we were there, offshore in our forty-one-foot boat, and they requested that we conduct a search for survivors parallel the beach near the wreck. I could see that people were jumping from the ship into the cold waves, or climbing down ladders and nets, but the shallow water prohibited our boat from approaching.
I plotted a search pattern alongside the shoreline, and set the radar’s range-rings to maintain a visible assurance that our boat remained in fifteen feet of water, lest we ground ourselves. It wasn’t long—maybe ten minutes before we spotted a person in the water with the boat’s searchlight. I maneuvered the boat to bring the boat alongside them at a safe distance, and ordered the crew to prepare life rings to throw. Visibility was poor with the blinding lights from the shore and the aircraft, but as we made our approach we saw the person was face-down and not moving in the water. I brought the boat alongside, and two crewmen leaned over the gunnel and managed to bring him onboard. Setting the throttles to neutral, I left the pilothouse to direct first aid.
He was a slim Asian man—maybe five and-a-half feet in height—wearing only a stretched-out pair of underwear. We instinctively checked for a pulse and respirations—nothing. We realized he was gone. The limbs were flexed and stiff; bent at the knee. The eyes were opened upon some distant vista unknown to us in the early-morning darkness. We kept gray woolen first aid blankets in the forward cabin, and I had the crew cover the corpse with one as I radioed the New York Coast Guard that we had recovered the cadaver. We were directed to remain on scene and continue the search for survivors.
Another silent face-down body was sighted ahead of us in the dark choppy sea. Guiding the hull against wind and sea, knowing death had already come to him, we drifted down towards the body and I stopped the propellers. As the crew knelt at the gunnel for recovery, the body slipped beneath the surface. I cut the engines to ensure he would not become entangled in the propeller shafts or blades. In that dark silence, we heard nothing other than the body bumping along the bottom of our hull as the boat heaved slowly in the seas—brummp—brummp. With eight-foot boat hooks, the crew managed to steer and hold the body alongside when it finally dislodged from the boat’s keel on the other side. We recovered three more bodies that morning. Each wearing nothing but those odd, filthy, stretched-out briefs. Mouths partially opened—seemingly caught in mid-sentence—and with those dull, dead eyes fixed upon eternity.
With five bodies on board and little room for more, we were permitted via radio to enter Rockaway Inlet for the delivery of our macabre payload with the rising sun. The docks at the Rockaway Coast Guard Station were bursting with rescue vehicles, policemen and women, immigration enforcement personnel, and television news crews. An official signaled me to bring the boat toward him. I moved the boat toward the dock and he asked how many survivors I had aboard for processing. I told him, “none—all five are dead,” and upon hearing this he directed me to a far end of the breakwater to await the coroner. Another forty minutes passed, and then with the bodies transferred to New York authorities, we lit-off the engines and headed out Rockaway Inlet and into the Atlantic once more. We were relieved shortly afterwards by another boat and crew from Sandy Hook—excited young Coast Guardsmen eager to assist.