The U.S. Coast Guard, saying the reported yacht explosion off the New Jersey coast was a hoax, tripled the reward to $3,000 for information leading to the arrest of the person who made the distress call.
Crews spent about five hours searching after the Coast Guard’s Vessel Traffic Service in New York got a radio call about 4:20 p.m. local time yesterday from a ship identifying itself as the Blind Date. The caller said the vessel was sinking about 17 miles (27 kilometers) east of Sandy Hook and that seven people were injured and all 21 aboard had abandoned the yacht in life rafts.
More than 200 rescuers assembled mass-casualty reception areas in Newark and Sandy Hook, preparing to receive injured passengers, the Coast Guard said. Units from the New York City Fire Department, New Jersey State Police and Nassau County Police Department also took part in the search.
“We are quite sure it’s a hoax at this time,” Captain Gregory Hitchen, deputy commander of the Coast Guard’s New York region, said at a press conference today in Lower Manhattan.
The search-and-rescue operation cost the Coast Guard at least $88,000, Hitchen said, adding that the response was the biggest for the New York area since at least 2007.
“Sham sinkings, like bomb threats and other hoaxes, needlessly risk the lives of first responders and waste resources dedicated to keeping the public safe from harm,” Rebekah Carmichael, a spokesman for U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, said in an e-mail. “We are working with the Coast Guard and our other law-enforcement partners who are looking into this matter, and urge anyone with leads to contact the Coast Guard or the New Jersey FBI immediately.”
A reward of $1,000 was initially offered. Making a false distress call is a felony under federal law punishable by as long as 10 years in prison, a $250,000 fine and reimbursement for the cost of the search, according to the Coast Guard.
The radio call probably came from New Jersey or southern New York, Hitchen said. A person identifying himself as the captain gave a “convincing story,” detailing the explosion, and saying people were injured with burns and that the boat was sinking, he said.
A later call reported that three people had died and that several had second- and third-degree burns, according to a statement from the Coast Guard today.
A helicopter was at the site of the reported incident within an hour of the distress call, Hitchen said. By 6:30 p.m., crews thought the report might be a hoax, though they continued searching until about 10 p.m., he said.
There are many vessels named Blind Date, and investigators are researching owners, Hitchen said. The Coast Guard is “fairly positive” that both calls were from the same person, he said.
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