Coast Guard suspends search for 2 Va. crewmen missing after fishing boat sinks off NJ coast

By Bruce Shipkowski, AP
Thursday, December 24, 2009

Coast Guard suspends NJ search for 2 Va. fishermen

TOMS RIVER, N.J. — U.S. Coast Guard crews on Thursday searched the frigid Atlantic Ocean in vain for two men missing after their fishing boat was hit by a large wave and sank off the state’s southern coast.

A surviving crew member was found in a life raft shortly after officials received a distress signal from the 38-foot Alisha Marie on Wednesday night.

The crewman, Robert Mark Cooper, of Point Pleasant, N.J., was conscious and responsive when found and told rescuers he was the only one to get into the raft, Coast Guard Petty Officer Crystalynn Kneen said.

Coast Guard aircraft and rescue boats searched for his colleagues for about 24 hours, covering about 2,700 square miles, before suspending the operation Thursday night. Kneen said there were no plans to resume the search unless new information was received.

Still missing were crewmen William Brown Jr. and Joseph Bell, both of Newport News, Va.

Their boat was about 25 miles east of Barnegat Light and went down after it was hit by a wave “that caused it to roll,” Cooper said. Waves were 6 feet when the boat sank, winds were about 30 mph and the water temperature was around 40 degrees, rescue officials said.

Watchstanders contacted the owner of the Point Pleasant Beach-based boat after the Coast Guard received the distress signal, and they confirmed survival suits, flares and a life raft were aboard. A helicopter from Air Station Atlantic City soon found the raft and took Cooper to safety.

He was taken to an Atlantic City hospital and was being treated for undisclosed injuries.

It has been a tough year in New Jersey for the commercial fishing industry. Nine commercial fishermen operating out of Cape May have died at sea so far in 2009.

Three people died last month when the Sea Tractor sank off Cape May, and the owner’s body was found when it washed ashore at a North Carolina wildlife refuge. And the Lady Mary — another North Carolina-based boat that operated out of Cape May — sank in March, killing six of the seven crew members on board.

A joint Coast Guard-National Transportation Safety Board investigation is trying to determine the cause of the latter accident. The boat owner, Royal Smith Sr., who lost two sons and a brother in the disaster, believes the Lady Mary was struck by another vessel that then left the area.

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