Coast Guard offers reward in yacht explosion hoax

(CBS/AP) NEW YORK - A reported explosion on a yacht off the coast of central New Jersey that the Coast Guard later determined was a hoax has prompted the agency to offer a $3,000 reward for the prosecution of the person responsible.

Deputy Commander Gregory Hitchen said at a news conference that the search and rescue operation on Monday evening cost at least $88,000 and lasted about four hours. He said the emergency call came from a radio that was being used by someone on land, not on the water.

Hitchen said the caller gave authorities a "specific blow-by-blow" on how the boat was filling up with water.

"Many hoax calls, you can tell immediately they're from children," he said. "This one was somewhat calm but was giving a convincing story as to what the nature of his emergency was."

The multiagency mission was launched after authorities received an emergency radio transmission around 4:20 p.m. Monday from a boat identifying itself as the Blind Date. The caller reported the boat was 17 nautical miles east of Sandy Hook and had 21 people aboard and several people were injured.

The caller also claimed the vessel sank but everyone aboard had made it to life rafts. But Coast Guard crews and New York City police helicopters found no sign of any people or any distress in the water, and after two hours of searching it became increasingly clear there was no explosion.

"When they arrived on scene, helicopters looking down, they would have seen life rafts," Hitchen said. "And they would've seen smoke."

At about 10 p.m., the Coast Guard made the decision to call off the search.

The two calls came in on a radio positioned somewhere in New Jersey or southern New York, possibly Staten Island, the Coast Guard said. They came in on a Coast Guard channel that is not typically used for emergencies.

Hitchen said the hoax put the public at risk by taking Coast Guard personnel away from a separate emergency call that came in during the four-hour-long search. He did not provide details on the separate emergency.

Making a false distress call is a federal felony, with a maximum penalty of five to 10 years in prison, a $250,000 fine and reimbursement to the Coast Guard for the cost of performing the search. The Coast Guard and other state and local agencies responded to more than 60 suspected hoax calls last year in the northern New Jersey, New York City and Hudson River region.

Monday's distress call and search came nearly a year after a similar situation unfolded near Sandy Hook.

A call on an emergency radio channel was received in the early morning hours of June 14, 2011, with the caller claiming a 33-foot sailboat named Courtney Lynn was taking on water. Less than an hour later, another call came in claiming the boat was 90 percent submerged, and the four boaters were transferring to a small gray dinghy.

No further transmissions were received from the callers, who said they didn't have a handheld radio or flares to communicate with rescuers from the dinghy. A 10-hour search costing almost $88,000 turned up no sign of the boaters, and an investigation was launched. No one has been prosecuted.

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