NTSB: Coast Guard Critique

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Wednesday strongly criticized the U.S. Coast Guard's response to a December 29, 1997 boating accident that killed four people in the Charleston, South Carolina harbor, reports CBS News Correspondent Bob Orr.

The 34-foot Morning Dew sank after crashing into a jetty on its way to Florida. Killed were Michael Wayne Cornett, 49, of Hiltons, Va.; his sons Paul, 16, and Daniel, 14, and nephew Bobby Lee Hurd, 14, of Mountain City, Tenn.

While fatigue and hypothermia affecting Cornett contributed to the crash, the NTSB found that communication failures and lax oversight by Coast Guard management played critical roles in a delayed search and rescue mission that "contribut[ed] to the loss of life in this accident."

The Coast Guard radio operator in Charleston missed an initial 2:17 AM "May Day" call from the sinking boat and was unable to decipher or locate a second call for help. For some reason, the operator never tried to rewind and replay the taped calls.

When the Coast Guard operator subsequently failed to establish contact with the boat, no immediate search and rescue mission was launched. The next morning — some ten hours later — the wreckage of the boat and the four victims were found in about 12 feet of water near the Charleston jetty.

The board said budget cuts and lax management have left the Coast Guard with inadequate communications equipment and some poorly trained dispatchers.

Despite the fact that — on average — Coast Guard personnel respond to 50,000 calls a year and save about 5,000 lives a year, NTSB officials said Coast Guard managers are not making the best use of available resources.

They said any failure is one too many and there needs to be greater accountability when the system breaks down.

The NTSB recommended that the Coast Guard immediately buy off-the-shelf direction finding systems that will enable radio operators to zero in on distress calls. In addition, the NTSB recommends Coast Guard stations be equipped with more sophisticated taping systems that would allow operators to replay "fuzzy or garbled" messages on the spot.

NTSB chairman Jim Hall said he also has asked Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater to give the NTSB the right to review accidents involving the Coast Guard "in the same manner that we do for aviation or railroad or highway accidents." The agency has been seeking Congressional approval to allow complete, independent marine investigations.

The Coast Guard is in the midst of a $100 million communication systems overhaul but the equipment won't be ready until 2005 — more than a decade after a similar Canadian system went on line.

Capt. Gabriel Kinney III, a Coast Guard spokesman, said the agency is using the Morning Dew wreck as a "learning experience" for search-and-rescue efforts. He would not comment on the NTSB report until Coast Guard authorites have a chance to review its findings.