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Coast Guard Raises Reward for Information on Distress Call Hoax

Agency seeking information on false report of yacht explosion off Sandy Hook; audio released.

The U.S. Coast Guard is investigating what they now know to be two hoax phone calls made Monday afternoon reporting an explosion on a . The reward for useful information to find the caller has been raised to $3,000 from $1,000, Coast Guard officials announced during a Tuesday morning press conference.

"We need the public's help on this," said Captain Gregory P. Hitchen, urging anybody who knows anything to call the Coast Guard with tips. 

The Coast Guard released audio of the distress call it received on Monday at 4:20 p.m.

If convicted, the caller faces five to ten years in prison, a $250,000 fine as well as reimbursement of the government's costs. The costs to the government weren't yet clear on Tuesday morning, but the initial suspected costs to the Coast Guard were at least $88,000, said Hitchen. 

The Coast Guard doesn't have any definite leads at the moment, but is looking into some, said special agent William Hicks. 

More than 200 responders searched for the yacht, named Blind Date, for hours on Monday with negative results, Hitchen said. In the case of an actual explosion, he said, there should have been debris, smoke, life rafts visible from the helicopters as well as signs of oil in the water. None of those things were found and should have been easily seen in Monday's weather conditions. Good Samaritans on the sidelines told coast guard officials that they hadn't seen anything, Hitchen said, furthering the belief the calls were a hoax.

The Coast Guard has a list of vessels by the name Blind Date and is currently investigating its owners. Not all vessels are registered in the tri-state area. 

It's still unclear if the caller was in New York or New Jersey. The two phone calls came in on radio channel 14, Hitchen said. Usually, emergencies are communicated on channel 16. Both calls lasted about 20 seconds, which isn't unusual. Because of the nature of the details provided by the caller as well as his relative calmness, it wasn't immediately clear that it was a hoax. 

The caller gave "a certain amount of detail we don't usually encounter on hoax calls," Hitchen said. The caller recounted explosions and the blow by blow of how the boat was filling up with water, Hitchen said. 

Within an hour of the call, the Coast Guard had helicopters circling the air. There were four helicopters from the Coast Guard and three from other agencies, said U.S. Coast Guard spokesman Brendon Brewer. Having multiple helicopters in the air at the same time is dangerous, Hitchen noted.

"When we're responding to a hoax, we're not able to respond to search and rescue calls," Hitchen said. During the hoax on Monday afternoon, a call came in of a possible jumper from the Bayonne Bridge, which turned out to be a false report. Since Memorial Day weekend, on average there's been a person in trouble in the water every two days, Hitchen said. 

There have been about 60 reported hoax calls in the last year, Hitchen said, but this one was the largest in scale, as far as number of responders and helicopters. Responders from the New York City Police Department and New Jersey State Police were also at the scene on Monday afternoon. 

Around 6:30 p.m. on Monday, authorities began to look into the possibility of the reports being a hoax, without immediately suspending the search operations. Around 10 p.m. the final decision to suspend the case was made. When asked if there is still a chance the vessel sank, Hitchen answered "we are quite sure that it's a hoax at this time."

Anybody with information is urged to call the U.S. Coast Guard Investigative Service at 646-872-5774 or 212-668-7048.

Robert Candela June 12, 2012 at 04:01 PM
The original report in The Patch mentioned nine people in critical condition with 2nd and 3rd degree burns. Where did THAT come from?????
Fred Tuccillo June 12, 2012 at 04:09 PM
Robert-- Thanks for the question. The original information about injuries and people in the water came from official sources who were relying upon what later turned out to be a false distress call, as confirmed by the Coast Guard today. They had no reason not to think the distress call was valid and every reason to get the word out to emergency responders along the Bayshore whose assistance would have been needed.
BW June 12, 2012 at 08:03 PM
I hope they catch this guy, put him in jail for a long time, and make him pay for all the rescue personel. This was so wrong on so many levels. And one more thing, I listened to the call and the person who made it, has great knowledge of boating protocal, and distress call "lingo". I bet when they catch him they will find he works in the boating industry, owns a boat, and probably a captains license.
JD June 12, 2012 at 09:45 PM
BW-I could not agree with you more about pressing criminal charges against the individual or individuals that did this. And yes indeed, if possible they should have to pay for the associated costs that are now at the hands of the taxpayers. Lets hope the investigation finds exactly who took this horrible action.
Rebal Beckett June 14, 2012 at 07:14 PM
i leave my VHF radio on scan all the time and all I got was the coast guard and some static

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