Police defend missing boat response

Bad weather, lack of moonlight prevented night search

Police attempt to right the capsized vessel early Tuesday. – Photo: RCIPS

Senior police officers insisted Wednesday that their response to reports of three men and two boys missing at sea had been prompt and professional.

Facing anger from some family members and community criticism, police stood by their actions in the immediate aftermath of the incident on Sunday.

Deputy Commissioner Anthony Ennis said, “I understand the angst and that people are upset but from my vantage point as the strategic commander, we have done all we can, and continue to do all we can, to try to rescue these people.

“We mobilized as quickly as possible taking into account all the variables.”

Mr. Ennis said it was “unfortunate and disheartening” for the “brave men and women” of the marine and air support units, who risk their lives almost every day to save others, to have their integrity questioned. He said there was no way they had let the family down.

“We took this seriously from day one. There were children on board that vessel. We are all parents too and this is something we take home to our families. We understand the family’s questions, we also feel their pain and are doing everything we can to bring them home safe.”

The boat was reported missing around midnight Sunday. Police began mobilizing search and rescue boats and aircraft around 8:30 a.m. Monday.

Air Support Unit Executive Officer Steve Fitzgerald said the weather conditions on Sunday night had ruled out using the police helicopter.

With no moonlight, low cloud and rain, he said it would have been impossible, and against the aviation regulations, to send the aircraft out. He said the regulations governing when and how search and rescue aircraft could be used “pushed the boundaries” beyond what was acceptable for regular air traffic. But, he said, it was impossible to go out in the dark, with no horizon in sight.

“We have a thermal imager but that only goes so far. The pilot has to be able to see out the window,” he said.

“Even the U.S. Coast Guard would not be able to go out in those conditions,” he said.

Further complicating the issue is that the Royal Cayman Islands Police Service only has one helicopter pilot on staff since the unexpected departure of one of its pilots late February.

The helicopter had been up earlier in the day Sunday responding to a safety flare, set off maliciously, at Starfish Point early in the evening. Mr. Fitzgerald said the crew had determined during that flight that the weather conditions were worsening and made the call later in the night that an offshore mission was impossible.

There was no distress call from the boat and the incident was not reported till nearly midnight Sunday.

Even if conditions had been better, Mr. Fitzgerald said, the information police had at that point would not have enabled them to find the boat.

“We would have been searching in the wrong place because at that point we were told they were last seen at 12 Mile Bank,” he said.

Mr. Fitzgerald stood by police’s decision not to deploy the aircraft at first light Monday, around 6:30 a.m.

It was not until Monday morning, once further interviews had taken place and phone records had been checked that it emerged the boat was last sighted around six miles offshore.

He said careful planning had enabled the crew to begin searching from an informed position rather than taking a “stab in the dark.”

He added that the pilot and crew were “timed out” from their flight hours the previous day and could only have been deployed, per the law, for five hours if they had been sent up before 8 a.m.

As it turned out, they found the capsized boat at 10:33 a.m. Monday. within two hours of beginning the search,

“I have been involved in these operations all around the world and I can tell you, this has been as professional as it gets,” he said. “The fact that we found the vessel with just four feet of its nose sticking out the water within two hours justifies that preparation.”

He emphasized that the police helicopter can and does go out at night. It was the specific conditions on this night, particularly the lack of moonlight, that made an offshore search unsafe and impractical.

“The weather conditions were out of limits, that’s the bottom line,” he added.
Inspector Leo Anglin, of the marine unit, said several of his men, including himself, knew some of the men on board and were desperate to do all they could to help.

“I’ve known Edsell since I was a boy,” he added. But he said it was not feasible for the marine boat to deploy in those conditions in the middle of the night.

Even in daylight, the Guardian suffered damage on day one of the search because of rough conditions, he said. If that had happened at night, there could have been more serious consequences.

“To deploy in those conditions with no specific information would not have been the best decision and would have put us at a disadvantage for the morning,” Mr. Anglin said. Mr. Ennis said the marine unit had done a good job in difficult circumstances. Some officers sustained injuries recovering the 28-foot Panga-style boat in 10-foot seas Tuesday.

The search continued Wednesday afternoon on land and at sea.