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Part 8

Ellie B's Mayday drew a quick response

Last of eight parts

By Douglas A. Campbell


POINT PLEASANT, N.J. - The Mayday came clearly over the radio in the Manasquan Inlet Coast Guard station.

The 65-foot clam boat Ellie B had just rammed the jetty on the north side of the inlet, and three men were in the water.

It was 6:38 a.m. on Sunday, Jan. 17, 1999, and half a mile away, at the other end of the inlet, Coast Guard Petty Officer Colin Redy was just coming on duty. He immediately dispatched a 41-foot patrol boat. At 6:42, the boat hauled aboard one man wearing a red survival suit.

About the same time, two fishing boats responding to the Mayday rescued the other two Ellie B crewmen.

The wooden clam boat - its bow splintered against huge concrete objects dumped, like giant jacks, at the end of the jetty to diffuse the power of the sea - settled into the ocean. Over the next day, rising waves would demolish the boat, leaving its planks floating in the surf and its machinery settling into the sandy bottom.

But for the first time since the Beth Dee Bob sank 11 days earlier with the loss of its four crewmen, the Atlantic failed to exact a price measured in human lives.

John Babbitt, 43, the captain of the Ellie B, and his two crewmen, Jason Wilson, 24, and Gary Sylvia, 45, suffered no physical injuries. There were, however, psychic wounds. A year later, though Sylvia makes four-day trips on lobster boats, Wilson is a housepainter. And Babbitt, who had begun his fishing career at 16, has not yet returned to clamming. There have been offers to skipper other boats, but Babbitt has deflected them, sticking to work as a commercial diver.

"I'm not even sure what I'm going to do, to tell you the truth," he said recently. "Risking your a- for what? A lot of dead guys out there . . . Every time you step on a boat now it crosses your mind. I'm not comfortable yet."

At 9 a.m., two hours after Babbitt's rude awakening on the jetty that Sunday morning, Michael Hager, 31, rose in his home in Brick, about five miles inland. The kitchen smelled of coffee, eggs, bacon and toast. He sat down with his son, Mikey, 5, and at about 11, Hager went to his parents' garden apartment to drop off the boy.

Mikey was dragging that morning, and Hager was concerned he might be ill. "Oh, Daddy, don't go," the boy whimpered.

Telling his parents he had to buy grub, Hager gave them hugs.

"Have a safe trip," his father said. And then Hager headed for the Food Town supermarket in Point Pleasant Beach. It was his job to buy provisions for the crew - typically Delmonico steaks, bacon and eggs, soda, milk, bread - a lethal dose of cholesterol that would come to $50 or $60. He would get the money back from his skipper, George Evans, in his next pay.

Hager needed the cash. He had forfeited a big payday working on the Beth Dee Bob to stay home with Mikey on New Year's Eve. Fortunately, as it turned out, he was not invited on the next trip. The Beth Dee Bob was lost with all hands on Jan. 6. That calamity had shaken Hager, but not enough to keep him off the ocean when the Adriatic returned to clamming.

Although he shared custody of Mikey, Hager paid $135 a week in child support to Mikey's mother, from whom he had been separated for several months, according to his parents. Despite wanting nothing more than a wife and family to come home to, Hager had little luck in that direction. Indeed, he was getting a new tattoo added to the sailing ship on one arm and the anchor on the other. The new artwork was a pattern of blood drops splattered across his back - "for all the women who stabbed me in the back," he told his family.

Hager's one constant love, second only to Mikey, was the sea. He started fishing as a child and first worked at a fish coop at the Point Pleasant dock when he was 16. He stayed there until he was 18, old enough for the boats. Then he became a commercial fisherman.

Work and Mikey were all he talked about. It was a joke in the Hager family, among his siblings and Richard and Judy Hager, their parents.

George Evans, 51, who was in the process of buying the Adriatic, thought a lot of Hager's dedication, and he had begun training him to eventually take over as captain. Hager rewarded him with hard work.

Evans had told his new girlfriend, Joan Nowicky, about Hager. He had told her as well about the dangers of his business. She doubted that clamming could be more dangerous than being a police officer or a firefighter. He didn't push the issue, but he told her that a loaded clam boat in bad seas could sink in 15 seconds.

Nowicky, a registered nurse, got home Sunday morning and called Evans. He drove over from his apartment on Point Pleasant Beach, and they spent some time together. It wasn't as long as she might have hoped, because Evans knew a storm was predicted for Monday night. He had moved up departure for the Adriatic from midnight Sunday to 1 p.m.

A short distance away that morning in Brick, Frank Jannicelli, 27, was nervous as he anticipated heading to sea. He told his housemate and best friend, Amy Cavanaugh, that Hager was nervous, as well.

Just before Jannicelli left their place, about 11:45 Sunday morning, Cavanaugh gave him a hug.

"God, Frank, if anything happens, make sure you get that suit on and get into that boat," meaning the life raft.

"No s-, Aim," Jannicelli replied.

Douglas Oland, 21, a tall, broad-shouldered young man the girls referred to as a teddy bear, had been home with his parents in Bayville for about a month during his semester break from Keene State College in New Hampshire and already had a part-time job when he got Hager's call offering him work on the Adriatic. He had made one trip on a clam boat in the summer of 1998 and knew what to expect when he prepared to go to the dock.

The crew gathered at the clam dock about noon, and by 1 p.m., Evans was steering for the inlet. He let down the outriggers as the Adriatic passed the wreckage of the Ellie B. And then it was Hager's job to drive the boat to the place where they would harvest surf clams for the next 20 hours or more.

The sky was a brilliant blue, and the water was almost dead calm.

There were five clam cages on the deck and 25 cages in the hold under the four big steel hatch covers. The clam hose, looping down the high sides and stern of the boat, dragged through the water. The rusted dredge sat just overlapping the starboard edge, and the boom that would lower and retrieve the dredge was hauled out over it, ready to work.

Before the Adriatic reached the clam beds off Seaside Heights, Hager had lowered the stabilizing "divers" on their cables. The space-shuttle-like objects were deployed from the outriggers on either side and rode about 20 feet below the surface. Evans took the controls when it was time to work, and Hager went to the deck with Jannicelli and Oland, happy to be back at sea on a beautiful January afternoon.

When Evans hoisted the dredge, one of those on deck knocked out a brass wedge, loosening the rope that fastened the chain bag at the rear of the dredge. A load of surf clams, gray and saucer-size, clattered like gravel on the deck, forming a pyramid. The dredge swung back over the side and fell into the water, its cable paying out until the towline - a rope between the boat and the dredge - was taut.

The men on the deck, inside their rubber overalls, boots and gloves, bent from the hips to cull by hand the debris, the starfish, skates, dogfish and other sea life from the clams. Then, with large, scooplike shovels, they began pitching clams through the first of 18 circular holes in the deck, starting at the rear and working forward. The hold was flooded with seawater to prevent breakage. Each shovelful was followed by a small splash. The men leaned into the slow, exhausting work of loading 30 cages with 51 tons of surf calms. They had a very long, sweaty night ahead of them.

The wheelhouse was quiet, and George Evans had time to dial Joan Nowicky's townhouse. He asked her to call him back to make certain his phone was working, a transparent contrivance. He wanted to hear her voice.

"It's just beautiful out here," Evans said. "What a gorgeous night." The moon was out, and the sea was calm at 8 p.m. Everything was working well, he told her.

"Be careful, and call me when you get in," she told him.

The next morning, Evans spoke briefly at 9:30 with Everett "Bub" Giverson Jr., dockmaster at Barney's dock in Atlantic City, about 60 miles south. Giverson wanted to make sure the Adriatic would be in that night with a load.

The captain told Giverson he'd be done working at noon and would arrive at the dock around 7 p.m.

It was noon when Jannicelli phoned Amy Cavanaugh and got her answering machine. His voice sounded tired. "We're going to be in Atlantic City probably around five, five thirty. Please make sure somebody's there to pick me up because I don't want to get stuck for a ride."

Giverson was eating lunch and watching the noontime news when he next heard from Evans, who asked that a diver be available Tuesday morning. The new clam pump wasn't working much better than the old one, he complained. He thought there might be a growth of mussels around the pump intake, as Richard Hager, the first mate's father, also had suspected.

Giverson arranged to hire diver Jack Keith. He called Evans back. The dive was set up for 7 a.m.

It was now 1:30 p.m. The seas had begun to pick up. By Evans' reckoning, he was on schedule, with a little more than five hours of steaming time to reach the dock before the weather worsened.

But the forecast had changed. When the Adriatic set sail, the weather was predicted to take a nasty turn Monday night. Then at 3 a.m. Monday, a small-craft advisory was issued by the National Weather Service office in Mount Holly, predicting rising winds and seas for midafternoon. The report could be heard over Evans' VHF radio. Because clam boats can work during the conditions predicted that day - winds up to 30 knots, with higher gusts - a seasoned clammer would not be alarmed.

The actual conditions at sea, however, were deteriorating quickly as a cold front from the south raced across the Atlantic.

Joan Nowicky saw it coming at 3 p.m. She had taken the day off to have carpet installed in her home when she noticed the sky. She was sick to her stomach and considered dialing the Adriatic. She left the phone in the cradle. If it was rough out there, he didn't need her calling.

Richard Hager was sitting on his living room couch at 3 p.m., watching the clouds fly overhead. He suspected the Adriatic was already in port, because it was Evans' habit to head in early when the weather turned sour. The old fisherman jokingly called his son a "fair weather fisherman." He would wait until 7 p.m. to phone Michael, leaving a message that asked him to call back when he got in.

Christina Jannicelli, Frank's mother, had bad feelings all day, and at 3 p.m., her boss in Union sent her home. She found herself finishing every piece of laundry in the house, driven by some impulse.

At 3 p.m., James T. Charlesworth, first mate on the 110-foot clam dredger Timberline One, was at the helm about 28 miles east of Atlantic City. The wind had picked up from the moderate 15 to 20 knots he had found at 1:30 when he went on watch. There was a 20- to 30-knot wind, with gusts to 50 during squalls. And the seas had risen sharply. At times, green water was coming over the Timberline One's bow as the boat ran into 8- to 15-foot waves.

The Adriatic was heading southwest, plowing into these same seas about 28 miles from both the Timberline One and Atlantic City. Hager and Jannicelli were in their bunks under the wheelhouse. Evans was at the helm, with the autopilot keeping the boat on course better than a man's hand could in these conditions.

The Adriatic was a model of nautical equilibrium.

The outriggers were spread to the sides like spindly wings, although the divers had been retracted. Five cages holding nearly eight tons of surf clams were stacked on the port side. As a counterbalance, the big dredge was sideways on the deck on the starboard side, with only its front edge resting on the high bulwark.

In the belly of the Adriatic, unseen by Evans and Oland, his inexperienced crewman, another factor was about to alter this equation.

At one moment, George Evans knew nothing of his problems, and the next, his boat was sinking.

He pulled the throttle back to idle, and he grabbed the microphone of the VHF radio at 2:58 p.m.

"Mayday! Mayday! Adriatic!" he called, and his words went out on Channel 16.

The call, badly garbled, was heard at the Barnegat Light and Atlantic City Coast Guard stations. The word Adriatic could not be deciphered, so the Coast Guard called the unknown vessel issuing the Mayday. There was no response to several attempts. Then the agency put out an urgent marine information broadcast, asking other vessels for information on the Mayday. Again there was no response.

There are theories about what, at this point, was happening below the Adriatic's deck.

A Coast Guard engineer, when he saw a video made later by divers, concluded at first that the welds that had recently been made to hold down the new clam pump had failed. As a result, a flexible coupling between two sections of 12-inch-diameter pipe leading to the clam hose ruptured. Water pouring into the boat through that rupture could have capsized the Adriatic within four to nine minutes.

In the same pump line, at a point where two steel flanges are held together by several bolts, some of those bolts were missing and others appeared to have either been stripped or backed out, resulting in a gap a fraction of an inch wide between the flanges.

The engineer, Lt. Jerry Dewayne Ray 2d, at first concluded that all of these breaks occurred because the pump came loose, perhaps from the thrashing of the sea. He later talked with one of the welders and decided that the damage may have occurred when the boat hit the ocean floor.

If that was true, one theory contends that someone had been working on the flange bolts and left them loose, causing the gap to appear and the flooding to begin. No one could come up with a valid reason for anyone to do that.

Another theory is that the dredge fell overboard and became an anchor, dragging down the starboard side of the Adriatic, allowing water to pour in.

Finally, at some point that will never be known, the clam hose looped over one of the blades of the boat's propeller. It is conceivable that this stopped the engine, leaving the Adriatic vulnerable in the crashing green seas.

Aboard the Adriatic, George Evans had had no time.

The boat rolled violently, and this time it did not come back up. One outrigger dipped under the waves, and the boat was on its side in the water, the side windows of the wheelhouse smacking the ocean surface.

If the huge dredge was still on deck, it now tumbled into the heaving sea, and the five clam cages that had been stacked on the port side fell as well.

Below the wheelhouse, Hager and Jannicelli, dressed in blue jeans and sweatshirts, were out of their bunks. They made their way forward, into a storage area under the deck in front of the wheelhouse. There were two ways to escape from this forepeak, where the boat's spare cables, ropes and other supplies were kept. Doors on both the port and starboard sides led aft and out.

But everything was happening so quickly. Now the Adriatic was upside down, and water was pouring into even its smallest openings.

It may have been now, in the thrashing at the surface, when the port side windows in the wheelhouse were blown in. Whether Evans and Oland were inside is uncertain. They may have escaped from the wheelhouse, hoping to catch the life raft, mounted on the roof, when it automatically deployed. They had no time to get the survival suits from the spare bunkroom below.

As the Adriatic tumbled down in the ocean, its outriggers flailing like helpless arms, the life raft deployed, only to get caught in a railing outside the boat's wheelhouse. The EPIRB - the emergency position indicating radio beacon - would never be deployed because it had a faulty trigger mechanism.

Completely upside down, spinning and sinking, the Adriatic now lost all but three of its clam cages.

Oland and Evans were somewhere in the 45-degree water with no safety gear. They were about 10 miles from the nearest Coast Guard station, but no rescuers would be coming because their Mayday had been incomplete and their EPIRB failed to broadcast their identification code and position.

Hager and Jannicelli were still in the forepeak. The water had burst in, and it was filling every void in the tumbling boat. In its rapid descent to the ocean floor, the Adriatic had become a dark tomb, and Jannicelli and Hager drew their last breaths of air.

In 60 feet of water - less than twice the Adriatic's height from keel to superstructure - the boat rolled at least 180 degrees and a bit more. It did not take long to reach the bottom, where it hit the ocean mud with enough force to crush its port side.

The bodies of Michael Hager and Frank Jannicelli would be found by divers nine days later under the jumbled supplies in the forepeak. Their families would grieve at separate funerals.

Those who loved George Evans and Douglas Oland would wait for three weeks for divers to further penetrate the Adriatic. Only then would they know their men were forever lost at sea.

In thirteen days, four boats were on the bottom and 10 men were dead.

They were all brave men. The captains were well-respected by other fishermen. None saw themselves in a contest of courage. Still, each of them knew the risks, and they accepted them.

The lifestyle was appealing. The pay was great.

But the sea, in time, collects wages of its own.


In April, a Coast Guard task force on commercial fishing boat safety recommended the licensing of captains and more rigorous inspections of their vessels for safety and stability. The task force was formed in response to the four sinkings in January 1999, and the December 1998 sinking of a conch dredger off Hampton Roads, Va.

The task force report concluded: "The solutions are basic and straightforward: seaworthy boats, competent crews, adequate survival equipment and safety-conscious resource and industry management regimes."

Some of the task force recommendations require congressional legislation.

In December, the Coast Guard inaugurated Operation Safe Catch, a stepped-up level of boat inspections aimed at removing the most dangerous boats from the water through boardings at sea and at the dock.

Tuesday will mark the first anniversary of the sinking of the clam dredger Adriatic at the close of the tragic 13 days when 10 men were lost.

Over the past 12 months a dozen children, some only toddlers and some young adults, have learned about life without a father.

And out on the Atlantic, the remaining clam vessels and their crews face the same fundamental risks that led to the disasters a year ago.

Louis Lagace, owner of the surf clam boat Ellie B, whose crew survived its Jan. 17 sinking, explained why clam boats can be dangerous.

"Take a factory, remove the roof, remove the walls, maybe dim the light. Get a hose and hose down the floor, and then maybe rig up these huge hydraulic pistons to make it move, and that is your fishing boat. A factory that is wet, open to the elements and is moving back and forth.

"And that's . . . not counting the biggie, a big storm that will do in the whole boat and anybody on it. . . .

"I've heard of guys who fell overboard on boats and were never found. . . .What overcomes me is the overwhelming loneliness. . . . Imagine the feeling of watching the boat's lights getting smaller and smaller and knowing you're not going to see your families again."

There were many heroes who responded when the four boats sank last year. One of them was Petty Officer Richard Gladish, the Coast Guard rescue swimmer who dropped into the black ocean from a helicopter in an attempt to save a Beth Dee Bob crewman.

Instead, he found the half-frozen body of Jay Bjornestad, the first mate.

"The reward I'll have from this is seeing this guy's face the rest of my life," Gladish said three weeks later. "It bothers me."

A month later, still disturbed by his experience, Gladish ended his 14-year career as a rescue swimmer. He has been reassigned to Cape May as a drill instructor.

The first of three Coast Guard hearings into the sinkings - of the Beth Dee Bob, the Cape Fear and the Adriatic - began Jan. 22. (The sinking of the Ellie B was not investigated because no lives were lost.) Through last week, none had resulted in published findings.

The Cape Fear was raised from the ocean floor in August and has undergone extensive metallurgical testing. The Beth Dee Bob and the Adriatic have been visited by divers, who have filmed the wrecks to document their conditions and search for clues.

And on the sand near the Manasquan Inlet, the last land eight of the doomed men ever saw, a spot has been set aside for a monument - a bronze sailor raising a lantern in honor of the men who will never return to that port.

Douglas A. Campbell's e-mail address is

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