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RCC New York
9:22 P.M. EST
The view from the Coast Guard station on Governors Island in New York harbor is world class. Two weeks before Christmas, lower Manhattan-only half a mile away-is bejeweled with colored lights that twinkle through the raindrops in the crisp night air, Up the stairs, through the security door, then up a ramp, and you're in the second-floor office that is RCC New York, also known as the Atlantic Command Center. The sixteen-by-sixteen room is all business. On one wall there's a huge map of the north Atlantic from the East Coast of the U.S. to mid-ocean, with the Rescue Coordination Center's area of responsibility (AOR)the western Atlantic-delineated in black marker. The waters immediately north of New York's AOR are under the jurisdiction of the Canadian Forces controlled by RCC Halifax. At the moment, a few markers indicate the positions of patrolling Coast Guard cutters. Available for use are icons representing military vessels, civilian ships, and rescue aircraft.
On one side of the room are three doors: to the rest room, a kitchen, and the commander's office. Three desks covered with computers and telephones are arranged perpendicular to the map wall. At one of the desks is Lieutenant Fred Mletzko, the watch officer; at another, Petty Officer First Class Gary Parker. They're both in the second half of a twenty-four-hour shift, and one of them is due to grab a nap on a cot in the locker room just outside the RCC entrance. But there would be no napping tonight. Until this moment9:22 P.M. EST-neither one of the men knows anything of the drama unfolding 1,200 miles to theeast.
All this changes with one ring of the phone.
Parker grabs it. "RCC New York."
Not a breath is wasted on pleasantries as a decidedly Canadian voice on the line says, 'This is RCC Halifax. We've received a mayday from the M/V Salvador Allende, call sign UWAG, in position 39-30 north 051-16 west. Vessel isn't a hundred percent sure of their position. That's all the information we've got."
"Roger, we'll take it," Parker says. Hanging up, he calls out the map coordinates, which tell them the latitude and longitudethe lat/long in rescue parlanceto Lieutenant Mletzko, who's already starting to log onto the AMVER data-link to Martinsburg, West Virginia. Before the Automated Mutual-assistance VEssel Rescue system comes on-line, the phone is ringing again.
It's logged at 9:23 P.M. RCC Stavenger, Norway, has the same mayday, with additional information. "The vessel has a heavy list of fifty percent [sic] to port. The thirty-one persons on board are preparing to evacuate the ship. They will evacuate into four life rafts. Weather: seas six meters, winds NE 37 knots. They only have a 121.5 MHz beacon. The vessel is a cargo ship en route from Freeport, Texas to Helsinki." Stavenger also gives Parker the ship's marine satellite telephone number.
The 121.5 beacon is the ship's EPIRBEmergency Position Indicating Radio Beaconactivated manually or by immersion in water. And the "only" in Stavenger's message is significant: this is the least expensive EPIRB made. Its signal is designed to be detected by overflying commercial or military aircraft. The signal can also be picked up by satellite, but for detection and notification to occur, the satellite must be within line of sight of both the EPIRB and a ground terminal. What's worse, the radio frequency used by these EPIRBs is congested, causing a satellite false alert rate of 99.8 percent. And even if a real alert does get through, two or more satellite passes are necessary to determine if the signal really is from an EPIRB and to determine its location, delaying rescue efforts by an average of four to six hours.
Parker relays the information to Mletzko, who has just called the senior controller of RCC New York, Lieutenant Commander Jay Topper, at his home on the island. Before Topper arrives, several more calls come in from stations as far away as Puerto Rico and Hawaii asking if they've heard the distress call on the 2182 frequency.
What's troubling is that the Coast Guard Greater Antilles Section in Puerto Rico has reported the position of the ship to be 400 miles west of the location they've received from Halifax and Stavenger. While an airplane could quickly check out both, no aircraft are in the area and it would be several hours before one would arrive on-scene. When the boss arrives, he'll take the time to play detective and sort out the discrepancy.
The computer monitor in front of Mletzko now has a text version of AMVER's surface picture on-screen, programmed to show him every participating vessel within a 200-mile radius. Twelve thousand vessels from 134 countries, ranging from tugboats to cruise ships, roughly forty percent of the world's civilian fleet belong to AMVER. On the night the Salvador Allende calls for help, 2,662 of them are "on plot." They are at sea, and before leaving port had filed a float plan detailing their destination, estimated time of arrival, course, and speed. Once every twenty-four hours, usually at noon, they would update the AMVER computer with their current position.
What Mletzko has on his screen is the result of the computer using the float plan data to calculate which ships should be in that 200-mile circle around the stricken vessel on the night of December 8. With a few keystrokes and clicks, he can pull up the Lloyd's of London registry information on each ship: type, size, speed, ownership, telex and satellite phone numbers. More clicks bring up float plan information indicating what radio frequencies the ship monitors, when the radio room is manned, and what type of medical personnel, if any, are on board.