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Scallop boat finds body near Lady Mary wreck site

Scallop boat finds body near Lady Mary wreck site

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The fishing vessel John & Nicholas was fishing close to where the Lady Mary sank in March when it picked up a decomposed body in its nets Wednesday.

CAPE MAY — A local scallop boat fishing close to where the Lady Mary sank in March picked up a decomposed body in its nets Wednesday morning.

The U.S. Coast Guard declined to speculate on whether the body is one of the three crewmen still missing off the Cape May-based Lady Mary, but said the corpse would be delivered to a coroner for identification.

“The body was badly decomposed, so they couldn’t make a visual identification of the person. Right now, we can’t speculate on who the body is,” Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Chris McLaughlin said.

The fishing vessel John & Nicholas, owned by Lower Township firm John & Nicholas Inc., which has boats in the ports of Cape May and New Bedford, Mass., was fishing about 60 miles offshore on the scallop grounds known as the Elephant Trunk when it picked up the body. The Lady Mary sank March 24 at the same site.

Meanwhile, the probe into the sinking continues with inquiries by the Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board.

Steve Weeks, the attorney for the owner of the Lady Mary, said Wednesday that pictures and video shot at the Lady Mary wreck last week by the volunteer dive team show the crew was in emergency mode when the boat sank.

Weeks said the pictures show the scallop dredge, full of scallops, on the deck of the wreck. He said that when the dredge comes out of the water, the scallops are always dumped on the deck right away.

Even if it is the last tow before heading ashore, the scallops would be dumped before the dredge is brought aboard, Weeks said.

“The only reason to put it on deck with scallops is an emergency situation. It was an emergency situation. What the emergency was, we don’t know yet,” Weeks said.

Investigators said earlier video shot by the Coast Guard using unmanned camera equipment towed by the wreck site seemed to indicate the cable to the scallop dredge was broken. That led to speculation the gear got entangled with another vessel. Weeks said the latest video shows the cable is actually intact.

“We thought it was gear entanglement. We don’t think that is the case now,” Weeks said.

The video shows damage to the stern that Weeks does not believe could have happened when the boat sank to the ocean floor almost 200 feet down. The boat was found upright on the ocean floor, but Weeks said if it hit the sea bottom stern-first before settling upright, it would have descended only about 130 feet before impact.

Weeks said the damage to the stern and the dredge full of scallops both point to a possible collision with another vessel.

“They saw a collision was imminent and got the gear out of the water,” Weeks speculated.

A Coast Guard Board of Inquiry already has identified other vessels in the immediate vicinity at the time of the sinking, including the 68-foot Liberian-flagged cargo vessel Cap Beatrice and the New York-based scallop boat Alexandria Dawn.

The inquiry, currently in recess while the Coast Guard continues its investigation, has looked at a number of other potential reasons for the tragedy, ranging from a stability problem to the dredge hitting an underwater obstruction. The weather was also bad that morning, with 30 mph winds and waves as high as 12 feet.

McLaughlin said the body found Wednesday was tangled in the net. Most scallop boats use dredges, but the John & Nicholas tows a net instead.

McLaughlin said the body would be turned over to the State Police and an autopsy would be performed, probably by the Southern Regional Medical Examiner’s Office. He said U.S. Coast Guard Investigative Services was also notified.

McLaughlin said the Coast Guard, which is investigating the Lady Mary’s sinking, was informed at 10:35 a.m.

The Coast Guard recovered the bodies of brothers Capt. Royal “Bobo” Smith, 42, and Timothy “Timbo” Smith, 37, the day the vessel sank, while also rescuing lone survivor Jose Luis Arias, 57. Last week a team of volunteer scuba divers recovered the body of Tarzon “Bernie Mac” Smith, the brothers’ uncle, from the Lady Mary.

A cousin of the Smiths, Frank Credle, and deckhands Frankie Reyes and Jorge Ramos are still missing. If the body is one of those men, it would be the fifth crewman accounted for out of the seven on the Lady Mary when the 71-foot scallop boat sank in the pre-dawn hours.

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