Grappling With The Fallout From Distress-Call Hoaxes -- A Thoughtless Cry-Wolf May Have Cost Two Lives

BOSTON - The call, on a marine hailing frequency, was urgent and chilling: A ship somewhere on the freezing waters off Massachusetts was transmitting a last-ditch plea for help.

``This is the fishing vessel Sol E Mar,'' a male voice shouted in frenzy. ``We're sinkin'. We need help now!''

The plea rose into a scream. The transmission was abruptly cut. Then, there was only crackling static.

Coast Guard radio monitors on Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard tried desperately to get the caller back to locate the ship and send help.

But just over a minute after the first call, another distress signal came in.

``SOS, I'm sinking,'' a male voice said. And then he laughed.

The Coast Guard officers didn't dispatch rescue planes or boats. The calls, they thought, were just part of the rising number of hoaxes.

Last Friday, five days later, they discovered they were wrong. The Sol E Mar was reported missing and the Coast Guard began a search for the father and son who manned the 50-foot fishing vessel.

By then, it was too late.

The Sol E Mar and the two men were presumed lost at sea somewhere south of Martha's Vineyard. The search was called off Sunday night.

The family grieved, fishermen along the New England coast mourned the loss of more of their own, and the Coast Guard was left wondering how to deal with hoaxers who think they are being clever by faking a call for help.

``Things might have been different,'' said Lt. Paul Wolf, the Coast Guard spokesman in Boston. ``I can't say the fake call killed them. But it certainly lessened their chances.''

Bogus distress calls were once just a nuisance to Coast Guard rescuers. Now they are considered a serious problem.

``This is the first case that I know of where it was a factor in a rescue,'' Wolf said. ``It definitely influenced the way we responded.''

In 1989, 16 hoaxes were recorded on the coast from Canada to New Jersey, and the Coast Guard responded to most of the calls, said Coast Guard Cmdr. Bill Armstrong.

This year, there already have been 11 known hoaxes.

``We have limited resources, and every time we respond to a hoax, those resources aren't there for someone who may need them,'' Armstrong said.

In 1986, a man was sentenced to a year in prison after he broadcast a bogus distress signal that triggered a massive sea-and-air search for a sinking yacht with 10 people aboard.

Emergency responses often are hampered because of the constant chatter on radios, largely by inexperienced boaters.

Lost with the Sol E Mar were William Hokanson Sr., 44, and his 19-year-old son, William Jr. The two Fairhaven men set out March 22 from Kelley's Landing for Cape Cod, hoping for a large flounder catch.

Manuel Aguiar, William Sr.'s brother-in-law, said he had heard the Coast Guard tapes. He said the first call was clearly from the son, and the second was a different voice. He said the family was angry at the Coast Guard.

``They're out there to serve the public, fake call or not,'' he said.

It was the second loss at sea for the Hokanson family of fishermen. In 1952, William Sr.'s father, Fritz, was lost off Nantucket on the fishing vessel Paolina.

Wolf said the Coast Guard was reviewing its actions. More detailed instructions on how to distinguish hoaxes from authentic calls are being sent to radio monitors with added urgency because of the Sol E Mar sinking, he said.

Even if the fake call had not come in, the Hokansons might never have been rescued, because their boat apparently sank before they could radio their location, Wolf said.

``If I could change anything, I would have given them five more seconds on the radio,'' Wolf said.