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Coast Guard cutter sailing to mystery debris site

Coast Guard watchstanders on Tuesday ordered the cutter Hamilton to search a debris field bobbing in the Atlantic Ocean about 126 miles southeast of Wilmington, North Carolina, for what might be a missing vessel.

At around 11 a.m. that morning, Coast Guard District 5 command center in Portsmouth, Virginia, received a distress signal from an unregistered emergency position indicating radio beacon.

Carried on ships and airplanes, the battery-operated EPIRB will begin transmitting a continuous radio signal during a crash or sinking. It will be picked up by Cospas-Sarsat satellites worldwide and helps direct rescue crews to a specific location.

Watchstanders didn’t know if the EPIRB signal was activated manually or automatically, but they immediately scrambled an HC-130J Long Range Surveillance Aircraft and an MH-60T Jayhawk rescue helicopter from Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City in North Carolina and diverted the underway Hamilton to search the area, officials told Navy Times.

The aircrews spotted floats, netting and other debris when they flew over the area but there have been no confirmed reports of missing vessels.

“We respond 100 percent of the time to EPIRBs,” said Coast Guard spokesman Public Affairs Specialist 3rd Class Ronald Hodges in Baltimore.

“At this time, the main thing we have is the unregistered EPIRB. We don’t know if it was jettisoned by accident or if someone could be in actual distress. We’re going to go out there and search just to check and make sure that no one is out there.”

Debris found by aircrews from Air Station Elizabeth City, N.C., approximately 126 miles southeast of Wilmington on Tuesday. (Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City)
Debris found by aircrews from Air Station Elizabeth City, N.C., approximately 126 miles southeast of Wilmington on Tuesday. (Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City)

The Automated Mutual-Assistance Vessel Rescue System also has brought several commercial vessels to assist the Coast Guard in the hunt for the missing vessel.

Hodges is urging anyone who can assist rescuers — especially those tied to the boating community or the commercial fishing industry — to contact watchstanders in Portsmouth with information.

The command center can be reached at 757-398-6231.

Search patterns for a debris site approximately 126 miles off the coast of Wilmington, North Carolina. (Coast Guard)
Search patterns for a debris site approximately 126 miles off the coast of Wilmington, North Carolina. (Coast Guard)

Navy Times editor’s update: The Coast Guard suspended the search on Thursday.

Crews from Air Station Elizabeth City and the cutter Hamilton joined Automated Mutual-Assistance Vessel Rescue System vessels in a hunt that began Tuesday afternoon and crossed 2,663 square miles of water, but they could find no signs of distress.

Watchstanders also received no reports of vessels known to be overdue in the area.

“We would like to thank our maritime partners in AMVER who agreed to assist in this case,” said Lt. j.g. Victoria Moon, watchstander during the case, in a prepared statement emailed to Navy Times.

“We ask that owners of EPIRBs ensure they register their devices. It allows us to quickly reach the owners in emergency situations and expedites search and rescue. If anyone believes they have information that can assist this case, please call the District Five command center at 757-398-6231.”

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