A global alarm sounds, but don't tell the taxpayer

May 14, 1992|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Staff Writer

It must have been a perfect night to clean the yacht, polish the railings and dust the equipment. But someone got a little carried away Wednesday, accidentally hit the ship's rescuer beacon, and never turned it off.

While the cleaning commenced, alarms were going off as far away as Illinois and as high as outer space. Scores of rescuers from a variety of agencies searched the Magothy River near Gibson Island for three hours.

Finally, after a boat-to-boat search at the Gibson Island Yacht Yard, the Coast Guard found the blinking beacon on board the Yellow Bird, a 47-foot yacht. The crew, apparently finished with its cleaning, was just about to leave.

"Oh, yeah, they were surprised," said Bill Shamel, chief warrant officer for the U.S. Coast Guard station in Annapolis. He identified the boat's owner as Leroy Wilbur of Gibson Island, who refused comment last night.

It all started at 8 p.m., when someone dusting the equipment accidentally turned on the Emergency Position Indicator Radio Beacon, Shamel said.

A communications satellite orbiting the earth picked up the distress signal and notified Scott Air Force Base in Illinois. Personnel determined the signal was coming from a quarter-square-mile area near Gibson Island and notified the Coast Guard in Annapolis.

Usually, people who trigger the alarm by accident turn it off right away, which doesn't give authorities enough time to trace the electronic signal. But this time, the signal kept coming, prompting a full response.

The Coast Guard sent two boats, as did the Anne Arundel County Fire Department. The Department of Natural Resources and the state police each sent two helicopters. And scores of police and officials combed the shoreline.

Within half an hour, Shamel said Coast Guard officials determined that a boat did not sink. But the source of the rescue beacon had to be found.

That meant pinpointing the beam among hundreds of boats docked at or near the club. It took 2 1/2 hours to find the Yellow Bird.

"It is pretty unusual," Shamel said, adding that the coast guard receives only about six such signals a year in the Chesapeake Bay. "The people were unfamiliar with the equipment itself and didn't realize what they had done and what kind of response it would get."

The officer said that the rescue beacon, which is also used on airplanes, is not very common in the bay. It is required on commercial boats; private vessels usually use it on ocean voyages.

"It worked like a charm," Shamel said, adding that he did not know how much the search will cost. "The taxpayers would go crazy if they knew."

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