Search for Merrill continues

Police alerted Coast Guard 1 1/2 hours after start of investigation Saturday


As police finished a third fruitless day searching the Chesapeake Bay for the body of Annapolis Capital publisher Philip Merrill, new details emerged yesterday about the first critical hours of the search after his boat was found Saturday.

Department of Natural Resources Police waited until 9 p.m. to contact the U.S. Coast Guard, about 90 minutes after it learned of an unmanned yacht drifting in the Chesapeake Bay near Plum Point, nearly 30 miles south of the Bay Bridge.

The search effort was focused on the Plum Point area until at least 9:20 p.m., but at some point in the evening the search shifted farther north, closer to the Bay Bridge, where Merrill was known to sail, and where DNR officers were looking for his body Monday and yesterday.

Cpl. Ken Turner, spokesman for the Natural Resources Police, said there was no unnecessary delay in contacting the Coast Guard, stressing that it took his department 90 minutes to get their investigators out to the scene, interview witnesses and assess what resources were needed.

"As the incident builds, so does your resources," said Turner. He could not provide a timeline detailing when an officer boarded the boat, when the department contacted the Merrill family, when additional NRP vessels were called to begin searching or when the search shifted north.

Lt. Timm G. M. Balunis, a spokesman for the Coast Guard, stopped short of criticizing Natural Resources Police but said: "We try to make them [the DNR] our first call when we have a rescue case. I can say that we want every minute we can get."

On Saturday, the sun set at 8:32 p.m., and rescue efforts are more difficult in the dark.

Balunis added: "In any search-and-rescue case, in any exercise, the No. 1 issue is always communication. Communication can always be better."

Balunis and Turner said that communication between the two agencies generally is good.

But Balunis characterized the time frame in which his agency learned of the missing man as "outside the norm." He declined to specify the regular time period.

When it was contacted, the Coast Guard issued an urgent marine information broadcast, which alerts all boats in the area about the search.

The agency also dispatched boats from the Oxford and Annapolis Coast Guard stations.

The Coast Guard was not sure when the search shifted to the north, but Balunis said the agency initially was told that there was an unmanned boat floating in the Plum Point area and sent its resources there.

"After we got some background information, that is when we recalibrated our efforts north, toward the Bay Bridge," Balunis said.

The Coast Guard is not part of the current recovery effort.

The DNR said yesterday that its officers will continue looking until the body is found.

The focus remained the portion of the bay between the Severn River and Kent Island, where Merrill was known to sail.

"We're out there," Turner said, "and we're still searching."

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