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Coast Guard: N.J. Yacht Explosion Hoax Calls Came From Land

$3,000 Reward Offered For Information That Leads To Arrest And Prosecution
Deputy Commander of Coast Guard Sector New York Gregory Hitchen speaks at a news conference on Tuesday June 12, 2012 (credit: CBS 2)

Deputy Commander of Coast Guard Sector New York Gregory Hitchen speaks at a news conference on Tuesday June 12, 2012 (credit: CBS 2)

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SANDY HOOK, N.J. (CBSNewYork) — Two hoax calls that sparked a massive search and rescue effort for a yacht that had reportedly exploded off the New Jersey coast came from land and not over the water, the Coast Guard said Tuesday.

1010 WINS’ Stan Brooks reports

The rescue operation for a luxury yacht called the “Blind Date” and its 21 passengers cost the Coast Guard at least $88,000, Deputy Cmdr. Gregory Hitchen said Tuesday.

He said the call came from somewhere in New Jersey or southern New York on a channel not normally used for emergencies.

Six Medevac helicopters, 15 ambulances and two medical buses from several agencies responded when the call came in around 4:20 p.m. Monday reporting the incident that the caller claimed took place 17 miles off the shore, east of Sandy Hook.

WEB EXTRA: Hear The Hoax Call For Help:

“This is the biggest hoax in regard to the number of helicopters and boats we actually had respond to a case,” Deputy Cmdr. Hitchen said.

WCBS 880’s Peter Haskell On The Story

The call mirrors a hoax from last June when someone claimed a sailboat was sinking — also near Sandy Hook. Investigators are reviewing the audio of that call to see if it was the same suspect, CBS 2′ s Wee-Ja Jiang reported.

“This person was somewhat calm, but was giving us a convincing story as to what the nature of his emergency was,” Hitchen said.

The caller said that 21 people aboard managed to get onto lifeboats, but that some were seriously burned. A second call came in later reporting that three of the people aboard had died, officials said.

Officials said the call initially seemed credible.

“He had a specific number of people he had on board, he was pretty specific on who had injuries, he was giving a blow-by-blow of how it was filling up with water,” Hitchen said.

In the distress call that was released by the Coast Guard, the male caller said there was an explosion on board and that the boat was taking on water.

“We have 21 souls on board, 20 in the water,” the caller said to the Coast Guard. “I have three deceased on board, nine injured because of the explosion we’ve had. I’m in three feet of water on the bridge. I’m going to stay by the radio as long as I can before I have to go overboard.”

More than 200 first responders rushed to the scene, including Coast Guard crews, NYPD helicopters, the FDNY, New Jersey State police and Nassau County police, officials said.

But the victims were never found and confusion began to mount after rescuers couldn’t find any wreckage.

“When they arrived on scene, helicopters looking down, they would have seen life rafts,” Hitchen said. “And they would’ve seen smoke.”

The search was called off around 10 p.m. Monday.

Making a false distress call is a felony that carries five to 10 years in prison, a $250,000 fine and complete reimbursement for the entire cost of the search.

Hitchen said Monday’s operation even jeopardized a call that said someone was about to jump off the Bayonne Bridge. That jump never happened, but officials said hoaxes put both emergency responders and the public at risk.

“When we are responding to a hoax, we are not ready to respond to an actual search and rescue case,” he said. “It’s always dangerous to launch a helicopter out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean for a search and it’s particularly dangerous when several helicopters are all converging on the same point in the ocean to initiate a rescue.”

A $3,000 reward is now being offered by the Coast Guard for information leading to the arrest and prosecution of those responsible.

Anyone with information is asked to call the Coast Guard Investigative Service at 646-872-5774 or 212-668-7048.

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