Two months after her husband, two young sons and nephew died at sea, Libby Cornett got a surprise visit from a U.S. Coast Guard commander who played for her a tape-recording of a three-second radio transmission.
"May . . . Mayday, U.S. Coast Guard, come in," cried a tiny, frightened voice that Cornett immediately recognized as that of her 13-year-old son, Daniel.
In the silence that followed, Libby pictured the pounding waves, the cold rain and her family clinging to a sailboat as it was being torn apart on a rocky jetty just a mile from shore.
She had always thought Daniel and the others who lost their lives aboard the sailing vessel Morning Dew that awful day in December 1997 had died beyond the reach of any help, bobbing in the cold Atlantic for hours until the dark waters finally chilled the life out of them.
But this three-second tape told her another story: that she had lost those dearest to her not because help could not come but because those responsible for saving sailors from the sea, whose entire image rests on their ability to stage daring rescues, did nothing.
"I realized at that moment that they didn't have to die," Libby would later say. "I knew they could have been saved."
That realization triggered a series of state and federal investigations, congressional hearings and a lawsuit that is expected to be decided in coming weeks. Most of all, it has posed some difficult questions about the central mission and obligations of the Coast Guard, which saves more than 5,000 lives annually. In this case, the Coast Guard not only ignored the Morning Dew's radioed plea but then tried to cover up its inaction.
To Libby, awaiting a decision from a federal judge on her case, the lesson is clear.
"Do not depend on the Coast Guard," she says. "Even if you are the most experienced sailor in the world, unexpected things will arise. And the Coast Guard will not always be there to help."
For the Three Amigos--as their parents called Daniel, his older brother Paul, 16, and their second cousin Bobby Lee Hurd Jr., 14--a trip down the Intracoastal Waterway was to be their greatest adventure yet.
Libby's husband, Michael, a 49-year-old engineer and musician, had swapped a piece of land for the 34-foot sloop Morning Dew in November 1997 and was moving the boat from South Carolina to a berth in Jacksonville, Fla.
Mike loved the sea. Before starting a family, he and his wife had quit their teaching jobs to live aboard a sailboat, cruising around Florida and the Bahamas.
The boys were an eager crew. Paul and Daniel had sailed on a small mountain lake in Tennessee and had some experience in the Caribbean. To prepare for the journey, Libby, who had been home-schooling her sons, developed lessons on boating safety and map reading. The kids made lists of things they would need: bags of candy, their favorite CDs, the new foul weather gear they got for Christmas.
"The boys were so excited," Libby recalled. "They grew up together and were very close. And this was to be Bobby Lee's first sailing trip."
Even in the South, winter weather can mean powerful winds and freezing temperatures. But Mike's plan was to stick to the protected Intracoastal Waterway, an inside route of rivers, bays and man-made channels that runs more than 1,000 miles along the Eastern Seaboard.
Using the Morning Dew's auxiliary diesel engine, Mike figured, traveling the 300-mile stretch should take about a week.
Mike had never taken the Morning Dew out of the Lightkeeper's Marina in North Myrtle Beach. Indeed, the sailboat had not moved from the dock for five years, a fact driven home when he tried to start the engine on the morning of the trip and found the battery dead.
While picking up a new battery, Mike also bought $150 worth of charts, then carefully penciled in his route down the waterway.
"Mike was going over it from head to toe," said Mike's brother Harold, who had planned to go too but backed out because their father was ill. "Everything looked great."
The National Transportation Safety Board would later conclude that safety equipment aboard the Morning Dew barely exceeded the minimum required by the Coast Guard. The boat was outfitted with five life jackets, a strobe light, a marine radio, a depth sounder, a knot meter, a magnetic compass, six emergency flares and two air horns.
But there was no life raft, immersion suits to protect from hypothermia, global positioning system for navigation, backup shortwave radio, cellular phone or a transponder that could signal an emergency, the NTSB would later say. The captain, investigators found, had not "adequately prepared the vessel or its passengers for the risks presented by a winter voyage at night on the open sea."
The Morning Dew shoved off under clear skies at noon Dec. 27, 1997. After a brief stop for fuel, the sailboat headed south, passing the Little River Highway Bridge, at Intracoastal Waterway mile marker 347.3. The bridge tender logged the time: 1:10 p.m.
The initial leg of the trip took Mike and the boys through the Pine Island Cut. Here the waterway flows through a passage so narrow that sailors are advised to radio ahead to see if any big barges are coming in the opposite direction. The landscape of rocky ledges is spectacular and seemingly remote, the gaudy strip of motels and amusement parks on Myrtle Beach's famed Grand Strand lies just out of sight to the west.
At mile marker 375, the waterway joins the Waccamaw River for a 27-mile run into Winyah Bay. Flanked by fallow rice fields and thick woods of moss-draped live oak that reach over the water, this section is considered by many mariners as the waterway's most scenic.
At 8:30 p.m., Mike stopped at a marina about 10 miles north of Georgetown, S.C., and called Jacksonville to tell his sister-in-law Jean Rust of the late start that morning. Although he expressed frustration about his progress, Rust reported, Mike mentioned no problems with the boat.
After hanging up, the crew traveled 12 more miles into Winyah Bay and anchored for the night at the Boat Shed Marina. The marina was closed for the season, but a Georgetown salvage master remembers seeing the sailboat there at midmorning Dec. 28.
That same salvage master saw the Morning Dew again later that day, this time heading southeast down Winyah Bay. Dressed in windbreakers, the three teenagers were on the bow, a man was at the helm, and the Morning Dew was several miles past the right-hand turnoff for the Intracoastal Waterway into Estherville Minim Creek, heading for the open ocean.
Alarmed, the salvage master said he tried four or five times to make radio contact.
The captain of a sport fishing boat also became concerned when he saw the sailboat's course, figuring the captain had made a mistake. He also tried the radio. But there was no answer from the Morning Dew.
In the spring of 1998, Libby left her log cabin home in the Virginia mountains and drove to Georgetown. There she chartered a boat to retrace the Morning Dew's fatal voyage.
"I needed to see it for myself," she said. "I needed to do that."
It was sunny out on Winyah Bay that day, with just a light chop on the waters. The boat captain pointed out the channel markers as he took Libby past the dogleg to starboard where the Intracoastal Waterway goes into the canal-like creek that is the inside passage to Charleston, 54 miles farther south.
With an expert guide, Libby said, it all seemed clear enough. But for a sailor new to the area, she was reminded, it could also be confusing.
"On our way back to the dock the captain took a call from another boat asking about the channel," she said. "They couldn't find it."
Why Mike headed for the open sea will forever remain a mystery. Even if he had missed the first channel marker for the turnoff, the NTSB found, he would have traveled more than eight miles, and passed within sight of 16 buoys that could have alerted him that he was no longer in the Intracoastal Waterway.
Did he consider turning back? Perhaps he thought it was too late. Perhaps he thought he could make better time on the outside. Libby thinks her husband "became confused."
The NTSB investigators wrote that "even if he had been preoccupied with some matter and was completely inattentive to the navigation aids or to the shoreline . . . he would certainly have realized that he was entering the open ocean when he exited Winyah Bay."
If conditions were rough in Winyah Bay, they were only worse out in the Atlantic. Before turning south toward Charleston, the Morning Dew first had to sail due east for 2.2 miles, paralleling a sea wall at the entrance to the bay.
As night fell, air temperatures dropped below 50 degrees and the wind shifted to the northeast. Four-foot seas were building to seven. The National Weather Service posted small-craft advisories. "Rain, windy, rough. Very squally, nasty," was the way Charleston harbor pilot Gerald Lucas remembered the night.
Mike wasn't a big man, he stood 5 feet 9, but he was wiry and tough. "He was a real outdoors guy," Libby said. "Very hearty."
He also was an accomplished guitarist and songwriter. A second cousin of country music star June Carter, Mike recently had recorded his first CD. Among his compositions were songs about family, his kids and sailing. In one, "Fair Weather Sailor," he mused about dying:
If the sea should take me,
Please, my loved ones,
Don't grieve for me.
It's a choice I made,
It's my destiny.
Libby is certain her husband had no fear as the Morning Dew motored south along the coast that night, riding up over the wave tops and then thudding downward to each foamy trough.
"He had been in tough sailing situations before," she said. "I am sure he felt very capable. And he would never have done anything to endanger the children."
Sometime after dark, investigators figure, the boys went to bed, stripping off most of their clothing to crawl into sleeping bags in the V-berth in the boat's bow. But aboard what must have felt like a bucking bronco, sleep seems unlikely.
By 2 a.m., Mike had been at the helm of the Morning Dew for about 14 hours. He was undoubtedly bone tired and, despite several layers of clothing, cold.
With the boys likely below, and no adults on board to relieve him at the helm, Mike may not have had a chance to refer to charts that could have told him his position. But ahead to starboard was the beacon from the lighthouse on Sullivans Island, and beyond that, through the intermittent rain, was the misty glow of Charleston and safe harbor.
He may have thought he was almost there.
If there is anything more unforgiving than an angry sea, it's a granite wall. The entrance to Charleston Harbor is protected by two stone jetties, parallel structures that extend about three miles from shore. They are well marked on nautical charts.
The north jetty is awash at high tide, and at low tide may extend as much as 7 feet above the surface. The tide was near absolute low when the Morning Dew drew near. With a steady, 30 mph wind pushing from behind, the boat slammed into the north side of the north jetty with a force that ripped a hole in the starboard bow. As 55-degree seawater rushed in, the three young sailors scrambled to shed their sleeping bags and get out on deck.
What happened after the first impact is unknown. Some investigators, along with government attorneys, suggest that Mike may have been thrown from the boat and may have been unable to climb back aboard.
But Larry Pritchard Jr., an investigator for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, thinks Mike did get back aboard.
"I would have got back on the boat if the children were on it, so, yes," Pritchard said. "He's a father and his children were on that boat."
The U.S. Coast Guard's Group Charleston occupies eight acres on the east bank of the Ashley River a few blocks from the battery in downtown Charleston, a graceful Old South city perched on a tongue of land that sticks out into a well-protected harbor.
Petty Officer Eric Shelley, on solitary duty as watch-stander early Dec. 29, was just a few months out of telecommunications school. As one of five specialists who rotated on 12-hour shifts monitoring the radio, he was already familiar with the tedium of the overnight duty.
Shelley's duty officer that night was Petty Officer Michael J. Sass, a 37-year-old boatswain's mate, a veteran of 17 years. Because they pull 24-hour shifts, duty officers are permitted to sleep after 10 p.m., bedding down in a dormitory on base grounds.
While Sass slept, Shelley had gotten up from his desk near the radio to get a cup of coffee. He would later say he was standing across the room, 17 feet from the console, when he heard a call over VHF Channel 16, the emergency frequency. The time was 2:17 a.m.
"All I heard was 'U.S. Coast Guard,' " Shelley, 23, told NTSB investigators. "We get lots of calls for U.S. Coast Guard, constantly, that are nothing."
Shelley said he did not try to rewind the tape of the call because the recording equipment was cumbersome and "I thought it wasn't . . . [an] important enough call to go back to and listen to it. . . . I didn't hear any distress words."
Nonetheless, Shelley said, he twice tried to raise the caller. "Vessel calling Coast Guard. This is Coast Guard Group Charleston. Over," Shelley said, his voice preserved on a recording.
There was no response.
Four minutes later, another transmission was heard, this time a burst of static.
"Did you log in the 0217 call?" a NTSB board member asked Shelley at a 1999 hearing in Charleston.
"No, ma'am," Shelley replied.
"OK. Is there any particular reason why?"
"I didn't believe there was anything to put into the log," Shelley said. "I did not hear what later was determined they said 'mayday.' I did not hear that mayday call."
When Libby made her trip down the coast to Charleston Harbor in daylight, visibility was unlimited. She saw the craggy rocks of the jetty, and the exact spot where the Morning Dew went down.
But Libby knew the daylight visit was nothing like what her family had experienced. So a few weeks later, she went out to the jetty at night. And she was amazed.
"With the lights," she said, "from the lighthouse on Sullivans Island, from the glow of city, it seemed even closer. It was so close."
Out on the jetty, the Morning Dew remained pinioned to the rocks as the waves, growing stronger with the rising tide, continued to pound the boat and the three young sailors. Unable or afraid to go below deck for more clothing, investigators suspect that the boys held fast to the deck, screaming for help. Heeled over on the rocks, the Morning Dew now offered little protection from the surf.
"They may have remained with the boat as long as they could, hoping their mayday would bring assistance and believing correctly that they would have the greatest chance of rescue if they stayed with the boat," the NTSB report surmised.
But time ran out with the tide. There were no more radio calls. Eventually, with the waters rising, the bludgeoned boat was washed over the wall, where the Morning Dew sank in 12 feet of water.
The boys were now in the water, perhaps gripping a single horseshoe life preserver, stenciled with the words "Morning Dew," that was later found on shore. And then came another haunting clue that the boys were alive and fighting to survive for hours.
At 6:20 a.m., more than four hours after Daniel's radioed call for help, the freighter Pearl Ace was inbound in the main shipping channel when a boatswain securing a ladder reported that he heard a cry for help coming from the water. He gauged the origin of the cry as being near buoy 22, about a mile and a half from where the Morning Dew smashed into the jetty.
Gerald Lucas was the Charleston harbor pilot who had been ferried out to the Pearl Ace to steer the ship through the tricky channel and bring it to the dock. After the crewman's report reached the bridge, Lucas, along with the ship's captain, stepped into the blowing rain to scan the water with a flashlight. They saw and heard nothing but the wind.
Lucas radioed his dispatcher and told him to relay the report of a cry to the Coast Guard. Then, Lucas testified, he called John Stuhr, operator of the pilot boat Palmetto State, and asked him to search around buoy 22.
Stuhr said he spent about 40 minutes searching near the buoy but saw nothing. He heard no cries.
Back at Group Charleston, Shelley's 12-hour shift ended at 6 a.m., but 20 minutes later he was still in the communications room finishing up paperwork when the dispatcher's call came in. He logged in the information about a cry heard in the channel and passed it on to Sass, who now was back in the office.
Shelley made no mention of the 2:17 a.m. radio call.
Told that the Palmetto State had been sent to the area, Sass said he did not order a Coast Guard boat out to investigate. "My personal feeling," Sass testified to the NTSB, "was if there was something there, they would have found it."
About 11 a.m. that morning a couple walking along the beach on Sullivans Island spotted a boy's body floating in the water. It was Daniel, clad only in boxer shorts. Passersby pulled the body from the water and tried CPR, but there was no response.
Minutes later, the body of cousin Bobby washed up. He was wearing only jeans. The life preserver was found nearby.
At 11:15 a.m., a police officer called Group Charleston to report the two bodies and to request that the Coast Guard dispatch a boat. Sass said he then briefed the operations officer and told him about the 6:28 a.m. call from Lucas aboard the Pearl Ace.
And at 11:28 a.m., nine hours and 11 minutes after Daniel's mayday call, the Coast Guard ordered a utility boat and helicopter to the scene.
Within minutes the mast of the sunken Morning Dew was spotted from the air. Paul's body was recovered about an hour later, drifting two miles out in the ocean; he was wearing a life jacket.
But Mike was missing.
Libby was asleep at her mother's house in Canal Point, Fla., near Lake Okeechobee, when the phone rang. It was near midnight Dec. 29, more than 12 hours after the boys' bodies had been discovered. But she had not been told.
The caller was the pastor of the Hurd family's church in Mountain City, Tenn., a man she barely knew. "Have you heard if any more bodies have washed up?" he asked.
Libby couldn't speak. She hung up and woke her mother. Later, she reached relatives in Virginia and was told there had been an accident near Charleston.
Mike's fate was not known with certainty until Jan. 23, 1998, when his body washed up on Sullivans Island.
According to the medical examiner, all four Morning Dew sailors died of "drowning and hypothermia."
The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources launched an immediate investigation. But for 2 1/2 months the Coast Guard withheld information about the 2:17 a.m. mayday call and the report of a subsequent cry heard by the Pearl Ace boatswain. That information came to light only after the monthly Boating News filed a Freedom of Information Act request, which prompted the commander's hasty trip to Libby with the tape-recording of Daniel's call.
In defending their actions, Coast Guard officials said that, when asked by state investigators about any distress calls, they responded that the watch-stander had not "perceived" any mayday calls.
"But this answer, while perhaps technically accurate, was clearly, if not intentionally, misleading," NTSB investigators concluded. "The Coast Guard was well aware that, whether or not the watch-stander had recognized it as such at the time, a mayday call had been received at 0217."
For Libby and her nephew's parents, Dee Dee and Bobby Lee Hurd Sr., those responsible for the deaths are the officers of the Coast Guard's Group Charleston, who twice received information about sailors in distress and failed to act.
Medical evidence later presented by the families' attorney suggests that the boys, despite being barely dressed, may have been alive for more than six hours after Daniel's cry for help.
"I knew they could see the lighthouse on Sullivans Island," Libby said. "I knew they could see the lights of Charleston. I'm sure they thought they would be saved."
In their federal lawsuit, families accuse the Coast Guard of negligence in the deaths and are seeking unspecified damages.
During a brief trial here in August, attorney Gedney M. Howe III contended that when Sass acknowledged the search by the pilot boat, the boat was in effect operating as a Coast Guard surrogate--meaning a search-and-rescue mission was underway.
Howe charged that the Coast Guard later tried to cover up its "negligence, recklessness, the level of outrageous conduct."
But government lawyers said the Coast Guard never made any attempt to rescue those aboard the Morning Dew and, furthermore, had no legal obligation to save the family even if the emergency call for help had been understood.
Contrary to popular belief, said Debra J. Kossow, a Justice Department maritime lawyer, the Coast Guard has a lawful duty only to "act reasonably" in carrying out search-and-rescue efforts.
"This case, unfortunately," Kossow said, "is nothing more than an explicit reminder to would-be seafarers that he should not venture blindly into unfamiliar waters armed with the simple faith that the Coast Guard will extricate him from his self-made dilemmas, whenever and wherever they occur."
In an average year, the Coast Guard conducts more than 40,000 search-and-rescue operations and on a typical day saves 14 lives. But the Coast Guard's actions in the Morning Dew case were "just mind-boggling," NTSB board member John J. Goglia said.
In his arguments before U.S. District Judge David Norton, Howe quoted from the Coast Guard investigation of the accident, which concluded, "In SAR [search and rescue] it is far better to be a stumbling, bumbling fool than to do nothing at all."
"On this night, on this instance," Howe said, "they were stumbling, bumbling fools, but they didn't do nothing. [T]hey abandoned these people."
Coast Guard officials acknowledged the service has been weakened by personnel shortages, training problems and outdated communication equipment. "We are in jeopardy of degrading the safety of our maritime public as well as our crew," Adm. James M. Loy, the Coast Guard commandant, told a congressional subcommittee during a 1999 hearing into the Morning Dew tragedy. "We must be able to translate maydays into effective action."
Shelley and Sass, the officers on duty that night, both received official reprimands: Shelley for failing to replay the 2:17 a.m. distress call, Sass for not reporting the 6:20 a.m. cry to his superior officer.
"It was a horrible accident," Loy said. "And one made more horrible by the possibility that the Coast Guard missed the opportunity to rescue one or more of the . . . sailors."
In response to the accident, changes have been made. Congress earmarked $16 million last fiscal year to upgrade the Coast Guard's emergency communication system nationwide. New recording equipment that makes it easier to replay calls and a direction-finding system have been installed at Group Charleston.
Nonetheless, the NTSB found that the probable cause of the boat's sinking was Mike's inexplicable decision, on a night when small-craft warnings were posted, to leave the Intracoastal Waterway. The captain's "failure to adequately assess, prepare for and respond to the known risks of the journey into the open ocean that culminated in the vessel's [collision] with the jetty," the NTSB report said.
Dee Dee and Bobby Lee Hurd still live in Mountain City, with daughter Holly Lynn, three years older than their dead son, and a second daughter, Emily, born after the accident. She is 2.
"I know I have two more children," Dee Dee Hurd testified at the nonjury trial, "but I still feel like my life's over. I know that sounds crazy, but part of me died with my son and it will never come back."
The toll may have been even greater for Libby. Daniel and Paul were her only children. Within a year of the deaths, her mother and both of Mike's parents died. "All related to heartbreak," she said.
Now 52, Libby lives alone in her mountainside Virginia home and teaches child development classes at a community college. She continues to lobby Congress and the Coast Guard to speed up installation of state-of-the-art communication systems at all agency bases. Under the current plans, that won't be complete until 2006.
She talks to Dee Dee Hurd several times a week. "We support each other. We share this tragedy, the loss. We talk about what it might have been like out there on the rocks. But we'll never know. And that's what drives me crazy."
Times researcher Anna M. Virtue contributed to this story.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Michael Cornett and family set off Dec. 27, 1997, down the Intracoastal Waterway. The trip turned tragic when the Morning Dew strayed into the open sea, then slammed into a jetty near Charleston Harbor.
Source: National Transportation Safety Board