Coast Guard Offers Reward in Yacht Explosion Prank Call

Authorities are looking for the person who mobilized a massive search-and-rescue effort off the New Jersey coast by making a false distress call.

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Chip East/Reuters

CW3 Troy Loining of the U.S. Coast Guard speaks to journalists about the search and rescue operation for the allegedly stricken yacht Blind Date outside the gates of the Coast Guard station at Sandy Hook, N.J., June 11, 2012.

The United States Coast Guard has declared a distress call made Monday by the motor yacht Blind Date a hoax and is offering a $3,000 reward for information leading to the prosecution of the caller.

The first emergency distress call by the yacht was made Monday at 4:20 p.m. and reported 21 passengers in danger and several injured 17 nautical miles off the coast of Sandy Hook, N.J. Another call soon followed, according to the Coast Guard, that reported three people dead and the rest jumping ship into lifeboats.

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

New York Police Department helicopters and the U.S. Coast Guard spent over two hours searching the area where the yacht had supposedly exploded. After several hours of search and no evidence of such an explosion, the Coast Guard declared the call a hoax.

The distress call cost the Coast Guard tens of thousands of dollars in search and rescue operations. Nearly 200 first responders had gathered at mass casualty staging areas set up to receive those who had been reported as injured.

In a briefing Tuesday, Captain Gregory P. Hitchen called the hoax the largest in recent memory.

“People like the attention they can cause by watching the helicopters and boats go out and actively search,” Hitchen said. “It’s pretty strange.”

Despite the harsh penalties set in place for such calls – false distress signals are a federal felony that can result in five to 10 years in prison, a $250,000 fine, and reimbursement to the Coast Guard for their lost funds – they aren’t uncommon. Over 60 similar hoax calls were made in the New York-New Jersey area last year, according to reports made by the Coast Guard.

Almost exactly a year ago, on June 14th, 2011, the boat Courtney Lynn placed a distress call, saying they were almost completely submerged in water, also off the coast of Sandy Hook, N.J., and that the four passengers were moving into a small dingy. The subsequent search lasted 10 hours and cost the Coast Guard $88,000 but brought no sign of the callers. No one was ever prosecuted after an investigation into the possible hoax was launched last year.