N.J. Yacht Explosion Hoax Distress Call Released

The Coast Guard sent a fleet of helicopters, boats and rescuers to the scene.

June 12, 2012, 3:53 AM

June 12, 2012— -- The U.S. Coast Guard has released audio recordings of the distress call made by a man claiming to be the captain of a yacht that had exploded off the coast of Sandy Hook, N.J. The call prompted the costly deployment of over 200 responders and a fleet of helicopters and boats into the Atlantic Ocean, before it proved to be a hoax.

In an early transmission, the man calmly told the Coast Guard, "We have three deceased, nine injured. We've had an explosion on-board that's why we're taking on water. I'm in about three-and-a-half feet of water on the bridge right now."

In an ensuing dispatch, the man contradicted his earlier transmission by saying, "We have 21 souls on-board, 20 in the water right now." He added, "I'm going to stay on the radio for as long as I can before I have to go overboard."

The recording contained five separate transmissions totaling almost a minute and a half.

He also said that everyone had life jackets and that distress beacons were on-board.

The caller displayed some basic nautical knowledge, saying that his electronic communications array was down, which is why he called via solar radio. He also had fairly precise coordinates for their location, saying they were 17.5 miles east of Sandy Hook.

The last transmission cuts off ominously, with the caller saying "I'm dealing with 2nd and 3rd degree…" He was presumably speaking about burns suffered by the supposed victims of the explosion.

The U.S. Coast Guard has launched an investigation into a yacht explosion hoax call made by the realistic-sounding "captain."

"We're taking this potential hoax very seriously," Capt. Gregory P. Hitchen of the Coast Guard said at a news conference today. "We're offering a $3,000 reward for any information assisting us to find the perpetrator of this hoax."

"This person put the public at risk and put our first responders at risk. It's always dangerous to launch a helicopter over the Atlantic for a search," Hitchen said. "More importantly, we diverted several first responders in the area...from actual search and rescue areas to look for a vessel that had not actually sunk."

At 4:20 p.m. on Monday, a radio caller told the Coast Guard that there had been an explosion on a yacht called the Blind Date, located about 17.5 miles off the coast of Sandy Hook, N.J.

But after an extensive search, rescue boats and helicopters couldn't find a trace of the vessel or any victims.

"We became concerned that we saw no indication of life rafts or a sunken vessel," Hitchen said. "When they arrived on scene, they should have seen life rafts, which are usually orange and red. They should have seen smoke and probably an oil slick."

Hitchen said that while there are over 300 fake cases per year in the northeastern U.S., the caller reporting the incident made this one unique.

"There was a certain amount of detail in the call that we don't normally encounter with other hoax calls," Hitchen said. "This person was somewhat calm, but giving us a convincing story."

"I've been here since 2007 and this is the biggest hoax in regard to the number of helicopters and folks who had actually responded to the scene," Hitchen said.

The prankster now faces a maximum of five to 10 years in prison for the federal crime, a $250,000 fine and a reimbursement to the government for the cost of the search.

The total cost to the Coast Guard was initially determined to be $88,000 and rising. This figure doesn't include the city's costs from deploying the New York Police Department and the Fire Department of New York, which Hitchen estimated was equal to or greater than the cost to the Coast Guard.

Officials believe the distress call originated over land in New Jersey or southern New York. The call was made from a radio, not a cell phone, and was only picked up by one antenna, making it impossible to pinpoint the exact origin of the call.

By 10 p.m. on Monday, the active search was suspended with "clear indication that it was some sort of probable hoax," Hitchen said.

"Even if we think a case is a potential hoax, we always go in with the assumption that it is not. We do not want to under-react to an actual emergency," he said.

When asked what the motive could be for the prank, Hitchen said, "Some people just want attention. That's usually the biggest reason. They like to see all the response and active search for something they caused...It's very strange."

ABC News' Linsey Davis contributed to this report.