This is the letter we have written. We have sent it to government officials and newspapers with very little response back. It explains the circumstances surounding the accident and the investigation.
I was reading the article in July 2008 that the Associated Press ran about the Korean ship that hit the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. The part about “ The new evidence, including “computer images” extracted from the ship’s equipment, raises doubts about the Chinese crew’s competency in operating and interpreting the ship’s electronic chart system and other equipment, according to documents filed by federal prosecutors July 14” got my attention. This Korean ship is in San Francisco Bay and hits the Bay Bridge. With all of its modern day electronics and it’s pilot on board it does the unthinkable.
I followed this story closely as it unfolded because I found it to be very fascinating. Such a situation in this modern day of technology. I did not find it impossible however as some people might have. You see I know people who have been hit by these ships and some who have almost been hit by these ships. I also know people who will never be able to tell their story because their lives were taken in their encounter with these ships.
On June 21,2004 my brother David “ Rowdy “ Pennisi (41) and his crewmember Michael Odom (24) were on their way in from fishing when they disappeared. My brother’s boat the fishing vessel Relentless was in the inbound lane heading home to unload in San Francisco. There was a Korean chemical carrier that was supposed to be in the outbound lane but instead it was in and out of the separation zone. My brother John mapped out the readings the Coast Guard officials gave us. Later the investigator said the readings were not correct. They gave us several other readings as well. No matter what readings you read the ship and my brother were the only traffic in a 40-mile area. This ship told the pilot boat it was going to exit the West bound traffic lane and head South for Long Beach. This would put the ship crossing my brother’s path. In the area they should have passed each other safely there was only a debris field of my brother’s boat. Rowdy and Michael were both lost at sea.
The Coast Guard had an investigation. We got an investigator who was hostile towards us and very arrogant. He took a year and a half to write his report. A report full of mistakes and scenario’s of what could of happened that are so far fetched it is really insulting. My family’s past safety record was even criticized and falsely accused of wrong doings with our other boats. To top it all off he released the report the day before Thanksgiving. Talk about ruining a family’s holiday! It was like my brother died twice.
What I will say is the Coast Guard search and rescue did an amazing job. Everyone we had the pleasure of dealing with in the moments after my brother’s accident were wonderful and very professional. You never want to go through something like this but since you have too it’s nice to know there are people sensitive and kind who are willing to help you. Not just because it’s their job either. One of the search and rescue men I saw interviewed on the news had tears in his eyes because they could not find Rowdy and Michael. That touched me and made me realize they were searching with their whole heart for them.
Apparently we are not the only ones unsatisfied with our Coast Guard investigation. In an article in the Fisherman’s News ( F/V Lady Luck Investigation Should Be a Reminder by Alan Dujenski March of 2008) they tell us how the investigation on the fishing vessel Lady Luck infuriated a father of one of the men lost at sea and he demanded it be redone. It also points out that investigation reports use to take 6-8 months and now they take 1-2 years. The article also says how the Coast Guard used a remote controlled video camera to photograph the vessel and then made quite a few assumptions as to the reason the vessel sank. After this they proceeded as if these were facts. In this case the Coast Guard agreed with the objections and is rewriting the investigation report. This is something my family has been trying to get help with also. We have not had any success as of yet.
I wrote to many offices and made our family’s request for help known. Barbara Boxers office never responded. I e-mailed Nancy Polosi’s office and they never responded either. Sam Farr was only involved long enough to have his little effort to help written about in the paper. Diane Feinstein’s office responded. All they could do was forward my packet on to the Navy. I actually was excited because I thought now that the Navy had it something was going in some direction. Instead I never heard from the Navy. Not even a letter saying they received my envelope. If the Navy contacted the investigator assigned to us or read the report that was written then I’m sure they were discouraged from helping us. I was very disappointed for a long time in my country. I just could not get out of my head what our pledge of allegiance says “…one nation under God indivisible with liberty and JUSTICE FOR ALL.” There was just no justice in my brother or Michael’s situation. The only response I could get was “ There is no funding for that.” Can you imagine? There is no funding for truth and justice!
I really felt since Rowdy and Michael could not speak for themselves it was our duty as their family and their country to make sure the truth be told and justice be done. I thought my country felt the same way. In our search for help we have come to one door after another that has been slammed shut in our face. The military has a motto about not leaving anyone left behind. Apparently it does not bother our government to leave civilian ocean labors behind when they don’t want to be bothered with finding out the truth.
In the investigation report it states “ Accommodated the Pennisi family with vistit at MSO SF BAY. Purpose of visit is for the family to view a very limited amount of evidence (life raft, surfboard, EPIRB, bucket of oil, life ring and transiting vessel grease plots made by marine investigator). Spent 4 hours listening to the family try the case with the evidence present.” This is a very arrogant and insensitive attitude on the Coast Guard investigators behalf. They were meeting with people who had experienced a trauma. They were people who were deeply grieving and were trying to understand a situation. There was no respect for the fact that my family had more experience out at sea sitting at that table than all those Coast Guard officials put together. In a phone conversation I had with the investigator, Lt. Chris Hochschild, he stated loudly that the Coast Guard was not going to arrest innocent people just to make my family happy. I paused and was shocked at his statement. I then told him my family was not the kind of people who would want innocent people arrested. That would not give us closure. All we ever requested was a fair investigation and the truth to be told.
We have requested the U.S. Navy find the Relentless and take pictures of the vessel. Then we could have the proof we need that Rowdy and Michael were run down by the Korean chemical carrier. Based on evidence found from this accident we feel we are right. There was a life raft that never opened because it’s tether line that was attached to the boat’s railing was found still in a loop to itself indicating the railing it was attached to some how got detached from the boat enabling the raft to never inflate and float freely away. One month prior to my brother’s death the Relentless had a though exam and passed it. Our investigator Lt. Chris Hochschild, a marine investigator with the Coast Guard Sector San Francisco, did not find this detail to mean anything. In a phone conversation I had with him I brought up this detail and he told me he worked out in the field for many years and I would be surprised at how many of these exams are not done correctly. He also indicated the raft could have been moved after the exam and been located in a different area of the boat when the accident occurred thus leaving the raft unattached to anything at the time of the accident. This is very unlikely. Most boats have an area for their raft and secure it to the boat and leave it there. The Relentless was no different. My husband Jiri fished with my brother for almost a year and he said one thing was how careful Rowdy was about safety. This statement is echoed in the investigation report with at least a half a dozen people who were interviewed saying how cautious Rowdy was. The conclusion of the report states:” I recommend the case be closed. There is no evidence to demonstrate clearly why the Relentless sank on 21 June 2004. Without any additional physical evidence, photographic survey’s of the Relentless or other collaborating witness information most everything considered so far appears speculative and inconclusive. Any attempts to solve this case based on the available evidence would be rash and irresponsible.” This whole investigation was irresponsible. No real effort was put into finding out what happened that night.
There were many things floating around my brother Rowdy and Michael that if they were physically able to grab on to any of these things they could have kept them afloat for many hours. The debris field for the Relentless was found directly down wind from where the Relentless had it’s last NOAA satellite tracking at 2:08 am. At 2:00 am the Coast Guard San Francisco traffic control gives us a position of the Korean chemical carrier putting them almost along side each other. What should have been a safe passing if coursed were maintained. For some unknown reason it appears the ship made some evasive course changes and appears to have slowed down. Then over corrects to the starboard then picked up it’s speed again and then exits out the Western traffic lane and makes it’s final course change to the South at a steady speed. There was no mayday call that morning. What ever happened happened fast.
The Coast Guard says that finding the boat would be hard because of the location of the wreck. The Farallon Islands are considered a dumping ground. I think the Coast Guard is just using that as an excuse not to look for them. They never tried to locate the wreck. A lot of these “lost at sea” mysteries are not mysteries at all. They are just not being properly investigated.
For three generations my family has been fishing out of these waters. Our experience tells us the Relentless is findable with the proper equipment. The Navy has the equipment.
The Coast Guard went down on a vessel that sank after the Relentless accident called the Marian Ann. (There were no survivors in that accident either.) In an article in the Los Angeles Times on July 9,2005 called “ A Mystery as Deep as the Ocean” by John M. Glionna it states how the Coast Guard officials worked regularly with Suzie Howser (the skipper and owner’s wife of the Marian Ann) in her duty as the Woodley Island dock master. They considered her a friend. The Marian Ann had also been rumored to have its nets entangled with a Navy submarine. In the article it says that the Coast Guard knew that the Marian Ann was the third boat to sink in Northern California in several months. So the Coast Guard contracted the Navy in December 2004 to search for the Marian Ann’s wreckage to see if there was “a pattern”. In the Monterey Herald’s article from November 3,2005 entitled “ Family wants Navy to help find long lost boat” by Susanne McDowell it says the Navy was also able to help because it was “ in the area”. This is what Diane Jennings, a public affairs officer at the Navy Underwater Warfare Center in Keyport, Washington said. Every ship or boat (Navy included) that has gone in or out of San Francisco since June 21,2004 has been “ in the area “ of Rowdy and Michael’s watery grave. So this answer does not work in our case.
I also don’t think they could accurately figure out a pattern of several boat’s reasons for sinking by going down on just one wreck. To us it looks more like they were doing a friend a favor and also clearing the Navy’s name. Why else would they go down to investigate a boat wreck that was 2,106 feet down? Why that wreck? The Relentless wreckage is only in 300-350 feet of water and has the possibility of being hit by a Korean chemical carrier. It just really does not add up when you look at the details.
We are very happy for the family of the Marian Ann. To have that type of action taken so quickly after an accident like this is a miracle I’ve come to learn. My family has not been able to grieve because we are still fighting to have the truth exposed. Since there is this possibility of our loved one being murdered at sea we have been left to feel helpless and let down.
Our family realizes the risks to equipment. We feel the risk is worth it. America took many risks when they located the airplane of J.F.K Jr, his wife and sister-in-law. They took an even greater risk when they went down and brought up their bodies. My brother spent his life supplying the world with food. He fished in Alaska, Oregon, and Washington as well as California. Rowdy and Michael are Americans and they deserve their country to demand answers.
What many people don’t realize is this is not a rare occurrence. If the Relentless is proven to be hit by a ship that would make it the third fishing boat we know personally in less than 3 years to be hit by a ship. Mark Russo had the fishing vessel Reliance. A Japanese freighter hit him in 2002. This freighter drove through a cluster of fishing boats. Not only did it never stop it came out in the investigation that they lied and changed there log books to cover their tracks. The truth was they left no one on the bridge for about 10 minutes. By law they are suppose to have someone on watch at all times. The third vessel was a vessel my parents owned for many years called the Diana. They were in the process of selling the boat when a ship hit her in 2003. She brought her crew back home but that was her last fishing trip. These are all people who lived and fished out of Central California. According to the United States Coast Guard Eleventh District Commercial Fishing Vessel Safety Newsletter just this past July a 28’ wooden salmon troller collided with a container ship at Pt. Reyes. These are not isolated incidents. It could be considered high sea terrorism. If you want a perfect example of this you need to read the story of Judith Sleavin. I have the article from Sail magazine February 1999. San Francisco attorney Eugene Brodsky faxed me his copy of this article. He was involved with Mrs. Sleavin’s case. He said she has written a book about her account now and you can get it on line. Mrs. Sleavin was with her husband Michael, their son Benjamin, 9, and daughter Annie, 7 when they were sailing near New Zealand’s Bay of Islands. Mrs. Sleavin and her husband were very educated in sailing and were doing everything that responsibly needed to be done. When suddenly a South Korean freighter hit them. Instantly her son perished. The rest of them were in a raft. They could see the ship circle them. They were yelling at the faces they could see on the ship to come back for them. The ship just left them there. In a storm her husband and daughter perished. They were tossed out of their raft over and over. In the end this women with head injuries and a broken back managed to make it to land and crawled up some rocks and waved her pants to a passing airplane. Her determination to survive to tell their story is one of the most heroic stories you’ll ever read.
In September of 2006 my husband Jiri and my Uncle Larry had a near miss with a ship. They are co-captains of the fishing vessel San Giovanni owned by my parents. My Uncle Larry was at the wheel when my brother John called him from his fishing vessel the Irene’s Way. John asked Larry about the ship because it was getting a little close to the San Giovanni. At first my uncle said he was OK. He thought the ship saw them. Then the ship never slowed down. Larry started to call the ship on the radio. They never responded. Then the Coast Guard traffic control came back on the radio to my uncle with the name of the ship. (Larry said he had never heard traffic control do that before.) Then my uncle called the ship by its name and they then responded. They told my uncle they did not even see the San Giovanni. My uncle told them to look out their window and they would see his running lights. With all of the required technology this ship could not see a fishing vessel just a few miles in front of them. Unless their crew also did not know how to use it’s electronics. The San Giovanni had their gear in the water when they had to slow down and turn to avoid being hit by this ship. This was very dangerous for the San Giovanni not just because the ship almost hit them but also because when they slowed down they could of got their net caught in the propeller of the boat. This story is not an isolated incident. Nearly every fisherman out there has a story of an incident with a ship. The fact that they have lived to tell about it is amazing. The fisherman is the most unprotected species out in the ocean today. NOAA has a vessel monitoring system (VMS) tracking device they require all trawl fishing boats to pay thousands of dollars to install to keep track of where they are by satellite so they can make sure they are not fishing where they are not suppose to. This technology needs to be redone so it can also work to protect the fisherman. In the case of the Marian Ann they last tracked them at 7:22 pm. They did not know she was missing until she did not show up at the dock for her 6:00 am appointment to unload. In the case of the Relentless they last tracked them at 2:08 am. The Relentless had its Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) go off at 4:40 am. The morning of the accident I spoke with a gentleman at the NOAA center where they monitor these satellite tracking and he told me they last tracked the Relentless in the 2 o’clock hour and they looked like they were heading in. I told him that the EPIRB went off at 4:40 and I asked him where were the 3 and 4 o’clock trackings. He just paused and said he did not know and he would get back to me. (Something he never did) That was when I started to realize that these satellite-tracking systems are not working for the fisherman. If a boat disappears they really should have a system that sends an alert to the Coast Guard. The gentleman let me know that morning that the tracking is all done by computer and there is no person there. Everything would have to be done by computer. I’m sure with the Silicon Valley right here they could find someone who could help them set up a program for their system that would help save fisherman’s lives. Had either boat gotten help sooner you never know if we would have different out comes to these situations.