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Lessons learned from tragedy

The 17th anniversary of the loss of Morning Dew was observed with tributes by family members and the Coast Guard.

On the first day of basic search-and-rescue courses, students at the Coast Guard training center in Yorktown, Virginia, review the facts and lessons learned from the Morning Dew tragedy. The Cal 34 ran up on the north jetty at the entrance to the harbor in Charleston, South Carolina, on a cold, rainy December night in 1997.

The 17th anniversary of the loss of Morning Dew was observed with tributes by family members and the Coast Guard.

Skipper Michael Cornett, 49, his sons, Daniel, 13, and Paul, 16, and their 14-year-old cousin Bobby Lee Hurd died in the 54-degree water just eight miles from the Coast Guard station in Charleston, where a rescue-boat crew was on duty.

The station’s watchstander, unable to make out a broken-up mayday from Morning Dew at 2:17 a.m., decided not to investigate beyond trying twice to hail the source of the transmission, without success. At 6:20 a.m. the duty officer failed to send a Coast Guard boat to investigate faint cries reported by the crew of an inbound freighter as it passed near the north jetty. Instead he asked a pilot boat in the vicinity to check it out in the rain and dark. When the skipper said he couldn’t find the source of the cries, the duty officer — unaware of the earlier call — also decided not to investigate further.

A little before 11 o’clock that morning, Steve and Cheryl Jones, vacationers from Atlanta, were walking along the beach on Sullivan’s Island two miles from the north jetty when they spotted Daniel’s body floating in the surf. They pulled him out of the water, and Cheryl wrapped him in her coat. He had no pulse. They tried to resuscitate him, to no avail. Emergency medical technicians recovered Bobby Lee’s body from the water about 100 yards west of there. He, too, had no pulse. Neither of the boys was wearing a life jacket.

At 11:44 a.m., the skipper of another pilot boat, Sis, heading outbound with the auto carrier Pearl Ace — the ship whose crew reported the cries earlier — sighted a mast sticking out of the water about 15 yards inside the north jetty. The sailboat had a large hole in the hull on the starboard side. About 1 p.m. a Coast Guard helicopter, now searching for the others who were aboard Morning Dew, spotted Paul’s body in the water a mile northeast of the jetty. Three weeks later, on Jan. 23, Michael Cornett’s body washed ashore on Sullivan’s Island, northwest of Charleston Light.

The National Transportation Safety Board, in its investigative report, said Michael Cornett was poorly prepared and equipped for the trip from North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, to Jacksonville, Florida, and made some bad decisions. But it also faulted watchstanders at the Charleston station for poor decision-making and questioned the “adequacy of [the station’s] personnel, equipment and procedures for responding to an emergency.”

It was an indictment of a proud service’s search-and-rescue capabilities and one that a federal judge seconded, awarding the families of the deceased $19 million for the Guard’s lapses. “It was not an angry sea or cruel weather that impeded the Coast Guard’s ability to rescue the S/V Morning Dew’s passengers,” concluded Judge David C. Norton of U.S. District Court in Charleston. “It was human error.”

The Coast Guard implemented new procedures for search and rescue after the tragedy aboard Morning Dew.

The accident was a watershed moment for the Coast Guard, which had been stretched thin by deep cuts in its budget and staff. It became a powerful catalyst for restructuring the Coast Guard’s assets and changing how it organizes and staffs its command centers, trains its watchstanders, and lays out and equips the nerve centers of its SAR and other operations. Congress held hearings on the Morning Dew tragedy. Libby Cornett — Michael’s wife and Paul and Daniel’s mother — who was not on the boat, testified at those hearings, pleading for modern communications equipment and better training and staffing at command centers across the nation.

On Dec. 29 last year, 17 years to the day after Morning Dew ran up on the jetty, the Cornett and Hurd families joined the Coast Guard and other first responders in a memorial service for Michael Cornett and the three boys and were shown firsthand the changes the agency has adopted. The families went out to the north jetty on the 87-foot cutter Yellow Fin and laid four wreaths, then watched as a solemn procession of Coast Guard, natural resources, sheriff’s police, fire, rescue and pilot boats filed past in tribute to the loved ones the families lost that day.

“We had the opportunity to save four lives in peril, and we didn’t do it,” Vice Adm. Jake Korn, commander of the 7th District in Miami, said later that day at a service at the Church of the Holy Cross on Sullivan’s Island. “The loss of your family members fundamentally changed the nature of the Coast Guard response community nationwide so something like this could never happen again.”

Family members and others spoke of their memories of that terrible day and of Michael, Paul, Daniel and Bobby Lee. One who spoke was Steve Jones, who on Dec. 29 each year since Morning Dew’s loss has gone with wife Cheryl to visit the beach where they found Daniel, drop a red rose in the surf and pray for the boys’ families.

The Joneses have four children of their own, one who was Daniel’s age in 1997. “I’ll never forget his face,” Jones says. And he’ll never forget the youthful affirmation of life he found on the lifeless body. “He had a bracelet on his arm that said, ‘No Fear.’ ”

“There wasn’t a dry eye in the place,” says the Rev. Rob Dewey, senior chaplain for the Coastal Crisis Chaplaincy, who organized and led the service. “It gave the families and our community the chance to come together and be there for each other.”

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In fact, Libby Cornett, who lives in Mountain City, Tennessee, says that after witnessing the emotional remembrances, she now understands how the tragedy affected not just her family and the Hurds, but also the whole Charleston community, the Coast Guard and other first responders who were involved in the case.

“I never realized that it impacted the Coast Guard and the local people so much,” she says. “To know they wanted to come together and remember this was quite touching.”

“When someone has a great loss and our organization is involved in that, it makes such a difference when we can meet them face to face,” says Lt. Cdr. Derek Beatty, Sector Charleston’s public affairs officer. “There was healing.”

The next day, the families visited the Coast Guard station — now located at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center — where Sector Charleston commander Capt. Brian Falk and his staff showed them how command centers operate now and shared with them the lessons the Coast Guard learned from the Morning Dew tragedy.

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Two years after the accident, a grieving Libby Cornett said she couldn’t fill the aching hole left by the loss of her husband, two children and nephew, but she clung to one hope: that the Coast Guard would adopt the changes the NTSB recommended so no other mother would have to lose a family the way she lost hers.

Adm. James Loy, the Coast Guard commandant at the time of the accident, promised to try to do just that. Speaking before a congressional hearing on Nov. 3, 1999, he said, “Each and every Coast Guard man and woman grieves with the family and the friends of the Cornetts, and we stand firm in our resolve to learn from Morning Dew and prevent its recurrence. As Mrs. Cornett said in her 20/20 interview [on television], our challenge is to keep others from suffering this unbearable pain.”

“I wouldn’t really call it closure,” Cornett said after the memorial service. She still grieves her loss, and that likely will stay with her. “But it felt really good to know that changes have been made. They definitely have improved things. They have improved things greatly. I don’t think there could be a repeat of Morning Dew now.”

Nearly 6,000 people have gone through the National Search and Rescue School since the Coast Guard started teaching lessons learned from the Morning Dew, Beatty says. “All of them have been influenced by Morning Dew. It has had a lasting cultural impact.”

Beatty says a lot of that impact is about attitude: Do all you can at the command center to resolve a call when it comes in. Distress calls more often than not are unclear, he says. It’s not clear what’s happening. It’s not clear where it’s happening. The nature of the distress. The description of the vessel. The number of people aboard. Are they wearing life jackets? These are critical questions. “We have to be tenacious in tracking down information and conducting our investigation to find out what’s going on,” Beatty says. When in doubt, act. Send help. “You can always call your resources back,” he says. You can’t get the time back if you wait too long.

Beatty says changes the Coast Guard has adopted to improve its ability to respond to calls for assistance include:

• Rescue 21, a state-of-the-art command and control communications system that uses a network of towers to extend a command center’s VHF coverage of the coastline out to 20 nautical miles and enable watchstanders to hear calls better.

• This system can more accurately identify the location of callers in distress via the towers, which generate lines of bearing to the source of radio transmissions, significantly reducing search time.

• Radios in the command center now have digital recorders, which watchstanders can use to immediately play back a garbled transmission, filter out the static and listen to the transmission as many times as necessary to decipher the call.

• The number of people working in the command centers has been increased from two — one of whom slept at night, as was the case when the Morning Dew call came in — to four people, each with a defined role. Those roles typically are communications, operations, planning and situational awareness.

• When a search-and-rescue case is initiated, a SAR mission coordinator is notified and provides guidance as the case progresses.

• Civilians, who do not transfer every two to four years, as Coast Guard personnel do, also staff the command center, providing continuity and deep local knowledge.

• A Command Center Standardization Team visits every command center at least once every two years to audit procedures and performance. The command center is expected to correct any deficiencies, and those deficiencies are passed up the chain of command to identify trends that can be incorporated into the Maritime Search Planning Course to improve SAR performance.

• Every Coast Guardsman involved in search and rescue is trained in search and rescue and goes back for refresher training. Beatty has been through the course three times. And watchstanders have a special watchstander rating now. They are trained specifically for that job.

• Sector Charleston is part of a joint local, state and federal command center called Sea Hawk. The pilot program was inaugurated to foster intergovernmental cooperation on port security and Homeland Security matters and serve as a conduit for coordination and the exchange of information about SAR cases.

The NTSB faulted Michael Cornett for undertaking a risky voyage with three children and no other adult aboard to back him up. He had planned to go the distance to Jacksonville via the Intracoastal Waterway. The NTSB accident report suggests that he may have been fatigued and hypothermic and made a wrong turn when he left the ICW at Winyah Bay and motored into the ocean. That later required him to find his way back to the ICW at night in the rain at Charleston Harbor. “Neither the Morning Dew, its operator, nor its passengers were adequately prepared or equipped for a trip into the open ocean, and the ocean voyage should not have been attempted,” the NTSB says.

Libby Cornett, who home-schooled her children and taught early childhood education at a community college, has not remarried but has found new purpose as president of The Dan Paul Foundation, dedicated to helping train teachers and parents in early childhood development, protecting children from abuse and neglect, advocating for them, teaching them personal social responsibility and promoting their health and education.

The foundation, underwritten by the judge’s award to her, paid out more than $71,000 in grants to qualifying organizations in 2012. It has underwritten children’s museums and has paid for playground equipment, preschool scholarships, after-school learning programs, transitional housing for teen mothers, food and shelter for orphans, parent mentoring programs and counseling for abused children.

“I have been very fortunate to be able to be involved and do this,” she says.

April 2015 issue