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There’s a heroic side to the alleged shooter

Vance Bunker, the lobsterman accused of the Matinicus shooting, is a local hero who helped save three men after their tugboat sank one brutally cold night in 1992.

The air that Jan. 16 was minus 4 F — so cold a thick layer of sea smoke hung over Penobscot Bay. Though stars were visible overhead, visibility across the water was very smoky. The wind was blowing 40 mph when the 75-foot tug Harkness, chugging back to Mount Desert Island, began taking on water off Matinicus.

(From left) Paul Murray, Vance Bunker and Rick Kohls.

Bunker was at home monitoring his VHF, as just about everyone on Matinicus does. The island is 20 miles offshore and if one of their watermen — or anyone, for that matter — gets in trouble on the water, islanders often can get there to help before the Coast Guard.

At about 6 p.m., Bunker overheard Harkness captain Rudy Musetti radio the Coast Guard for help. Bunker’s sternman, Rick Kohls, was at Bunker’s house for dinner. Bunker phoned friend Paul Murray and told him they were going out to look for the tug. They needed another hand and, if necessary, Murray’s mechanical expertise.

Murray, a 28-year Matinicus resident and a master electrician who operates the island’s power plant, had worked on Bunker’s 36-foot lobster boat, Jan-Ellen, and sometimes crewed for him when he ran pilots back and forth to ships on the bay. Murray was out with his wife, Eva, at the home of neighbors Warren and Harriet Williams, supping on kale soup with sausage, a Portuguese soup that was “perfect for a night like that,” Murray says. When Bunker called, Murray didn’t think twice.

“It had not been uncommon for us to go out on some cold and windy nights,” he says. “If Vance felt it was safe to go, I felt it was safe to go with him.”

Musetti had radioed that he could see the green light of a bell buoy from where he was. There were two of those buoys in the vicinity. The crew of the Jan-Ellen headed for the closest, hoping it was the right one. It wasn’t, but using Loran coordinates from Musetti they finally pinpointed his location.

Progress was slow. Waves, even in the island’s lee, were a couple feet high, and if Jan-Ellen ran too fast, spray would freeze instantly on its deck, rails and cabin, weighing it down and causing it to list. The rescue party had hoped Harkness’ pumps could keep the flooding under control until they arrived and they could tow the tug into port, but as Jan-Ellen made its way to the second buoy, Harkness’ captain calmly reported, “We’re going to have to leave now.”

Murray says the tug evidently had developed a major leak in the propeller shaft stuffing box. Musetti had been able to maintain headway until a wave breaking over the stern washed a hawser overboard, and the line tangled in the prop. Now adrift, Harkness began to sink as waves continued to break over its stern.

“They abandoned the boat,” Murray says. “That changed the whole thing. It went from something relatively routine to finding people before the elements got them.”

Every minute counted.

As Jan-Ellen reached Harkness’ last known location, its crew saw no sign of the tug or its crew. They heard no one yelling. The field of sea smoke stretching out across the water really limits visibility when you’re looking for people in the water, Murray says. Bunker decided to let his boat drift, thinking it would drift in the same direction as the tug except faster because of its larger size in the wind and current. They had lost all sense of time, but it may have been 15 to 20 minutes from Musetti’s last radio transmission when Kohls saw a faint beam of light piercing the vapor skyward.

The Harkness crew — Musetti, his mate Arthur Stevens, and Duane Cleaves, a friend of Musetti’s who had come along for the ride — were together in the water, each wearing a buoyant anti-exposure worksuit. Cleaves was carrying the flashlight. It was frozen to his glove. Jan-Ellen’s crew pulled two of the men aboard; the crew of a 41-foot Coast Guard utility boat that had reached the scene rescued the third. The men could barely move and couldn’t stand, but they had survived.

“The remarkable part is that we found them in time” says Murray. “We were just working with minutes to spare. A lot of things had to work right, and they did.”

Back on the island, residents had been listening to the drama unfold over VHF. Cars were idling at the pier with blankets and food and spare clothes.

Bunker, Kohls and Murray all were recognized by the Maine legislature for what they did that night. Each was awarded a Carnegie Medal for heroism. “I’ve lived here 27 or 28 years,” says Murray. “It always has been a rough-and-tumble kind of place. … But usually when there’s trouble, people pull together, and things get handled well.”

Awhile back, a sailboat ran up on Matinicus Rock, and Murray and a fisherman answered the mayday. They found the sailboat sunk, 6 to 8 feet of mast sticking out of the water, its owners — a couple — sitting in their dinghy tied to the rigging. “If someone’s in trouble on the water, you help them,” even if it’s a neighbor you’re not fond of, he says. It’s not a written rule, but it’s a standing rule on Matinicus.

As is protecting your lobstering grounds.

“There’s no question that [the shooting] is a real tragedy,” Murray says. “It

See related articles:

- Lobster wars: 'Good people' doing bad things

- Plummeting prices don't help

- Three boats are sunk in second dispute

This article originally appeared in the October 2009 issue.