Royal Smith Sr. tried to tell a Coast Guard hearing Thursday how he and his sons made safety modifications to the scallop boat they bought in 2001 — a vessel that sank in March.
But before he could describe that work, Smith lost his composure. His sons, Royal Smith Jr., and Timothy, were among the six men who perished when the Lady Mary went down. Their bodies were the only ones recovered.
"My two boys ..." he began, then halted, his voice quavering, his eyes filling with tears. He slammed the blue pen he held in his right hand onto a white legal pad over and over, unable to continue.
"Our condolences on your loss," Coast Guard Commander Kyle McAvoy said gently.
Smith gathered himself up, and tried again.
"When we decided to get the Lady Mary, it was Roy ..." he said, again becoming overwhelmed with grief. "It started out with Roy Jr. and Timothy."
For another 30 seconds, Smith stared down at his legal pad, reaching behind his bald head to scratch his neck.
For three days this week, Smith had listened to dry, technical testimony about fishing regulations, boat specifications and radio beacon frequencies. He fidgeted in his blue upholstered seat, bouncing his long legs up and down under the table, making a white tablecloth that covered it dance from time to time.
But talking about the nuts and bolts of the ship got his mind off his sons' fate.
"We started out to do one little simple thing," Smith said with a slight smile, recounting how minor modifications eventually led to a major boat overhaul.
He and his sons scrapped huge 60-foot outriggers that the father felt made the boat too top-heavy, replacing them with ones half as big.
They added air conditioning, recalling how Timothy had to sell a boat load of scallops for half-price one day when unexpectedly hot weather made them start to shrink.
Smith even asked a marine yard contractor to mix red pepper into the red paint being applied to the hull, to keep mussels and scallops from clinging to the bottom.
"He said, 'Why would you want to do that?'" recalled Smith, of Bayboro, N.C.
"It always kept the bottom clean," Smith said. "Up here we have mussels; down south we have barnacles. It always worked for me."
And most significant, when they bought the Lady Mary, it had an outdated fuel tank that had since been prohibited by the Coast Guard, Smith said. So they decided to fill it with 20,000 pounds of concrete, adding stability low in the boat to make it more steady in the water.
"She was one of the most seaworthy boats on the East Coast after we got done with her," Smith said.
Earlier in the day, testimony centered on a series of problems that possibly caused critical delays for search teams trying to locate the Lady Mary.
A federal satellite search analyst testified that an improperly recorded registration number for an emergency radio beacon — off by just one digit — made it impossible to pinpoint a troubled boat.
Smith's lawyer said the resulting delay cost nearly an hour and a half in the search for the Lady Mary.
Dan Karlson, a senior analyst for the satellite search and rescue program with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, testified that when the first satellite signal was detected, there was no positional information to pass along to search and rescue teams.
And because the radio beacon's registration had been wrongly entered into the database, there was no emergency contact information, either, he said.
The Lady Mary is believed to have sunk around 5:15 a.m. Its last known position was recorded by an on-board satellite positioning system at 5:10 a.m.
The emergency signal was received at 5:40 a.m., but it wasn't until a lower-orbiting satellite picked up a signal at 7:07 a.m. that rescuers could zero in on its position.
"It slowed down the response," said Stevenson Weeks, an attorney for Smith Sr.
"That really slowed down the Coast Guard from getting on this thing," he said. "It's not their fault; it was a clerical mistake by a clerk."
Weeks said during a break in testimony that the error was made by a contractor working for NOAA.
A joint Coast Guard-National Transportation Safety Board inquiry is trying to determine what caused the boat to sink. Weeks has suggested its fishing gear might have become entangled with another passing boat, or with something on the ocean floor.
An analyst says a mixup delayed the search in the deadly sinking of a fishing boat off New Jersey by nearly an hour and a half.
Earlier testimony in the hearing to establish the cause of the disaster revealed that an emergency radio beacon had an improperly recorded registration number.
The number was off by one digit when it was added to a federal database by a contractor for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Federal search analyst Don Carlson said Thursday that when the signal was received there was no word on which boat it was or whom to call on shore.
Rescuers couldn't zero in on the boat until a lower-orbiting satellite picked up a signal.
Six people died, including four member of the same family from Pamlico County.
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)