So far this year the Coast Guard in North Carolina has responded to seven hoax mayday calls, more than three times the number statewide from all of 2013, an official said last week.
That trend and the 18-month prison sentence handed down this week to a Carteret County man who faked a distress call in October 2013 has prompted Coast Guard officials to warn the public that faking a distress call is a federal offense with that puts lives at risk.
“A search when no one is in distress puts an undue risk on the lives of first responders,” Coast Guard Lt. Lane Munroe, chief of the Sector N.C. Command Center in Wilmington, said Friday.
In the recent case of Homer Lewis Blackburn, 26, of Atlantic Beach, U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Stephen Metruck said in a letter to the judge concerning Blackburn’s sentencing, that not only are Coast Guard members at risk from hoax calls, but false mayday calls can put the public in danger.
In 1990, a father and son were at sea when their genuine distress call was coincidentally followed a minute later by a hoax call in which the caller said in a sarcastic tone, “SOS, I’m sinking,” Metruck said.
“The receipt of the second call in such close proximity to the first resulted in the watchstander determining the calls were related and that both were part of a hoax,” Metruck wrote.
As a result, no rescuers were sent out and William Hokanson, 44, and his son William Jr., 19, lost their lives March 25, 1990, off the coast of Massachusetts.
In the case of Blackburn, he was using a marine radio in his Atlantic Beach apartment when he claimed his boat was sinking and he was abandoning ship near Cape Lookout.
The Coast Guard, Marine Corps, National Park Service and a salvage company responded with boats and helicopters.
A witness told investigators Blackburn went out on his balcony to watch the helicopters search Cape Lookout. She told them when the hoax made news, Blackburn sent her a text asking her not to tell anyone about the call. Another witness said Blackburn bragged about the hoax.
He pleaded guilty May 2.
In addition to a prison term, which Blackburn will begin serving in September, he was also ordered to pay $288,390 in restitution for the cost of the three-day search rescuers undertook prior to learning the call was a hoax.
The crime carries a penalty of up to six years in prison, a $250,000 fine and $5,000 in court costs as well as restitution costs. Munroe said parents are responsible if a search ensues because of a prank call made by a child.
It’s unclear why there has been an uptick in false mayday calls this year, said Sector N.C. commander Capt. Sean Murtagh, but the fact remains, it’s a dangerous prank that could cost people their lives.
“This is a very serious issue,” he said. “It puts all the maritime community at risk as that fake distress call may actually result in resources being diverted that can’t respond quickly to an actual search and rescue case.”
FAKE MAYDAY CALLS OVER THE YEARS
YEAR SEARCH & RESCUE CASES SUSPECTED HOAX CASES
2014 451 7
2013 532 2
2012 586 4
2011 657 5
2010 619 5
Source: Sector N.C. Coast Guard
F.T. Norton is a reporter for the StarNews in Wilmington.