Have you ever watched a TV show where the police officer asks the suspect “where were you” on a certain day at a certain time and you find yourself trying to remember where you were at that time? Sometimes I find myself thinking, “could I answer that if I were asked” and frequently I have to say “no” but if I was asked where I was on 04/01/1966 at two PM Central Standard time I could answer. I was on watch at NMG also called Coast Guard Radio New Orleans.
A distress signal had been received reporting a supper tanker was on fire in the Gulf of Mexico. The distress had been sent on a ham frequency. The operator sending the message said he was the ship’s radioman and that, because of the fire, he was unable to reach the ship’s radio room so he was using his ham radio in his state room.
Another Radioman who was off came over and told me he was sent to relieve me so I could go over to the ham station and find out what was going on.
There were a few things that were not adding up to me but when you are in the middle of a distress you work the distress traffic and try to figure out the abnormalities later.
The operator said he was trapped by the fire. The Coast Guard had launched ships and planes to assist. Lives were believed to be at stake.
A distress rebroadcast was given on 500 KHz (CW distress and calling & answering frequency) and on 2182 KHz (the voice equivalent to 500 KHz) so vessels in the area, who most likely would not have heard the original call, could go to render assistance. It is very expensive for a large ship to change course but when lives are at stake that is what they will do. Military, Personal Pleasure, and Commercial craft from all nations will divert to assist. Airplanes will change course to give visual assistance. This sort of thing becomes an International incident.
News flashes were sent out on radio and TV thus families of the distressed vessel became anxious.
There was a problem. The Radio Direction Finders (RDF) and the position given in the distress message were not in agreement. I was given this information but no one told me where the RDF’s were pointing. When I questioned the operator about this he told me he was not sure of the exact position and that was only an approximate position.
After about an hour the radioman on the distressed ship told me he thought he could escape by swimming under the fire. I told him to lock his key. With the key locked the continuous signal would allow the search and rescue team to lock in on him and more quickly respond.
Locking your key down and just sending a continuous signal is normally against FCC regulations but during a distress, and I mean a real distress, the regulation book is largely set aside.
The signal did not last for more then about two minuets and then went off. Others who were standing by came on for discussion. We were all wondering why the signal didn’t last longer.
We were all hopping that the signal was on long enough to get a good bearing and, as I found out later, it was.
The search party was very close but not in the Gulf of Mexico as he reported but in the city of New Orleans. The FCC was within blocks and the locked key allowed them to go right to the house. The reason the signal went dead was the FCC shut it off.
It was a 17 year old ham who wanted to play an April Fool’s joke. It was a joke that cost several hundred thousands of dollars and in the end nobody found funny.
As a little side note, the ship that was reported to be in distress was a real vessel and they received the distress rebroadcast and sent a message to NMG stating that they were not on fire or sinking. The conversation must have been interesting when the ship’s radioman delivered the distress rebroadcast message to the ship’s captain.
I did not hear what finally happened to the kid but I did have a chance to talk to the Field Engineer at the New Orleans FCC office and I asked him about it. He told me that the court had found him guilty but had not yet sentenced him at that time. The FCC was asking for maximum penitently which could be up to 10 years in a federal prison, a very heavy fine, and a loss of all amateur radio privileges for life.
The moral of the story is a false distress signal is not a joke. It is not a game. Lives and equipment are put at risk to assist. The expense, which you might be required to repay, for attempting to assist can be several thousands of dollars. Never ever give a distress call that is false.
Remember this: If you hear a distress call respond to it as real until you know otherwise.