(NEW YORK) — The U.S. Coast Guard has launched an investigation into a yacht explosion hoax call made by a realistic-sounding “captain” that sent a costly armada of over 200 responders and a fleet of helicopters on a wild goose chase in the Atlantic Ocean.
“We’re taking this potential hoax very seriously,” Capt. Gregory P. Hitchen of the Coast Guard said at a news conference Tuesday. “We’re offering a $3,000 reward for any information assisting us to find the perpetrator of this hoax.”
“This person put the public at risk and put our first responders at risk. It’s always dangerous to launch a helicopter over the Atlantic for a search,” Hitchen said. “More importantly, we diverted several first responders in the area…from actual search and rescue areas to look for a vessel that had not actually sunk.”
At 4:20 p.m. on Monday, a radio caller told the Coast Guard that there had been an explosion on a yacht called the Blind Date, located about 17.5 miles off the coast of Sandy Hook, N.J.
The caller reported that seven of the 21 passengers had suffered serious burns. The caller said that all of the passengers had evacuated the ship and were in life boats.
But after an extensive search, rescue boats and helicopters couldn’t find a trace of the vessel or any victims.
“We became concerned that we saw no indication of life rafts or a sunken vessel,” Hitchen said. “When they arrived on scene, they should have seen life rafts, which are usually orange and red. They should have seen smoke and probably an oil slick.”
Hitchen said that while there are over 300 fake cases per year in the northeastern U.S., the caller reporting the incident made this one unique.
“There was a certain amount of detail in the call that we don’t normally encounter with other hoax calls,” Hitchen said. “This person was somewhat calm, but giving us a convincing story.”
“We had a specific number of people on-board, who had injuries, a blow by blow on how the boat was filling up with water,” he said.
The male caller said he was the captain of the ship and that the vessel was sinking. At least two calls were placed before the caller said he was getting in a life raft and transmissions stopped.
“I’ve been here since 2007 and this is the biggest hoax in regard to the number of helicopters and folks who had actually responded to the scene,” Hitchen said.
The prankster now faces a maximum of five to 10 years in prison for the federal crime, a $250,000 fine and a reimbursement to the government for the cost of the search.
The total cost to the Coast Guard was initially determined to be $88,000 and rising. This figure doesn’t include the city’s costs from deploying the New York Police Department and the Fire Department of New York, which Hitchen estimated was equal to or greater than the cost to the Coast Guard.
Officials believe the distress call originated over land in New Jersey or southern New York. The call was made from a radio, not a cell phone, and was only picked up by one antenna, making it impossible to pinpoint the exact origin of the call.
By 10 p.m. on Monday, the active search was suspended with “clear indication that it was some sort of probable hoax,” Hitchen said.
“Even if we think a case is a potential hoax, we always go in with the assumption that it is not. We do not want to under-react to an actual emergency,” he said.
When asked what the motive could be for the prank, Hitchen said, “Some people just want attention. That’s usually the biggest reason. They like to see all the response and active search for something they caused…It’s very strange.”
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Julia Horowitz, CNN
Aaron Smith and Evan Perez, CNM
Stephen Collinson, CNN
Tom LoBianco, Deirdre Walsh and Tal Kopan, CNN