Originally created 07/31/98

Families of 4 dead seek $35 million



CHARLESTON, S.C. -- The families of four people, including three teen-agers, who died when their sailboat sank on the Charleston Harbor jetties last December say the Coast Guard should pay $35 million for not starting a search after it received distress calls.

Michael Cornett, 49, of Hiltons, Va.; his two teen-age sons, Michael Paul, 16, and Daniel, 13; and their cousin, Bobby Hurd, 14, of Mountain City, Tenn., died in the wreck of the Morning Dew on Dec. 29, 1997.

The four were en route from Myrtle Beach to Florida when the sailboat sank in heavy squalls.

"The Coast Guard has a duty to follow its clearly established procedures," one of the families' lawyers, Dennis Rhoad, said. "Had they followed their clearly established procedures, we believe a search and rescue would have been issued and these people's lives would have been saved."

The claim seeks $12 million for personal injuries, $23 million for wrongful death and $30,000 for the loss of the sunken boat.

The Coast Guard has six months to decide whether to accept the claim filed May 4. A copy was provided to The Associated Press this week in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

If the Coast Guard agrees it shares liability, but the parties cannot settle on damages, a federal judge will decide the issue, Mr. Rhoad said. If the Coast Guard rejects the claim, the families can sue in federal court.

The Morning Dew radioed a brief "mayday" at about 2:17 a.m. the day of the wreck, according to a Coast Guard investigation.

The petty officer on duty called back several times but could not raise the boat. There was another garbled transmission four minutes later and the officer again failed to get a response.

The officer thought it sounded as though someone had keyed a microphone, but he never told his superior about the calls, the Coast Guard report said.

Family members, who identified the voice on the first call as Daniel Cornett, say the second was from the ill-fated vessel as well.

The claim also says the Coast Guard was negligent when no one linked the earlier calls to a 6 a.m. report that a crewman on a steamship coming into the harbor heard a cry for help in the water.

The first the Coast Guard learned of the wreck was late that morning when Sullivans Island police reported two bodies washed up on the beach. The wreckage of the boat was found on the 2 1/2 mile long north jetty that protects the harbor.

The families also allege the Coast Guard failed to properly mark, maintain and operate navigation aids in Winyah Bay showing the entrance to the Intracoastal Waterway south of Georgetown.

As a result, the Morning Dew missed the waterway and sailed south onto the open ocean for about the last 50 miles of its ill-fated voyage, the claim said.