The teenager’s voice rang over the radio at 2:17 a.m., a cry for help on a dark, moonless night.
“May … Mayday,” shouted a desperate call over the crackling static. “US Coast Guard, come in. “
The Morning Dew sailboat had crashed into one of the rocky jetties at the mouth of Charleston Harbor, and now the 34-foot sloop was battling the waves.
It was December 29, 1997, and it wasn’t the winter trip Michael Cornett, 49, envisioned when he set sail on Boxing Day with his two sons, Paul, 16, and Daniel. , 13 years. , and their 14-year-old cousin Bobby Lee Hurd Jr.
His plan was to take the Intracoastal Waterway from South Carolina to Florida, but now they were off the road, out to sea and taking on water after their collision with the jagged rocks left a massive hole in the hull. fiberglass from the boat.
The youngest passenger, Daniel, was the one who radioed for help as rain and wind lashed the cold Atlantic waters and overcast skies obscured the stars.
When Daniel’s distress call arrived on the emergency channel, the Charleston Coast Guard Area Command Center Watchman was away from his office waiting for coffee.
The morning dew was waiting to be saved, but help never came.
The incident remains one of Charleston’s most tragic marine casualties, not only for the loss of life, but also for the procedural errors and human errors it exposed.
The watchman on duty that evening attempted to call back but did not receive a response. Without replaying the call, he assumed it was a routine call for information or a radio check.
Four hours later, a crew member of an incoming container ship reported hearing screams coming from the water and a port pilot alerted the coast guard. Again, no rescue mission was launched.
The Coast Guard did not send its own units until after 11 a.m., and it was only after the body of one of the teenagers was found by a couple on Sullivan Island.
The watchman said he ignored Daniel’s 2:17 call because it was indecipherable.
“All I heard was ‘US Coast Guard’,” the guard said when questioned later by the National Transportation Safety Board. “We get a lot of calls all the time for the US Coast Guard, which are nothing.”
But that night, almost 21 years ago, Libby Cornett lost everything.
Beginning of errors
Cornett was waiting for her husband, Michael, and the boys to arrive in Florida when she got a call from her sister’s pastor.
“He asked me if I had heard of other bodies washing,” Cornett said this week, recalling how she first learned that something had gone wrong on the Morning Dew. “They hadn’t been identified yet, and I kept thinking, ‘Who is this?’ “Do I still have one left?” “
The boys survived the sinking but died trying to reach the shore of Sullivan’s Island. Evidence suggests Cornett’s husband likely fell overboard and drowned in 50-degree waters when the sailboat struck the jetties.
Even now, the morning dew still hangs over the Charleston Coast Guard station.
“It really hurts for families to know what they’ve been through and to know that we’ve had the opportunity to help,” said Captain John Reed, Charleston Area Commander.
The Morning Dew incident would trigger a nationwide review of Coast Guard policies, and several members of Congress have called on the National Transportation Safety Board to launch an investigation into what happened.
The board’s conclusions were broad and showed errors on the part of everyone involved. His investigation revealed that Michael Cornett’s failure to “assess, prepare for and respond adequately to the known risks” of high seas navigation was the likely cause of the sinking of the sailboat.
But he also determined that the Coast Guard’s response was “substandard”.
The council made 16 safety recommendations to the Coast Guard. In addition, the Coast Guard conducted an internal review, purchased new equipment and tightened its search and rescue procedures.
Sean Shrum, now the Charleston Area Command Center Chief Controller, was serving in the Coast Guard in Charleston when the Morning Dew was wrecked.
Although he was not part of the search and rescue operation at the time, he knew those who were. He remembers the city’s visceral reaction back then, especially when he left the house in uniform.
“I could pump gas or go to the store, and people would come and say, ‘These people don’t have to die. You let them die,'” he said. “Morning Dew is historic in Charleston. People always remember it.”
Shrum now teaches Coast Guard members how to conduct search and rescue missions. He notes that the recently adopted Rescue 21 advanced communication system helps better locate sailors in distress. Gone are the analog days of recording phone calls on tapes.
The 24-hour shifts that watchmen used to work have also disappeared. They are now working 12-hour shifts, Shrum said.
New book on disaster
Retired Coast Guard Captain W. Russ Webster is familiar with the changes.
He has spent the past four and a half years researching the Morning Dew accident to write a book about what happened, what it meant for families, and ultimately the changes it made to the Coast Guard.
His book “Lost in Charleston’s Waves: The 1997 Morning Dew Tragedy” will be released later this month.
Webster, a Coast Guard historian who oversaw more than 10,000 search and rescue cases while in service, has written three other books on marine accidents as well as a book on Coast Guard leaders. This will be the first time that it will self-publish.
Morning Dew’s story, he explained, was a story he always felt compelled to write.
“It always bothered me,” Webster said. “The more I learned about it, the more I learned about the phenomenon behind why this happened, and the more I realized that the Coast Guard needs to understand why decision-makers are becoming complacent.”
While significant improvements have been made to the Coast Guard since the morning dew, Webster said there is one area that will always be a challenge.
“The normality bias resides in each of us,” he said, referring to the psychological state of denial that people enter when faced with disaster.
The term Shrum likes to use is simpler. “The thing we talk about all the time is not being complacent,” Shrum said.
A mother and his wife leave
When Libby Cornett first heard her son’s desperate call, it was on March 17, 1998, almost three months after the accident. Her little voice crying for help broke the way she thought her family was dead. Hearing Daniel’s despair, Cornett said she had a hunch that something was wrong.
In late March, she studied Coast Guard late night rescue protocol with friends and slowly realized that the Coast Guard had failed in its responsibilities.
The Cornett and Hurd families are reportedly taking legal action alleging the Coast Guard was negligent in its rescue response. A judge ruled in their favor, awarding the families nearly $ 19 million.
“This tragedy was preventable,” wrote US District Judge David Norton in his 64-page decision. “It wasn’t angry seas or cruel weather that hampered the Coast Guard’s ability to rescue the… Morning Dew passengers.”
For Cornett, the watchman’s inaction to her son’s distress call is something she still cannot comprehend. She writes about her grief in the front of Webster’s book, as well as the mistakes her husband and the Coast Guard make.
The last time Cornett was in Charleston was four years ago when the first public memorial to the Morning Dew tragedy was held at the Church of the Holy Cross on Sullivan Island.
Prior to the service, she sailed with the Coast Guard and 35 of her family to the very jetties where her sons, husband and nephew had perished. They laid four wreaths in the ocean in their memory and said a prayer.
During the boat ride to the piers that day, Cornett said she caught herself imagining what her boys must be feeling as they waited for help in the dark Atlantic waters.
Even now, she still struggles with the sea.
“It’s hard to see the ocean or any large body of water as still and peaceful like it used to be for me,” said Cornett.
“I just saw them,” she said, her voice breaking as she remembered them:
Paul, her eldest son whom she always thought seemed more comfortable in the water than on land.
Daniel, his youngest who was fascinated by nature and any possibility of adventure.
Bobby Lee Hurd Jr., his nephew who was obsessed with all things baseball.
And Michael, her husband of 22 years whom she always considered the man who could do it all.