25 years ago the Captain Cosmo disappeared
September 10, 2003
The Coast Guard began searching for the dragger Captain Cosmo around midday that Monday after the skipper's wife reported that the 86-foot-long ship and its six-man crew were overdue from a week-long fishing trip to Georges Bank. The ship had been expected home that Friday or Saturday, 25 years ago this week, because 21-year-old deck hand Benjamin "Benny" Interrante of Gloucester, Mass., had to be back to attend the wedding of his oldest sister, Rosemarie, that Saturday. "So he wasn't really supposed to take this trip," Interrante's mother Mary says. "I told him to take the trip off." But Interrante told his mother that the skipper, Cosmo Marcantonio, had promised he would bring him for the wedding rehearsal on Friday, even if he didn't have a full catch. But then a big storm blew up on George's Bank that Friday. "I had a weird feeling when he didn't come in on Friday and Saturday," Mary says. "I kept calling the skipper's wife. Something didn't feel right." The boat's tardiness cast a pall over Rosemarie's wedding in Gloucester Saturday. Everyone who came through the receiving line told Mary, "He's going to make it. Benny's going to make it." That Monday, Sept. 11, 1978, Coast Guardsmen telephoned around the city's waterfront and contacted other New England ports but couldn't locate the ship. That afternoon, two Coast Guard planes flew over the course the dragger might have taken home to Gloucester from its last known position about 180 miles east of Cape Cod, but they found no sign of the vessel.
All He Thought Of
"The first time (Cosmo) went out on a boat he went fishing with my uncle Busty Scola when he was 9 years old, on the J.B. Jr.," Marcantonio's brother Joe says. "Summertime he went with my uncle. He loved fishing. I think he was about 17 when he took his first command of a boat, the Estrella. He loved the sea. That's all he thought of." Growing up, Marcantonio spent a lot of time with his grandmother on Commercial Street in the Fort, even though his family lived on Prospect Street. He loved visiting the old Sicilian neighborhood. Cosmo attended St. Ann's School and then played quarterback for the Gloucester High School football team, but he quit school after two years to go fishing. His father and uncles were all fishermen. He and Joe went down to Cape May, N.J., in the early 1970s to pick up the ship that became the Captain Cosmo. She was an eastern-rig trawler, painted black with white trim. The pilot house was at the rear of the long narrow, two-masted ship. The 36-year-old Magnolia resident usually tied up the 35-year-old ship at Star Fisheries where Captain Carlo's now is located on Harbor Loop. Sometimes he moored near the Gloucester House restaurant. Mike Linquata, the owner of the Gloucester House, says Marcantonio commandeered one of the bar stools from the restaurant and put it in the Captain Cosmo's pilot house so he wouldn't have to stand all the time when he was steering. Six Gloucester men were aboard the vessel when she steamed out of Gloucester on Saturday, Sept. 2, 1978: Marcantonio; Interrante; John Burnham, 33; Salvatore Barry Grover, 30; Vito Misuraca, 61; and Jerome "Smoky" Pallazola, 50. They all helped on deck. Grover also cooked. Pallazola -- Marcantonio's first cousin -- was the engineer. The wooden boat was loaded with fishing gear, ice, diesel fuel and provisions for about 10 days of fishing. It also carried a life raft, which had been recently checked by the Coast Guard, and floating, insulated survival suits.
A Good Catch
Nick Parisi, the 35-year-old skipper of the St. Nicholas, also steamed out of Gloucester for Georges Bank that Saturday. Parisi and Marcantonio headed to the northern end because they heard from other fishermen that cod and haddock were being found in good numbers there. The two boats steamed along parallel to each other once they arrived, towing their nets at different depths. Marcantonio generally fished 24 hours a day until he caught 60,000 to 70,000 pounds of fish and then came home. Every three hours or so he and the crew hauled in the net and dumped the fish on the deck to cull the pollock, cod, haddock, hake and flounder. They dressed, cleaned and washed the fish on the deck and then stowed them in ice in pens below. But even with the help of their electronic fish finders, they didn't find much at the northern end of Georges Bank so the two boats split up. Marcantonio steamed south to shallower shoal water. Parisi was wary of the hard bottom there damaging his nets. And over the radio, Parisi had heard skippers talking about catching fish steadily in the deep water west of Georges Bank, so he pointed the St. Nicholas in that direction. The skippers kept in contact by radio each day. Parisi says Marcantonio said Wednesday that he was heading west. Marcantonio didn't say it straight out, but Parisi got the impression that Marcantonio had caught his quota of haddock and cod and was seeking flounder. They talked again on Thursday and everything seemed OK. The weather had been good up to that point, but the marine forecast published in the Thursday, Sept. 7, Gloucester Daily Times warned that a small craft advisory was in effect because a storm was coming.
A Terrible Life
Joe Misuraca ran into his brother Vito the Saturday Vito left on the Captain Cosmo. Vito Misuraca was a quiet man. "He never bothered nobody. He never had a fight with nobody," Joe says. At age 61, Vito's black hair was turning gray. He had fished since he was a kid, just like his father, Thomas, but was planning to retire and take it easy. (Pallazola was also planning to retire soon.) Joe had just returned from a fishing trip that Saturday and was walking toward downtown from a wharf in the Fort when he ran into his brother who was heading the opposite way, to the boat. Joe recalls, "I said, 'Where are you going?' And he said, 'This is my last trip.' And that was the last I saw him." Grover's father owned the bar called the Busy Bee, where the Rigger is now located on Main Street. He began cooking in the bar. He was an outgoing fellow. He met fishermen in the bar and started fishing when he was 19 or 20. He liked being on the water. He liked the money. Benny Interrante didn't learn to swim as a child, but at age 17, he and a friend secretly took lessons and then he entered the annual greasy pole contests during St. Peter's Fiesta. He won on Sunday in 1976. His mother, Mary, says he never really knew what he wanted to do with his life. Interrante had studied accounting at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst for a year or two, but decided to take a year off of school. He promised his mother that he'd go back to school, but he didn't sign up for classes in the fall of 1978 after a year off. He got into fishing sometime that summer. Interrante's father, James, was a fisherman, but James and Mary tried to keep their children out of fishing. James survived six boat sinkings. One vessel he was on caught fire. Another was rammed by a big foreign trawler. "I never liked it. It was a terrible life. I don't know how we put up with it," Mary says. Fishermen missed birthdays, christenings and babies being born. But Interrante took to fishing immediately. He turned 22 aboard the Captain Cosmo, the first big boat he had worked on, on Thursday, Sept. 7.
It Came Down Quick
Parisi recalls hauling the nets aboard the St. Nicholas about 80 miles southeast of Gloucester around 9 or 9:30 Friday morning, Sept. 8. When the crew set out the nets again sometime before 10 a.m., the water was flat as a table, Parisi says, but "half an hour later it was blowing 50 miles per hour. That's how fast it came down. It came down quick." The storm blew hard for eight to 10 hours, Parisi says. It wasn't raining but the wind blew up a lot of spray from the waves. Rogue waves as much as 30 feet tall broke right over the ship. Parisi says some boats towed their nets for 10 to 12 hours because they were afraid to haul back in the middle of the storm. The boats were eastern-rigged trawlers, rather than the stern trawlers common today, so instead of dropping nets from the stern, crews had to drop them in the sea and haul them back over the side of the vessel. This required the boat to be turned sideways to the waves to haul back and in heavy seas the boats could get swamped during the maneuver or the net's wires could snap as they slacked and tightened as the boat rolled on the waves. Parisi says he towed for four or five hours, until he decided he couldn't tow all day. So he left the boat lay nearly dead in the water as they pulled all the gear aboard and cleaned the fish. Then they steamed toward Gloucester. The storm remained fierce, but lessened some that night. Amidst all the commotion, Parisi never checked in with Marcantonio.
Marcantonio was known for fishing in bad weather. He often steamed to shoal water to ride out storms. "The shoal water moves quickly. In deeper water seas will build," his brother Joe says. Leo Vitale, the 40-year-old skipper of the Madonna delle Grazie, spoke to Marcantonio by radio on Friday, Sept. 8. Reports from the time say the conversation took place around 8 p.m., but today Vitale remembers talking to Marcantonio before noon. Marcantonio said he was roughly 180 miles east of Cape Cod on southeastern Georges Bank. He said the seas were 15 to 20 feet high but he was riding out the storm without trouble. Vitale says Marcantonio was still fishing while steaming toward Gloucester, hoping to arrive in time for the Interrante wedding. Vitale warned Cosmo to be careful in the storm because of the big seas and the age of his vessel. He remembers Marcantonio saying he would take it easy on the trip home. "Cosmo was very smart, a very good captain, so something happened in the nighttime, in the dark," Vitale says. It took Parisi about 12 hours to steam the 80 miles home through the storm, a trip that would usually have taken seven or eight hours. He arrived in port Saturday morning and looked for Marcantonio, but couldn't find him. Over the following days some people hoped the crew rode out the storm, perhaps ducking into some port for safety, and was heading in later. Some speculated that Marcantonio had just extended his trip. But this seemed unlikely because Interrante had to return for the wedding and Pallazola was supposed to leave Sunday for a trip to Las Vegas. The other crewmen had also told friends they would
be home over the weekend.
They Fly So Low
The search for the Captain Cosmo began its second day on Tuesday, Sept. 12. Boats and planes crisscrossed some 20,000 square miles from Portland, Maine, south to Rhode Island and 200 miles out to sea. Fishing vessels in the area were asked to keep an eye out for the dragger. Joe Marcantonio drove to Cape Cod and flew in a Coast Guard seaplane Tuesday or Wednesday that searched from around 8 in the morning to 5 in the evening, flying over Georges Bank and off Cape Cod. Joe and the crew scanned the waves with radar and binoculars as they flew as low as 1,000 feet. The Coast Guard did a wonderful job, he says. "They fly so low, any debris they would have picked it up," Joe says. For the next week, boats and planes -- at one point as many as eight, including an Air Force U2 jet -- searched from Portland, Maine, to Cape May, N.J., but turned up nothing. Fishermen around the West End of Gloucester, in waterfront bars and the St. Peter's Club, were uncharacteristically subdued after the dragger was reported overdue. Failure to find any trace of the vessel and no distress call lead some fishermen to speculate that whatever happened to the boat happened quickly. Perhaps the dragger was struck by a wave or combination of waves that sunk the boat without notice. Perhaps she was run down by a larger vessel. Some speculated that one of the heavy doors used to keep the mouth of the net open while fishing may have banged through the side of the hull when the net was hauled back. Some speculated that the vessel's generator quit, leaving no power to make a distress call. Some 1,500 friends and relatives of the crew crowded into St. Ann's Church for 7:30 p.m. Mass on Sept. 18, to pray for the safety of the crew. Marcantonio's wife, Geraldine, hugged and kissed all the people she could reach when the service ended. "This is not the Bermuda Triangle here. Boats don't disappear," she said that night. "Not when it's someone you love. It just can't happen."
The search for the Captain Cosmo was suspended at sunset on Tuesday, Sept. 19. Joe Marcantonio recalls that a Coast Guardsman called him and said, "You know, Joe, we hate to say this ... We're calling the search off. We've found nothing with a seven-day search. Believe me there's no hope." Joe broke the news to all the families. He felt it was his responsibility because it was his brother's boat. Relatives of the men would be hopeful when he arrived at their homes and then he'd tell them the search was over and they'd break down and holler and cry. His last stop was to tell his parents and Geraldine. "That was the hardest thing in my life that I had to do," Joe says. Gloucester lost three ships with all hands in 1978. The pilot boat Can Do sank with five men aboard in the Blizzard of '78 in February. Six men were lost aboard the Captain Cosmo in early September. Three men were lost when the Alligator disappeared in late September. The crew of the Captain Cosmo left behind a number of widows and at least nine children. The tragedy devastated the families. But life went on. Some of the women remarried. Joe Marcantonio and Joe Misuraca had families to support and soon returned to fishing. As Misuraca says, "That's the only racket we knew." Marcantonio's brother-in-law Nick Curcuru was lost on the Italian Gold in the mid-1990s. Cosmo Marcantonio's three sons each went to sea for a while. Two gave it up, but his son Joe continued to fish. He was the only survivor of the four men aboard the trawler Starbound when it was run down and sunk by a foreign oil tanker on Aug. 5, 2001. Those who knew the men aboard the Captain Cosmo continue to be haunted by the unanswered question of what happened to them. Mary Interrante kept hearing rumors that her son survived, he was on some island or something, but he never turned up. "We did not find a trace of the vessel," Coast Guard Captain D. B. Flanagan testified in a court case concerning the disappearance in February 1979. "Although the search was long, arduous, detailed, it was not there. In my opinion, it was lost at sea with all hands." Flanagan testified, "It is quite possible the boat ... received large seas aboard, capsized and sunk. That's the most probable. ... It's a hazardous operation to go to sea in small boats, and there are many things that can happen." Parisi says, "(Cosmo) said he was going to look for flounder. He was somewhere looking for flounder. Exactly where he was I don't know. It was just a freaky kind of storm that came up and took them. That's it. What else can you say. I guess the Lord wanted him at that point, all of them. They were good people, good men, every one of them." "I went fishing on that boat. I don't believe she got swamped," Joe Marcantonio says. "But you know that could have happened too. A freaky wave hits it, swamps it." "I think it would have been easier if we found something," says Barry Grover's older brother Bob. "Something is always a closure. It's a long week or so when you're hoping something pops up." Marcantonio says, "That's the hard part. See that's why we go to the (fishermen's) memorial every year. There's no cemetery to go to. But on my mother and father's stone (at Calvary Cemetery) they have a picture of (Cosmo) saying he was lost at sea. I think about it all the time. I think what happened? What happened? You don't know what happened. It will be in our mind forever because we don't know what happened." "I can remember back 10 years ago," Grover says, "they lost a boat off Hawaii and there was a Gloucester guy on the boat and they picked up the guys 28 days later. So you never know." Grover adds, "I think the boat probably just blew apart with the seas. It was a wooden boat, probably full of fish and took a hard, rogue wave or something hit and took her right down.
Who knows. You never know."