The U.S. Coast Guard is investigating what they now know to be two hoax phone calls made Monday afternoon reporting an explosion on a . The reward for useful information to find the caller has been raised to $3,000 from $1,000, Coast Guard officials announced during a Tuesday morning press conference.
"We need the public's help on this," said Captain Gregory P. Hitchen, urging anybody who knows anything to call the Coast Guard with tips.
If convicted, the caller faces five to ten years in prison, a $250,000 fine as well as reimbursement of the government's costs. The costs to the government weren't yet clear on Tuesday morning, but the initial suspected costs to the Coast Guard were at least $88,000, said Hitchen.
The Coast Guard doesn't have any definite leads at the moment, but is looking into some, said special agent William Hicks.
More than 200 responders searched for the yacht, named Blind Date, for hours on Monday with negative results, Hitchen said. In the case of an actual explosion, he said, there should have been debris, smoke, life rafts visible from the helicopters as well as signs of oil in the water. None of those things were found and should have been easily seen in Monday's weather conditions. Good Samaritans on the sidelines told coast guard officials that they hadn't seen anything, Hitchen said, furthering the belief the calls were a hoax.
The Coast Guard has a list of vessels by the name Blind Date and is currently investigating its owners. Not all vessels are registered in the tri-state area.
It's still unclear if the caller was in New York or New Jersey. The two phone calls came in on radio channel 14, Hitchen said. Usually, emergencies are communicated on channel 16. Both calls lasted about 20 seconds, which isn't unusual. Because of the nature of the details provided by the caller as well as his relative calmness, it wasn't immediately clear that it was a hoax.
The caller gave "a certain amount of detail we don't usually encounter on hoax calls," Hitchen said. The caller recounted explosions and the blow by blow of how the boat was filling up with water, Hitchen said.
Within an hour of the call, the Coast Guard had helicopters circling the air. There were four helicopters from the Coast Guard and three from other agencies, said U.S. Coast Guard spokesman Brendon Brewer. Having multiple helicopters in the air at the same time is dangerous, Hitchen noted.
"When we're responding to a hoax, we're not able to respond to search and rescue calls," Hitchen said. During the hoax on Monday afternoon, a call came in of a possible jumper from the Bayonne Bridge, which turned out to be a false report. Since Memorial Day weekend, on average there's been a person in trouble in the water every two days, Hitchen said.
There have been about 60 reported hoax calls in the last year, Hitchen said, but this one was the largest in scale, as far as number of responders and helicopters. Responders from the New York City Police Department and New Jersey State Police were also at the scene on Monday afternoon.
Around 6:30 p.m. on Monday, authorities began to look into the possibility of the reports being a hoax, without immediately suspending the search operations. Around 10 p.m. the final decision to suspend the case was made. When asked if there is still a chance the vessel sank, Hitchen answered "we are quite sure that it's a hoax at this time."
Anybody with information is urged to call the U.S. Coast Guard Investigative Service at 646-872-5774 or 212-668-7048.