March 2010

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Deep Sea Lures New Jersey Member

Last year was deadly for New Jersey fishermen, with 11 losing their lives at sea.

But when a vessel goes down in the ocean, finding out what happened is nearly impossible, leaving family members without an explanation and ship owners without the evidence they need to back up their insurance claims.

The U.S. Coast Guard has a limited capacity for underwater investigations. So when questions arose over the cause of the March 2009 sinking of the scallop trawler Lady Mary off Cape May in southern New Jersey, they turned to an eight-man volunteer deep sea diving team—a team that included Folsom, N.J., Local 351 member Capt. Steve Gatto—to reconstruct what happened in the pre-dawn hours before the North Carolina-based boat vanished beneath the waves.

"It's hard to investigate an accident when you can't get to the evidence," he said.

Forty-eight-year-old Gatto led three trips to photograph and videotape the wreck, which lays 210 feet below the surface. Gatto and his team discovered that there was extensive damage on the left-side stern, indicating that it was likely a larger vessel had struck the ship. "It seems like it was a hit-and-run," he said.

The evidence, presented before a Marine Board of Investigations, could end up not only clearing the names of the seven-member crew (only one survived), but help the boat's owner—who lost two sons, a brother and a nephew in the tragedy—recoup some of his substantial financial losses.

A Passion for the Sea

An inside wireman since 1988, diving has been Gatto's passion since he first saw Jacques Cousteau's television series as a child. "I knew it was something I wanted to do," he said.

Growing up an hour from the New Jersey coast, Gatto took up diving soon after graduating high school. Initially it was just a hobby, exploring historic shipwrecks off the East Coast, including a World War II-era German submarine and the SS Andrea Doria, a famous Italian ocean liner that sunk off the coast of Massachusetts in 1956.

The Thomas Hebert, a 94-foot tugboat that mysteriously sank in 1993, turned the avocation into serious business for Gatto.

He had once worked for the tow company that owned the Hebert and he was concerned that the ship's crew—five of whom died in the accident—was being unfairly scapegoated for the accident.

"I called up the owner and offered my services," Gatto said. After locating the wreck, Gatto and his partner Tom Packer quickly found evidence that the sinking was likely the result of an encounter with a third vessel.

"The Hebert was towing a 344-foot barge, and based on how the wreck was positioned, I'm confident that a submarine hit the tow cable and pulled the tug down backwards into the water," Gatto said.

The crew was eventually exonerated based on the evidence presented by Gatto and Packer, but the culprit still remains a mystery. "It was never pinned down what did it," he said.

Gatto's renown has grown to the point that he is now considered one of the leading shipwreck investigators in the mid-Atlantic—and he does it all in his free time.

"We do this on our own nickel and dime," he said. "I'm grateful to have a job that gives me some flexibility."

He has appeared on the History Channel's "Deep Sea Detectives" program and is writing a book on the sinking of the Thomas Hebert. "I can guarantee it will be a great read," wrote veteran Titanic researcher David Bright on his blog.

Making the Investigation

Finding the wreck itself is often the most difficult and time-consuming task. Fishing vessels are required to broadcast their location every half-hour using an electronic marker, but a ship can travel miles in that time period.

When they reach the wreck, their first job is the grimmest—recovering the bodies of the victims. "Fishing is a family affair, and often a sea tragedy can take multiple family members at once, so we want to help the family with some kind of closure," Gatto said.

Then the crew carefully photographs and videotapes the wreck. "It's like any other crime scene," he said. "You don't want to disturb the evidence until everything is recorded."

To find out more about Gatto's book go to

Local 351 member Capt. Steve Gatto captures his diving partner at a submarine that sunk off the New Jersey coast in 1920.

Capt. Steve Gatto suits up for a dive.

Capt. Steve Gatto, left, and his diving partner examine artifacts pulled from a shipwreck.