'Fatal Forecast' - Book recounts deadly storm at Georges Bank

Jody Feinberg

Twenty-seven years have passed since Plymouth lobster man Gary Brown and three others died in a hurricane-force storm on the fishing grounds of Georges Bank. A fifth fisherman miraculously survived by hanging on to an inflatable raft for more than 50 hours.

The tragedy and miracle from that unforeseen November storm are dramatically told for the first time in the book "Fatal Forecast," by Michael Tougias of Norfolk. Decades later, it's both a riveting survival story and a cautionary tale.

"I think it will go down as one of the top survival accomplishments ever recorded,' said Tougias, who was researching Coast Guard casualty reports for an earlier nautical thriller when he became fascinated with the survival of lobster man Ernie Hazzard of the Fair Wind.

A genuine page turner, "Fatal Forecast" vividly recreates the storm, the struggle and the survival. To convey what crew members and rescuers saw, thought and felt, Tougias extensively interviewed them. The book's 14 photographs also bring alive the reality. One of the most incredible shows a small launch craft from a Coast Guard cutter heading toward Hazzard's tiny life boat. Another shows the Coast Guard crew moving a blanket-covered Hazzard onto the boat.

"It is both a miracle and a tribute to Ernie's fortitude and decision making," said Tougias, who has written 17 books and gives motivational presentations, including one inspired by Hazzard, titled "Survival Lessons." "I think his mind set and the techniques he used can help any of us who face difficult odds," Tougias said.

As a former marine, long-distance cyclist and mechanic, Hazzard drew upon all that he had learned from these experiences: focus on the present, make the most of available resources, endure pain and discomfort, and accept loneliness.

When a monster 100-foot wave capsized the 50-foot Fair Wind and trapped the four-man crew inside, Hazzard, 33, first survived by a mixture of luck and canniness. Seeing an exit, he dove underwater and through an opening into the sea, a risky move that would have been impossible if he'd been wearing a survival suit. His second bit of luck was finding a plastic bucket to cling to and then reaching an inflatable raft attached to the overturned boat. In the next two days as waves battered and toppled the raft, he survived by sheer mental determination, strength and practical know-how.

Like Hazzard, 30-year-old lobster man Gary Brown of Plymouth ended up in the ocean, when a giant wave blew out a side of the pilot house of the vessel, Sea Star. But Brown had no life boat to cling to and slipped away as his fellow crew threw him lifelines.

A memorial stone to Brown overlooks the ocean in front of the Lobster Pound on Manomet Point Road in Plymouth. Erected by his widow Honour Brown (who chose not to be interviewed for the book, but still lives in Plymouth with her second husband and children), the monument has a plaque inscribed with lines from the poem "Sea Fever" by John Masefield.

In the epilogue, Gary Brown is remembered by his captain Peter Brown (no relation). Brown also is the son of Bob Brown, owner of the Andrea Gail, whose tragic fate was the subject of "The Perfect Storm" by Sebastian Junger.

"I never want to see a friend or crew member on my boat lost because of a bad forecast," Brown reflected. "Gary Brown was a good man."

To Tougias, Hazzard also spoke about the long-term effects of the trauma on his life.

"I don't let little stuff get to me. And when bigger problems come along, I figure I'll solve them somehow," Hazzard said. "Although I don't always make the best of these extra years, I am surely thankful for each and every day."

The cautionary story stems from the fact that the outcome might have been different if the fisherman had known about a broken wind sensor on the sole weather buoy on Georges Bank. Unaware of rising winds, they were surprised by hurricane speeds that brewed 60 foot waves, which grew to 90-100 feet.

A meteorologist in the Boston office of The National Weather Service had warned the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) of the danger of the broken sensor. Facing budget constraints, NOAA decided to put off repairs since a more sophisticated wind sensor was expected to be installed in January, Tougias wrote.

Whether the outcome would have been different even if the wind sensor had been working is something meteorologists debate, since the storm blew in so fast they called it "a bomb," Tougias said.

"I believe they were wrong not to alert listeners that their forecast did not have the benefit of the usual data from the weather buoy," Tougias said. "But even if the wind sensor was working, it may have only reported what was actually happening at Georges Bank when the storm hit, and that would have been too late for the boats to turn back."

After the families learned about the buoy, Gary Brown's wife, who was pregnant at the time of his death, and several other families sued and won $1.2 million in damages, the first time the National Weather Service was held responsible for an inaccurate forecast. However, the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the judgment in 1986, asserting that the government was protected from liability because weather forecasting is a "discretionary function."

"I thought the judgment for the plaintiffs was the correct decision, and I did not agree with the appeals court over-turning it," Tougias said. "However, the National Weather Service did make one important change as a result of the case, and that was in the future it would tell mariners when a weather buoy was not working."

Michael Tougias will give a slide presentation on "Fatal Forecast" at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 12 at the Mansfield Historical Society, at 7 p.m. Nov. 15 at the Norwood Public Library and at 7 p.m. Dec. 6 at the Hull Lifesaving Museum. Admission is free. For more information, go to michaeltougias.com.