Mys­tery at sea still has one miss­ing piece

Wreck may be boat lost in ’94, but find­ing a photo of it afloat is vi­tal

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Kim Chris­tensen

Calm seas and clear weather greeted the fishing boat Tammy as it set out from San Pe­dro on July 11, 1994, to cast its nets for sea cu­cum­bers — and then dis­ap­peared.

The 40-foot, steel-hulled ves­sel car­ried a crew of four Viet­namese fish­er­men that night. Two of their bod­ies were found the next day in the ship­ping lanes off New­port Beach. The oth­ers were never re­cov­ered.

“To this day, we do not have even a death cer­tifi­cate for my dad be­cause they never found him,” Thai Minh Ta said of Cong Minh Ta, the boat’s owner.

He and other chil­dren of the ill-fated fish­er­men have longed to know what hap­pened to the men — and the boat that car­ried them to their deaths.

“I al­ways won­der if some ship hit my dad and run away, hit my dad and not turn around to save him,” said Lisa Nguyen, the daugh­ter of Nhieu Van Nguyen, whose body was re­cov­ered.

The Coast Guard con­cluded that the Tammy sank, but closed its in­ves­ti­ga­tion with­out pin­point­ing a cause or lo­cat­ing the wreck­age.

Now, more than two decades later, two men with ex­ten­sive ex­pe­ri­ence in re­search­ing and iden­ti­fy­ing sub­merged wrecks think the long-lost fishing boat might rest on the ocean floor in 70 feet of water near the en­trance to the Port of Long Beach.

Steve Law­son, a techni-

cal writer and avid wreck diver, and Gary Fabian, a com­puter con­sul­tant and mar­itime his­to­rian who dis­cov­ered the sunken ves­sel in 1995, have spent more than a decade try­ing to iden­tify it.

Its lo­ca­tion, di­men­sions and steel-hull con­struc­tion bol­ster their the­ory that it is the Tammy. But Law­son and Fabian say they can’t be cer­tain with­out com­par­ing it to pho­tos of the boat be­fore it sank.

Three chil­dren of the fish­er­men con­tacted by The Times said they have no pic­tures of the Tammy. Nor were they able to iden­tify the wreck — now cor­roded and cov­ered in sea anemones and other growth — from an elec­tronic data im­age and un­der­wa­ter pho­tos the re­searchers have com­piled.

“Cir­cum­stan­tial ev­i­dence sug­gests this is the wreck, but more de­fin­i­tive proof is needed,” said Law­son, 52. “It’s a mys­tery that needs to be solved.”

Refugee saw boat as an op­por­tu­nity

Cong Minh Ta and his fam­ily joined the waves of Viet­namese “boat peo­ple” who fled their home­land in the 1970s.

His sons Thai, 48, and Daniel, 46, said the fam­ily lived in a refugee camp in the Philip­pines be­fore com­ing to the United States in 1980. They even­tu­ally wound up in San Gabriel, where Cong Minh Ta worked in con­struc­tion.

Thai said he and his fa­ther bought the Tammy for about $300 when it was lit­tle more than “a piece of metal float­ing on top of the water,” and spent thou­sands re­build­ing it.

“We worked on it for like at least eight months,” he said. “New cab­i­nets, new en­gine. Ev­ery­thing on it was new ex­cept the name.”

Un­like other crew mem­bers, he said, his fa­ther was not a pro­fes­sional fish­er­man. He bought the boat as a busi­ness ven­ture, but in the short time it op­er­ated, “We didn’t even make good money with it,” Thai said.

Nhieu Van Nguyen, an ex­pe­ri­enced fish­er­man and skip­per, came to the United States with a younger brother in the early 1980s and later worked along­side Cong and Thai to overhaul the Tammy, then 30 years old.

They out­fit­ted it with nets and based it at Fish Har­bor, home to San Pe­dro’s fleet of com­mer­cial boats — many of them im­mi­grantowned, ag­ing and in ill re­pair, ac­cord­ing to news re­ports at the time. The Tammy would be the third net-fishing boat from Fish Har­bor to sink in ac­ci­dents that year.

Lisa Nguyen was in her early 20s and had been in the U.S. for less than a decade when her fa­ther died at 52. Her mother was still in Viet­nam, with plans to join her fam­ily.

“He was al­ways a fish­er­man, even back home,” said Nguyen, who now lives near San Diego. “He had lots of ex­pe­ri­ence with the boats and the water. My dad [was] all the time in the boat fishing, all the time work­ing.”

The Tammy’s ill-fated voyage

On board with her fa­ther and Cong Minh Ta, 54, that sum­mer night were Khanh Nguyen, 50, and Gioi Nguyen, 59, who was de­scribed at the time as a some­times fishing part­ner of the oth­ers. Their fam­i­lies could not be reached for this ar­ti­cle.

Ac­cord­ing to a Coast Guard in­ves­ti­ga­tion re­port, the Tammy dis­ap­peared with­out so much as a dis­tress call. Weather ap­par­ently was not a fac­tor.

“It was calm,” said Thai Ta, who now lives in Texas and re­called check­ing con­di­tions at the time. “There was no wind, no storm, noth­ing.”

Early on the morn­ing of July 12, 1994, a plea­sure boater found a man’s body float­ing in the ship­ping lanes south of Long Beach. A sec­ond body was re­cov­ered about two hours later, amid de­bris that in­cluded ice chests, line, tarp and a white drum used to carry bait.

Res­cue ves­sels and air­craft scoured 450 square miles of the ocean for signs of the miss­ing fish­er­men and the boat be­fore giv­ing up at dark.

“It’s hard to have a fu­neral when you can’t see a body,” said Daniel Ta, who lives in Florida. “Over time, I hoped he was still alive. Over time, my hope was dashed.”

Be­cause two bod­ies were found in the ship­ping lanes, ini­tial spec­u­la­tion was that the Tammy had been struck and sunk by a deep-draft ves­sel.

The Coast Guard ruled that out, how­ever, af­ter all four freighters known to be in the area at the time bore no signs of a col­li­sion when ex­am­ined at their next ports of call.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tion also raised doubts about the Tammy’s sea­wor­thi­ness and the crew’s skills.

A har­bor­mas­ter in San Pe­dro and an em­ployee of the boat­yard where the re­fur­bish­ing was done told Coast Guard in­ves­ti­ga­tors that the Tammy had a ten­dency to “ex­ces­sively heel,” or tip, while turn­ing. It was not clear that the boat car­ried proper run­ning lights.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tors wrote in their re­port that the “ves­sel mas­ter’s past his­tory as a pru­dent mariner is ques­tion­able” and that he had owned and was op­er­at­ing an­other fishing boat that sank in a col­li­sion.

The Coast Guard re­port did not name the skip­per, but The Times, quot­ing friends and rel­a­tives, re­ported in the days af­ter the sink­ing that Nhieu Van Nguyen was a li­censed fish­er­man who owned a boat that sank three years ear­lier af­ter col­lid­ing with a ship.

A year af­ter the Tammy dis­ap­peared, Fabian was motoring back to the docks when his boat’s sonar “fish finder” bounced off some­thing big be­neath the sur­face, 3.1 miles beyond the Long Beach break­wa­ter.

“I see this huge bump come up,” he re­called re­cently. “Any bump on the bot­tom to a fish­er­man is like buried trea­sure, be­cause that’s where the fish are. So I swing the boat around and get right on top of it. I didn’t know it was a wreck. It could’ve been a rock.”

Fabian later shared the lo­ca­tion with a diver friend, who con­firmed it was a sunken boat, all but un­touched: Its brass steer­ing wheel and port­holes, sou­venirs cov­eted by divers, were still in­tact.

“We’d found a vir­gin wreck — right off of L.A.,” he said. “How the hell did it get there?”

Fabian, 54, who now lives in Texas, de­scribed re­search­ing ship­wrecks as “an in­tense hobby.” He has spent much of the last two decades crunch­ing sonar data from the Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion to lo­cate lost ships and air­craft.

In 2003 he made his first sig­nif­i­cant find: the wreck­age of a German U-boat that the U.S. govern­ment had ac­quired and sunk off the South­ern Cal­i­for­nia coast in a live-fire ex­er­cise in 1921. Un­til he found the UB88, it had been one of Cal­i­for­nia’s most elu­sive wrecks.

Just last year, he worked with NOAA to lo­cate a Boe­ing B-29 lost off the coast of Saipan dur­ing World War II and a Japanese cargo ship that sank off Wake Is­land in 1942.

“Part of the ex­cite­ment for me is do­ing the dig­ging,” Fabian said, con­ced­ing that so far, the mys­tery of the Tammy “has been an im­pos­si­ble nut to crack.”

Over the years, as the site be­came pop­u­lar with scuba divers, the wreck was iden­ti­fied as the African Queen — a replica of the boat made fa­mous in the 1951 movie star­ring Humphrey Bog­art and Katharine Hep­burn.

But Fabian and Law­son did some re­search and came to a dif­fer­ent con­clu­sion.

“We dis­cov­ered the African Queen was wood and not steel like the wreck,” said Law­son, a La­guna Hills res­i­dent. The pair have com­piled a raft of Coast Guard re­ports and other doc­u­men­ta­tion on the Tammy, its own­er­ship chain and its ill-fated crew.

Fabian has used so­phis­ti­cated elec­tronic imag­ing to vi­su­al­ize the wreck, and Law­son has ex­am­ined it on about a dozen dives. Its steel hull and di­men­sions point to it as the Tammy, they say, but it has lost many of its iden­ti­fiers over time.

“There is no paint or any­thing left on it and no num­bers are dis­cernible,” but the hull is largely un­dam­aged, Law­son said.

Some nets are still at­tached to the wreck, which has be­come a haven for wolf eels and other sea crea­tures.

“It is cov­ered in red straw­berry anemones, giv­ing it a red or pink color,” Law­son said. “Also, the amount of growth and cor­ro­sion is much less than that of older wrecks, sug­gest­ing it is newer.”

One pos­si­ble ex­pla­na­tion for what hap­pened to the Tammy is that a larger ves­sel snagged its nets and pulled the boat un­der, per­haps tak­ing the two miss­ing fish­er­men down with it.

“There is some­thing in­her­ently fas­ci­nat­ing about find­ing man-made ob­jects un­der­wa­ter,” Law­son said, but flesh­ing out their his­tory is all the more re­ward­ing.

“Any time you can make a con­nec­tion be­tween the archival record with phys­i­cal and tan­gi­ble un­der­wa­ter wreck­age — bridge the gap be­tween the two and iden­tify a wreck — that in it­self is a dis­cov­ery,” he said.

He and Fabian said pho­tos of the Tammy in its prime would close the loop.

“Un­doubt­edly there are peo­ple with knowl­edge about the Tammy who un­know­ingly hold the miss­ing piece of the puz­zle,” Law­son said, “and we hope they come for­ward to prove or dis­prove the wreck’s iden­tity.”

What took the Tammy down is the “mil­lion-dol­lar ques­tion,” Daniel Ta said. Even af­ter all these years, he anx­iously awaits an an­swer.

“I have prayed about it. I have al­ways thought about it: What re­ally hap­pened out there with my dad, and my dad’s boat,” he said. “That ques­tion has al­ways lin­gered and floated. I re­ally do want to know.”

‘Un­doubt­edly there are peo­ple with knowl­edge about the Tammy who un­know­ingly hold the miss­ing piece of the puz­zle.’ — Steve Law­son, diver, on the need for a photo of the boat taken be­fore it sank

Gary Fabian

AN IM­AGE from elec­tronic data shows a wreck off Long Beach, per­haps the fishing boat Tammy.

Irfan Khan Los An­ge­les Times

STEVE LAW­SON at home in La­guna Hills. Law­son, an avid wreck diver, and Gary Fabian hope to con­firm the fishing boat Tammy’s fate.

Steve Law­son

A WRECK found in 1995, the year af­ter the Tammy was lost, is now thought to be the fishing boat. A photo show­ing what the boat looked like is needed to con­firm.

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