NOAA Satellites Help Save 23 People in the North Atlantic

April 11, 2008

In a dramatic distress case yesterday, NOAA satellites helped the U.S. Coast Guard respond to a major engine room fire aboard the merchant vessel M/V Sea Venus 1,200 miles east of Cape Cod, Mass.

The 577 foot Panamanian-flagged vessel, with a crew of 23, was en route from Rhode Island to Belgium when the fire broke out.  At about 7:30 a.m., NOAA’s satellites detected a distress signal from an emergency position indicating radio beacon (EPIRB) onboard the vessel and relayed the ship’s location to search and rescue personnel at the Coast Guard’s Rescue Coordination Center (RCC) in Norfolk, Va. The Canadian Navy, and two other merchant vessels in the area, also provided critical coordination.

NOAA’s polar-orbiting and geostationary satellites are part of the international Search and Rescue Satellite-Aided Tracking System called COSPAS-SARSAT. This system uses a network of satellites to quickly detect and locate distress signals from emergency beacons onboard ships and aircraft and from handheld personal locator beacons.

“Yesterday’s incident was a tragedy averted,” said Chris O’Connors, acting program manager for NOAA SARSAT.

In Canada, personnel based at RCC Halifax contacted the Coast Guard at the RCC in Norfolk that they established voice communication with the Sea Venus' crew, who initially reported the engine room fire had been extinguished with the ship's automatic CO2 systems and no assistance was needed.

But rescue officials received a second distress call from the ship that the fire had re-flashed, the CO2 system had been depleted, and the crew was fighting the blaze with water and hand-held extinguishers.  After regaining control and finally extinguishing the fire, fourteen of the 23 crew members were then safely transferred from the Sea Venus to its sister ship, the Olympian Highway. Nine crew members remain onboard to await a tug from Halifax that is scheduled to arrive on Sunday.

“The SARSAT program worked as designed, especially with the international coordination and teamwork between the U.S. and Canada,” O’Connors said.

Now in its 26th year of operation, COSPAS-SARSAT has been credited with more than 22,000 rescues worldwide, including more than 5,800 in the United States and its surrounding waters. 

NOAA is dedicated to enhancing economic security and national safety through the prediction and research of weather and climate-related events and information service delivery for transportation, and by providing environmental stewardship of our nation's coastal and marine resources. Through the emerging Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS), NOAA is working with its federal partners, more than 70 countries and the European Commission to develop a global monitoring network that is as integrated as the planet it observes, predicts and protects.