Feds To Pay $21M To Victims'
Families In Coast Guard Failure
By Tony Bartelme Of The Post and Courier Staff

The federal government will pay about $21 million to the families of four people who drowned off Sullivan's Island in 1997, ending a four-year legal fight and another chapter in the sad story of the sailboat Morning Dew.
"The loss for both of these families has been so dramatic and emotional," said attorney Gedney M. Howe III. "It's great that it's over and that they can heal and move on, hopefully in a positive way."
U.S. District Court Judge David Norton awarded $19 million to the families last year. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ruling last April, and the government had until midnight Tuesday to take the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court or ask the Fourth Circuit to reconsider.
"We decided not to appeal, so it's over," said Charles Miller, a spokesman for the Justice Department. The Treasury Department has a special fund to pay judgments, so the $19 million award will not affect the Coast Guard's budget, Miller added. The Coast Guard had no comment.
Howe said that in addition to the $19 million, the families would get an additional $2 million in interest earned while the case was on appeal. The case, he said, "has been a long book with a lot of chapters, and this is the last one."
The story began in the early morning hours of Dec. 29, 1997, as Michael Cornett, 49, a respected country music figure from Hiltons, Va., sailed off the coast with his two sons, Michael Paul, 16, Daniel, 13, and their cousin, Bobby Lee Hurd, 14, of Mountain City, Tenn.
During a trial two years ago, evidence showed that the 34-foot sailboat collided with the jetties_ outside Charleston Harbor on that blustery night. Cornett probably was on deck at the time and fell overboard while the children slept down below. As the boat foundered, Daniel, the 13-year-old, managed to radio a mayday at 2:17 a.m., but a Coast Guard watch stander wasn't able to decipher the message and thought it was a hoax.
Four hours later, a crewman on an inbound container ship reported screams from the water. A harbor pilot notified the Coast Guard, but no rescue mission was launched. The boys survived after the wreck but died trying to _make it to shore at Sullivan's_Island.
In his order after the trial, Norton wrote, "All three children endured severe emotional distress in seeing the lights of passing boats, their proximity to Sullivan's Island and the fading hope of rescue, all while being slowly forced into the cold waters of the Atlantic with little clothing or lifesaving equipment."
Libby Cornett, mother of Daniel and Michael, testified during the trial that, "It has tormented me, knowing they were out there all those hours. What had they been thinking? Were they afraid? Did they know they were going to die?"
Referring to Cornett's testimony, Norton said her "suffering, sorrow, pain, emptiness and grief is unbearable. Ms. Cornett's loss is amplified by the fact that she home-schooled her children and spent more time with her children than the average parent. The untimely deaths of her beloved children have essentially left her lifeless."
Norton ruled that she should receive $6.3 million in damages for each child. He said $6.3 million should be awarded to the parents of Bobby Lee Hurd, who testified that their son was the center of their lives. He did not award damages for the death of Michael Cornett, saying that he probably drowned before he could have been rescued.
"The families are still grieving and looking for a positive thread to arrive in the grief process," Howe said, adding that he thinks the case prompted the Coast Guard to improve its operations. "Many friends have said there has been a noticeable difference in the attitude and response of the local Coast Guard, so I think this case sure has helped the average boater in this community."
The Morning Dew incident triggered a nationwide review of Coast Guard rescue policies. The National Transportation Safety Board investigated and found Cornett's failure "to adequately assess, prepare for and respond to the known risks" of an open ocean voyage was the probable cause of the sailboat wreck, but that Coast Guard's response was "substandard." The board made 16 safety recommendations to the Coast Guard.
The Coast Guard also did a top-level internal review, bought new equipment and tightened its search and rescue procedures.
"The lessons learned from the Morning Dew case," a Coast Guard admiral said, "will live on for many years to remind mariners and the Coast Guard alike of the dangers of the sea and need for constant vigilance against its hazards."
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