Tragedy was unfolding at Rhode Island’s little fishing port of Galilee, and in his second-floor office above the dockside Handrigan Seafood Co., owner Brian Handrigan was on the phone.
In that cluttered, funky space overlooking Salt Pond’s breachway to the sea, the conversation was improbable: Handrigan was talking to the President of the United States.
Apprehension clouded Galilee that Sunday in 1978.The previous day Handrigan’s modern, well-equipped trawler, the 75-foot Lobsta 1, disappeared 54 miles south of Point Judith. Its crew of five vanished with it.
This was chilling news to the small community of commercial fishermen, each one well acquainted with the risks of going to sea.
But this calamity held an added twist involving the captain of Handrigan’s vessel, 27-year-old Stephen Hoyt. He had come here from Washington, D.C., where he grew up, to attend Roger Williams College. But the ocean lured him, and he traded academia for the life of a fisherman.
There was more about Hoyt: His mother, journalist and author Mary Finch Hoyt, was not only press secretary for the nation’s first lady, she was also a close friend of both Rosalynn and President Jimmy Carter.
On that awful Sunday, Handrigan dreaded the calls he had to make – to the families of five young men still missing despite an intense Coast Guard search.
As he talked with a distraught Mrs. Hoyt, he was unaware that listening beside her in the White House were President and Mrs. Carter.
At one point a third voice cut in: “My heart and prayers are with you and the boys and their families; we are hoping and praying,” Jimmy Carter said.
The next day, devastated because the developing tragedy involved his own boat, Handrigan climbed into a friend’s small plane at Quonset Point and spent hours squinting at more than 600 square miles of ocean – but in vain.
Handrigan, who died in 2015, insisted that the seaworthy Lobsta 1 must have been rammed by another vessel that fled. But even after almost 45 years, what happened that Saturday in September is still a mystery.
The crew was never found, nor were answers – but the Lobsta 1 itself was discovered in succeeding weeks by a camera-bearing Navy drone, lying right-side up 234 feet below the ocean surface.
The resulting video showed haunting images of the lost vessel, including unmistakable black lettering on the bow: “Lobsta 1.”
Also revealed was a five-foot dent in its steel hull, but whether that came from a collision or from deepwater pressure was never determined.
As events played out, Jimmy Carter would complete a one-term presidency that many considered mediocre. The wider reach of his worth came later, when he used both his heart and his hands to make the world better in terms of housing, public health, and kindness.
As for his small and sorrowful connection to Galilee, it reflected in telling measure the essence of his character. A good word to describe it – befittingly plain and unpretentious– would be decency.
Gerry Goldstein (firstname.lastname@example.org), a frequent contributor, is retired Providence Journal editor and columnist.