NEW YORK (Reuters) - A hoax distress call that led to a massive search for a crippled yacht originated on land in New York or New Jersey, the U.S. Coast Guard said on Tuesday.
The call late Monday afternoon claimed 21 people had abandoned ship into life rafts after an explosion aboard the yacht "Blind Date" about 17 miles east of Sandy Hook, New Jersey, the Coast Guard said. Several people were said to have been injured.
A frantic search was launched with 200 people hunting by boat and helicopter. But no signs of debris, life rafts or people were found and the search was suspended on Monday night, the Coast Guard said. The search cost taxpayers at least $88,000.
The distress caller claimed to be transmitting from a solar-powered radio because the boat's radio had been destroyed, meaning the caller's location could not be pinpointed using global positioning system tracking technology.
But after tracing two lines of location bearings from the call, Coast Guard officials said they now believe the call was most likely made on land in New Jersey or southern New York.
The Coast Guard has no definitive leads yet but is investigating possible ties to another hoax at a similar time last year.
"We're quite sure it's a hoax at this time," deputy commander of the Coast Guard's New York sector Captain Gregory P. Hitchen said at a press conference on Tuesday.
Initial Coast Guard estimates put the search's cost at around $88,000, but that figure could go higher, Hitchen said.
Making a false distress call is a federal felony that carries a prison sentence of five to 10 years and a fine of up to $250,000 in reimbursement to the Coast Guard, the Coast Guard said.
The call was pursued because it contained details more believable than normally seen in hoax calls, the Coast Guard said. More than 50 Coast Guard personnel were involved in the search, as well as members of the New York City police, fire departments, New Jersey state police, Nassau County police, and community volunteers.
There are about six yachts named the "Blind Date" nationwide, the Coast Guard said, and officials are investigating each one's location and owner. Most of the yachts do not fit the description from the call.
A reward of $3,000 for information leading to the arrest of the hoax perpetrators is being offered.
(Reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst, additional reporting by Joseph O'Leary; Editing by Eric Beech and Cynthia Osterman)