GLOUCESTER, Mass. – His boat was gone in seconds, dragged down in a powerful rush of water that he barely escaped. As Joe Marcantonio shivered in a life raft, wearing only underwear and a flimsy poncho, he wondered how this could be happening to his family again.

It was roughly this spot, 130 miles off the New England coast, where his father’s fishing boat disappeared 23 years earlier and left the teenage Marcantonio with questions he couldn’t answer.

Now, his boat and three-man crew were lost in the water below him, plowed over by a 541-foot tanker that had continued on. When he’d surfaced on the flat seas, all that he saw was the raft and the freighter’s wake.

“Dad,” he asked as huddled in the raft, “did this happen to you?”

Marcantonio’s unlikely survival of the 2001 accident was the start of a painful period of guilt and despair that has only now begun to recede. He’s pursuing a college degree and talking of a new hope he never expected to find.

But he stays away from the waterfront in his hometown of Gloucester, a small fishing community about 35 miles north of Boston.

“I came home wrecked,” said Marcantonio, 39. “I felt like my father was the lucky one. He didn’t have to live through it.”

Cosmo Marcantonio was about 35 when he went to sea for the last time in 1978. He was supposed to be back from Georges Bank fishing grounds in time for a wedding. When that didn’t happen, the families of the crew met to track the search progress.

The atmosphere was festive at first, with families figuring the boat was merely delayed. But days passed and hope faded. The Coast Guard called off the search, angering Marcantonio, who wasn’t ready to quit.

“I remember being upset when I saw the look in people’s eyes, that they’d given up,” he said.

The years passed with no explanations. A northwest gale had been reported in the area, but no major storms. Marcantonio couldn’t accept the loss. When he was in traffic, he’d look for his father in other cars. When the TV showed crowds or city streets, he’s search them for a glimpse of his Dad.

The anger grew, he barely graduated from high school and he found his only opportunity in the industry that claimed his father’s life.

But this was a herring boat, Marcantonio told himself, a different type of fishing. The herring grounds were in coastal waters, where help was much closer than the offshore work his father did. Still, anxiety filled his gut on every trip.

The fear didn’t hurt his performance, and he eventually moved up to captain. Around the same time, though, fishing rules changed to restrict fishing time in coastal areas. To earn a living, herring boats had to spend some time offshore. By then, a mortgage and other obligations made it impossible for Marcantonio to step away.

The night of Aug. 5, 2001, was calm, and Marcantonio’s boat, Starbound, was headed home after catching its capacity of fish. He left Jim Sanfilippo in the wheelhouse and retired to the captain’s quarters to sleep. He popped in a videotape and was out almost before it started rolling.

Marcantonio awoke to the blue light of a blank television screen and Sanfilippo’s shouts. He reached the wheelhouse and turned as Sanfilippo screamed and pointed. A giant ship’s bow was steaming toward them.

The crash knocked him on his back as the 92-foot Starbound scraped down the side of the massive tanker, Virgo. The Starbound remained upright for several seconds after the Virgo passed, and Marcantonio ordered Sanfilippo to get the crew and his survival suit and meet on deck. He grabbed his own suit and stepped toward the stairs.

Next came a sound like “this horrifying wind tunnel.” Water was rushing into the Starbound and forcing the air out with a screeching whistle. The boat suddenly plunged forward, and Marcantonio took three giant steps, barely escaping through the wheelhouse door as the wall fell toward him.

He was underwater and being sucked down. He fought the pull, clutching his buoyant survival suit as he pushed upward. The suit was ripped from his hands, but Marcantonio was sufficiently out of the ship’s pull to swim to the surface.

The hiss of the lifeboat self-inflating caught his attention, and he scrambled on board, screaming for Sanfilippo, whom he thought was right behind him, and the other crewmen. But frantic paddling about the area turned up little more than the emergency beacon that would lead rescuers to him. Marcantonio knew his crew was lost.

It didn’t take long to remember his father’s memorial service. He realized he knew the pain that was ahead for the families of his crewmen.

“It all just came back,” he said. “You’re not supposed to know that stuff. It’s supposed to be once in a lifetime.”

The next few years were marked by legal tangles in the case after three Virgo crew members were arrested in Newfoundland. They were charged them with involuntary manslaughter after the U.S. Coast Guard concluded they’d fled the scene. But the crewmen were eventually allowed to return to their native Russia and the case is in limbo.

Marcantonio, meanwhile, entered therapy to deal with the despair that was consuming him. As captain, he thought, he was responsible for the men, regardless of the actions of a tanker crew.

He thought of Sanfilippo of Yarmouth, Maine, whom he’d known since sixth grade; of Mark Doughty of Thomaston, Maine, his right-hand man, whom he begged to come back to the boat after a falling out with the boat partners; of Tom Frontiero of Gloucester, who’d taken the job just two weeks before the accident.

If Marcantonio hadn’t become a fisherman, he figured, none of them would be dead.

He also missed his father acutely, because now he needed him more than ever.

Hope has returned gradually, and not without fits and starts. His marriage to his wife, Shannon, held together, despite the strain, and he has three kids, ages 7 to 13.

He doesn’t blame God for the uncommon tragedy in his life. Instead, he said, he thanks Him for the strong people in his life who have helped him cope. Marcantonio thinks his character has changed for the better. He’s more empathetic, he said, drawn to stories of tragedy on cable news like “a moth to a flame.”

“I’m not sure how healthy that is,” he said.

A major achievement has been a successful return to school, which has given him confidence in a future he thought was ruined. His grade point average at North Shore Community College was 3.9, good enough to earn free tuition at UMass-Boston, where he will pursue a degree in business.

Marcantonio said he’s telling his story so that the children of his lost crewman will know what happened to their fathers, unlike him. He also wants to give people who have faced crushing loss a reason to keep going. The darkness around him has lightened a shade or two, and that’s more than he expected.

“I’ve got some hope for the future,” he said. “Where there was none, there’s some.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.