CAPE MAY, N.J. – Shortly before 5 a.m. on March 24, Janet Greene's phone rang in her North Carolina home. A light sleeper, she grabbed it on the first ring, knowing it was likely to be from Royal Smith Jr., a commercial fisherman who had two sons with her daughter, Stacy.
"I said, 'Hello, hello?"' she said. "A muffled voice sounded exactly like his. It sounded like he said, 'Hey,' and it just went off into static."
Satellite phone records show the call came from the Lady Mary, the scallop boat that sank that morning 60 miles off the coast of Cape May, killing Smith and five others.
But what they can't provide is the answer to a question that is tormenting Smith's family: Was it yet another call for help from the sinking ship, or the last word of an unsuspecting crew member just before disaster struck?
Greene testified Wednesday at a Coast Guard hearing investigating the cause of the disaster.
The boat's owner, Royal Smith Sr. and his lawyer, Stevenson Weeks, say they believe the Lady Mary was struck by another vessel that then left the area. That theory is one of several being examined by the Coast Guard.
Greene said it was not unusual for the younger Smith to call one or more times a day, even early in the morning, to say good morning to Stacy and the boys as they got ready for school.
"He would call just to say hi to the boys, or to say, 'I'm doin' OK, Miss Janet; we'll be home soon,' " she testified.
She said it was hard to tell if he sounded scared because the call was so brief, lasting a matter of seconds.
"It sounded like there was a problem, but I can't say for sure," she said in an interview after her testimony. "I figured that (the call) died out, and he would call later."
The call came right around the time that authorities say the Lady Mary sank, based on electronic navigation equipment on board that periodically sent out information on its location on the seas.
Smith's call may have been the first of two communications from the Lady Mary from just before it sank. On Monday, the captain of a Massachusetts fishing boat working nearby that morning said he heard what he thought was a faint mayday radio call, but did not alert the Coast Guard because no one responded to his radioed request for more information, and there were no flares visible in the area.
The Lady Mary was due to return home to Cape May on the day it sank.
Greene said not knowing for sure what caused the disaster has been painful.
"Only God can answer those questions," she said.
The hearing will resume Thursday with mostly technical testimony, but Coast Guard officials said additional sessions may be required later this year to discuss physical evidence from the sunken ship.