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A search was suspended late Sunday night for a missing woman who was on board a 50-foot vessel that sank Sunday afternoon just north of Fishers Island.
The vessel Priceless had left its home port at the Westerly Yacht Club with 10 passengers for a cruise in Fishers Island Sound when the boat hit Pulpit Rock near Flat Hammock about 2:30 p.m.
The ship's passengers and a dog on board were forced into the water as the Priceless sank in about 40 feet of water within minutes, according to authorities. The other nine passengers and the dog were rescued by nearby boaters and did not suffer any injuries.
Old Mystic Fire Chief Ken Richards Jr. said statements from those on board the Priceless revealed that the missing woman made an attempt to go back inside the vessel as it was sinking. A man on board the ship who did not wish to be identified said the woman was Mary Patenaude, the wife of ship owner David I. Patenaude.
The Coast Guard, a helicopter and rescue divers searched for the woman, who was described as in her 60s, for more than three hours before darkness forced the search to be suspended. Richards said divers and others would meet at 5 this morning to resume the search.
The man on board the ship said it scraped over the rock, breached, and quickly listed to one side. He said all on board were wearing life vests and it was apparent the ship would sink.
"The damage was done. It was taking on water at a high rate," he said.
The Coast Guard said a good Samaritan aboard the vessel Salty Dog responded to the incident and rescued the nine Priceless passengers and the dog. According to a Westerly vessel registry, the ship is 50.2 feet long and has a gross weight of 32 tons. Misquamicut Fire Chief Louis Misto, also a member of the Westerly Yacht Club, said the ship has a cement hull.
Nick Rauh, a 16-year-old on board the ship, said the passengers were from Pomfret and Woodstock and they planned to share dinner after their return to the Westerly Yacht Club.
They were instead in need of rescue and the nine who were saved eventually ended up being cared for as they sat at picnic tables outside Costello's Clam Shack at the Noank Shipyard. Many sat wrapped in blankets and comforted each other as paramedics checked on their conditions.
They were then transported to the Groton Town Police Department so they could make statements to police.
"We were trying to go out for a fun outing and then everything just goes wrong," Rauh said.
Hollis C. McKee, the commodore of the Westerly Yacht Club, declined to comment when reached Sunday night.
Crews from the Coast Guard, the Old Mystic and Noank fire departments and Mystic River Ambulance were on scene at a command center set up at Noank Shipyard. Groton Town police officers also assisted.
About eight divers from the Westerly Rescue Divers and the Old Mystic dive team were part of the search for the missing woman, Richards said. He called it the largest dive operation the Old Mystic team has dealt with since it was formed about 15 years ago.
One diver upon his return to the Noank Shipyard was helped onto a gurney and transported to the Lawrence & Memorial Hospital as a precaution.