A federal judge has awarded nearly $1 million in damages to the families of four fishermen who died when the Portland-based Emmy Rose sank off the Massachusetts coast in 2020.

U.S. District Judge John Woodcock wrote 33 pages about the loved ones left to grieve the tragedy and the difficult calculations involved in quantifying the loss. He said each man died “an unspeakably tragic and terrible death.”

“Again, there is no evidence about how the vessel went down and it is possible that it sank suddenly and without warning, but it is more likely that there was some period of panic as the seamen worked in horrific conditions to avoid its and their awful demise,” Woodcock wrote.

Ashley Gross was engaged to Michael Porper, who worked on the Emmy Rose. Through her attorney, she said she felt the court did a fair job dividing the limited insurance between the four families.

“There is no amount of money that will bring my friends and fiancé back,” she said Thursday. “The judgment doesn’t bring us closure but does bring some peace of mind that Michael was able to contribute to his daughters’ future.”

The Emmy Rose sank on Nov. 23, 2020, roughly 22 miles northeast of Provincetown, Massachusetts. The 82-foot vessel was near the end of a multiday trip to catch haddock and other groundfish and was carrying its catch to Gloucester, Massachusetts. The winds were gusting at 30 knots and churning up 6- to 8-foot waves. The Coast Guard responded to the vessel’s emergency position indicating radio beacon at 1:30 a.m. and searched for 38 hours. It found only debris and an empty life raft.

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The men aboard were captain Robert Blethen Jr. and crew members Jeffrey Matthews, Ethan Ward and Porper. Stunned by their deaths, the Maine fishing community gathered for vigils on Portland’s wharves and raised money to help the grieving families. Loved ones described those they’d lost as men who worked hard, loved their families and felt a deep connection to the sea.

The Coast Guard is still investigating what caused the vessel to go down. The Emmy Rose has been found on the ocean floor off the coast of Massachusetts and remains there. The company that owned the boat, identified in court documents as Boat Aaron and Melissa Inc., asked the federal court last year to exonerate it or limit its liability for the sinking. That filing began the yearlong process of establishing a settlement fund and awarding damages to the families of the victims. Court documents show the company’s insurance proceeds to be divided between the families was $960,000.

The judge’s order gave a brief glimpse into the life of each man and his family.

Ward was 23 years old, and he had two young children. He joined the crew of the Emmy Rose the summer before it sank, and his mother told the court that his eventual goal was to become a captain himself.

Blethen was 41 and had worked in commercial fishing for more than 20 years. He had three children, and his youngest son was 5 years old when he died. His partner told the court that Blethen was a doting father and constantly with his son when he was not fishing.

Porper was 38 and was active in the lives of his two daughters. Gross shared photographs with the judge – Porper with his girls, Porper on one knee the day he proposed to her.

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Matthews was 55 and had three adult children. His family described him as “a hard-working, old-school fisherman” and said he spent more than 35 years in the industry.

Woodcock awarded different amounts to each minor child, detailing calculations based on age and expected financial support. He also awarded equal amounts to each man’s estate for conscious pain and suffering.

At the conclusion of a celebration of life service on Dec. 12, 2020, Ashley Gross, left, and Maya Porper throw a floral arrangement into the water off the Portland Fish Pier to commemorate Michael Porper – their fiance and father, respectively – and three other Maine fishermen who died when the Emmy Rose sank off Massachusetts. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“Other than the inescapable inference that each man drowned, there is no direct evidence as to how he drowned,” Woodcock wrote. “Thus, there is no basis for the court to find that one man outlived another or that one man died more or less painfully than another. This leads to the conclusion that the court’s awards for conscious pain and suffering must be equal. The other compelled inference is that each man died an unspeakably tragic and terrible death, each likely aware of his impending death while struggling to survive in a dark, cold and angry ocean.”

The total awards could have been more than $1.5 million, but the court reduced the amounts because of the limited insurance money available. Each man’s estate received more than $125,000, and the minor children received awards between $30,000 and $110,000.

Attorney Carolyn Latti represented Jennifer Ward, Ethan Ward’s mother. She said the judge’s order will end any litigation against the boat’s owner, but it will still allow the families to pursue claims against any third party that might be found to be at fault in the Coast Guard’s eventual report on the sinking. Latti said Ward wanted to thank the judge for his thoughtful opinion and share a statement about her son.

“At the time of Ethan’s death, he was doing what he loved, and knowing that comforts me,” Ward said.

Attorney Joseph Orlando, who represented Gross, Porper’s fiancée, said she wanted to thank the fishing community and everyone who has supported her family. Gross and others are still waiting for answers about what caused the Emmy Rose to sink that day, Orlando said.

“You’re never made whole with money,” Orlando said. “You still lost a loved one, and no amount of money is ever going to make them whole.”

Attorneys for the other families said they did not wish to be included in a story or did not respond Thursday. David Smith, the attorney who represented the Emmy Rose’s owner, did not respond to an email or a voicemail.


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