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Originally published Wednesday, March 26, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Key sinking issue: why water spread

The Alaska Ranger had bulkheads designed to be watertight and confine flooding, but somehow they failed early Sunday morning, filling the...

Seattle Times staff reporters

The Alaska Ranger had bulkheads designed to be watertight and confine flooding, but somehow they failed early Sunday morning, filling the doomed ship with seawater and plunging it to the bottom of the Bering Sea.

The vessel radioed a mayday shortly before 3 a.m. to report a flooded rudder room, and 10 minutes later reported seawater had surged to other areas of the vessel, a Coast Guard official said Tuesday. That was the start of progressive flooding that sank the ship and claimed the lives of five of its 47 crew members.

"Most ships are designed so that you can flood a number of compartments and stay afloat, but when you start losing a lot of compartments, that's serious trouble," said Coast Guard Capt. Craig Lloyd, commander of the cutter Munro, which monitored radio communications from the Alaska Ranger and then came to the sinking ship's aid.

The Coast Guard will launch a Marine Board of Investigation inquiry into the circumstances of the sinking of the Alaska Ranger, one of seven vessels operated by Seattle-based Fishing Company of Alaska. These inquiries are reserved for major events, such as when the Arctic Rose, another Seattle-based vessel, sank in 2001 and killed 15 people.

"These are pretty rare," said Ken Lawrenson, a Coast Guard commercial-fishing safety coordinator in Alaska. "They only call them when they need to go ahead and take sworn testimony."

In a statement released Tuesday, Fishing Company of Alaska thanked the Coast Guard and said it would cooperate with the investigation and also begin its own inquiry.

For investigators, key questions are what caused the initial leak in the rudder room and how the water then surged past supposedly watertight bulkheads to pull the ship under.

Something as simple as a bulkhead door left open or improperly sealed can allow water from the rudder room into other below-deck areas. And sometimes seawater can rush into a vessel with such force that it punches through bulkheads and doors, Lloyd said.

Lloyd was about 100 miles from the Alaska Ranger when he monitored the mayday at 2:52 a.m. Based on radio reports made by crew members to the Coast Guard, he gave the following timeline of events aboard the stricken ship:

At 2:53, the Alaska Ranger lost steering. At 3:02, "progressive flooding" began.

At 3:30, the Alaska Ranger lost electrical power, which would have shut down any electrical water pumps and main power sources that provide light.

By about 5 a.m., the crew abandoned the Alaska Ranger, Coast Guard officials said earlier this week.

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Coast Guard cutter Munro, working with two helicopters, rescued 20 members of the Ranger's crew who had jumped into the sea or made it into life rafts, while others were picked up by the Alaska Warrior, a sister ship operated by Fishing Company of Alaska.

The Coast Guard board is expected to take a broad look at the disaster, Lawrenson said. That means the board will likely examine the ship evacuation and rescue operations.

Investigators also are expected to examine Coast Guard efforts to regulate the aging head-and-gut fleet, the group of more than 50 factory ships that included the Alaska Ranger and are involved in catching and freezing flatfish, mackerel and other species that abound off Alaska.

In 2006, the Coast Guard created a special set of standards for these ships, requiring vessel operators to upgrade crew training and make shipyard investments to improve the watertight integrity, stability and other aspects of the vessels.

One concern, as Coast Guard officials scrutinized the fleet, was whether renovations or other actions could have weakened the watertight integrity of bulkheads or other below-deck areas, according to Lawrenson.

The Alaska Ranger, built in 1973 as an oil-field-service vessel, had accomplished most, but not all, of what was necessary to gain compliance with those standards, and was seeking an extension.

Some former Fishing Company of Alaska crew members have said that the Alaska Ranger had numerous problems in the past, which included leaks that had to be repaired.

"It was just a very dirty, nasty boat," said Rick Weaver, an Oregon man who was aboard the vessel for two weeks last summer before heading out to sea with another Fishing Company of Alaska vessel.

In its prepared statement, Fishing Company of Alaska said the company is proud of its crews, vessels, maintenance and safety records, and that criticism was "tarnishing" the "good names and careers of those who died."

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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