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Originally published Sunday, March 30, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Water too high to find cause, officer testifies

An engineer who survived the Alaska Ranger sinking told federal investigators Saturday that once the ship's alarm sounded he tried to get...

Seattle Times staff reporter

UNALASKA, Alaska — An engineer who survived the Alaska Ranger sinking told federal investigators Saturday that once the ship's alarm sounded he tried to get to its source — only to be turned back by fast-rising waters.

Assistant engineer Rodney Lundy testified that, after he heard the alarm signaling water in the rudder room shortly after 2 a.m. last Sunday, he opened a watertight door to try to reach that room. But water in the 20-foot hallway leading to it was rising so fast he was afraid to enter, he said.

"I didn't want to drown," Lundy told the Coast Guard Marine Board taking testimony on events surrounding the sinking of the Seattle-based fish factory ship. Five of its 47 crew members died.

Lundy said he did see a leak in the rudder room sometime after he started his shift at 7 p.m. last Saturday, but it seemed minor.

"I don't know what happened," he testified.

"We had to have a breach somewhere, a split in the seam. I do not know. I did not see where it was coming from. I just know there was water."

When he was asked if the ship's rudder might have fallen off, opening a hole for water to flow through, Lundy said he had no idea.

Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board investigators have subpoenaed more than a dozen members of the Alaska Ranger's crew, who must testify before heading home.

The panel, which will convene in Seattle after concluding its work in Alaska, plans to use the testimony to try to piece together what happened and, it hopes, to prevent other sinkings.

Lundy is a key witness in the inquiry. He was on duty in the engine room when the alarm sounded, and he then inspected below-deck areas.

He said the sudden flood of water also penetrated a room that housed electrical transformers on the deck just above the rudder room.

Investigators spent Saturday questioning Lundy and boatswain Chris Cossich about myriad details including the layout of the ship, training schedules, and safety improvements made to the ship in November at a Japanese shipyard.

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Lundy spoke for most of the day, sometimes haltingly and in a voice filled with emotion.

He testified that even with water in the stern, he initially thought the ship would stay afloat.

After the flooding from the rudder room was discovered, he said, he and others worked hard to secure many watertight doors to prevent the water from spreading.

Lundy said he was encouraged by an engine-room inspection by skipper Eric Peter Jacobsen, who said the room was still dry.

But after that inspection, as they were climbing up a ladder about 3:30 a.m., the vessel suddenly listed sharply to the starboard side.

Cossich testified that the list occurred after the vessel lost electrical power and began moving in reverse.

In the final minutes, Lundy said, he moved to the bow of the sinking boat, and then, clad in his survival suit, jumped into the sea and made it to a life raft.

As the Alaska Ranger sank, the vessel turned upright, then went down stern first, he testified: "When it went bad, it went bad quick."

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

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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