Katmai survivors: Harrowing hours after fishing vessel rolled
Four crew of the fishing vessel Katmai were rescued, but five were killed and two remain missing after the boat sank early Wednesday in the Bering Sea off the Aleutian Islands.
Seattle Times staff reporters
A couple of years ago, a jobless Bobby Harrison contemplated a dramatic shift in lifestyle, leaving the urban comforts of Portland to join his cousin aboard the Katmai, a fishing vessel that tapped into the harvests off Alaska.
But Harrison couldn't swim, and had heard a few too many tales about the dangers of fishing the North Pacific.
He opted to stay put.
"I heard stories about guys who had lost limbs and arms, and was just too scared to go," he said.
Thursday, Harrison's cousin, Cedric Smith, and a longtime friend, Glenn Harper, were identified as two of the men who died when the Katmai sank early Wednesday morning off the Aleutian Islands. Their bodies, along with three others, were recovered from the Bering Sea on Wednesday.
Two men — Carlos Zabala of Helena, Mont., and Robert Davis of Deming, Whatcom County — remained missing and the focus of a major search after four were rescued from a life raft Wednesday evening.
The Katmai was part of the head-and-gut fleet — vessels that catch, clean and freeze fish in labor-intensive operations that require more crew than traditional fishing boats.
This is the third time in eight years that a head-and-gut vessel has sank off Alaska. The trio of sinkings have claimed at least 25 lives, and the fleet has been under a Coast Guard safety spotlight, which will ramp up again next week as a Marine Board of Investigation convenes in Anchorage to delve into the latest sinking and how to prevent future casualties.
The 93-foot Katmai, which was one of the smaller vessels in the fleet, lost steerage and rolled in rough seas sometime early Wednesday, forcing the crew into a frigid Bering Sea, according to the commander of the Coast Guard helicopter that pulled four survivors from a life raft 17 hours later.
Killed were Smith and Harper, both of Portland; Jake Gilman of Camas, Clark County; Joshua Leonguerrero of Spanaway, Pierce County; and Fuli Lemusu of Salem, Ore.
Harrison said that his cousin, Smith, was a strong man who had worked aboard the Katmai for many years, and made good money — sometimes as much as $10,000 in a two-month period. Smith would bring back fish that he'd caught off Alaska.
He said the last time he saw Smith was several months ago, when he was recovering from an incident aboard the Katmai that had damaged hs teeth. Smith was ready to head back out to sea, Harrison said.
The survivors included the ship's master, 39-year-old Henry Blake III of Massachusetts, and three crew members, Adam Foster of Shoreline, and Guy Schroder and Harold Appling, both of Anchorage, said John Young, a spokesman for Katmai Fisheries, which operates the vessel.
Coast Guard Lt. Zachary Koehler, who was piloting an HH-60 Jayhawk helicopter, said the four survivors were pummeled in chaotic seas with swells more than two stories high. The Katmai's troubles started Tuesday as the vessel was returning to Dutch Harbor from Adak Island fishing grounds with a full load of cod.
The seas were rough, and by Tuesday evening, a Katmai crewman had e-mailed another ship — the Blue Ballard — to report that the vessel had taken on water and lost steering, according to the Coast Guard.
Survivors told Koehler that the flooding involved the stern compartment. "The crew said the ship's pumps couldn't keep up," he said.
As a result, the ship lost its steering in 17-foot seas with winds topping 20 knots.
Unable to turn its bow into the oncoming seas, the Katmai became trapped in a trough and rolled over sometime after midnight.
It is unclear if the captain was able to issue a mayday call. The Coast Guard said it did not learn the boat was in trouble until its emergency locator beacon — which activates automatically when submerged — deployed about 1 a.m.
Coast Guard aircraft then faced a marathon journey amid hurricane-force winds and white-out conditions to reach the scene. "It was the most difficult flying in my career, hands down," said helicopter pilot Lt. Douglas Doll.
The Katmai had at least two life rafts, but Coast Guard officials are still trying to determine how they were deployed as the ship foundered and sank. The crew had donned survival suits.
One of the ship's two rafts was later found partially deflated and empty, according to Coast Guard officials.
The survivors had a harrowing day in their raft in rough seas. At one point, the raft reportedly held seven, but it flipped and only four were able to get back inside.
"They said initially there were seven people in the raft, and then there was a big wave and it got whittled down," said Doll.
The raft with the four crewmen was spotted late Wednesday afternoon drifting along in a debris field of "stuff that had come off the boat when it sank," Koehler said.
A Coast Guard rescue swimmer dropped from a helicopter and swam to the raft. By turn, the survivors went into the water and then into a basket that was hauled up to the chopper.
"One was definitely in worse shape than the others, and all were cold, hungry and shivering from hypothermia," Koehler said.
Linda Poletau, Blake's sister, said her brother has been fishing in Alaska for 20 years but planned to make this season his last. "It was dangerous, and he wanted to be closer to his family," she said.
As of late Thursday, the search continued for two missing crewmen, while Courageous, a fishing vessel that had joined in the search, returned to Adak Island with the bodies of five deceased crew.
All of the survivors have been issued subpoenas by the Coast Guard in anticipation of the Board of Investigation, which is expected to convene early next week. The two previous Coast Guard Board of Investigations of the head-and-gut fleet examined the 2001 sinking of the Arctic Rose that claimed 15 lives, and the March sinking of the Alaska Ranger that killed five of the 47 crew. That report has not yet been released.
The Katmai was built in 1987, and this year has been fishing for cod with baited traps known as pots. Within the past year, the vessel has been listed for sale on Pacific Boat Brokers.com for $647,500. In the online ad, it was described as a "world-class vessel."
But Jim Herbert, an Alaska fishermen who serves on the board of the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association, was not impressed when his vessel docked next to the Katmai for several days earlier this year in Dutch Harbor.
"It really wasn't super-clean, and didn't look like it was in top-notch shape," Herbert said. "My overall impression was that it was a funky operation."
Katmai Fisheries is controlled by Lloyd Cannon, a pioneer of the U.S. fisheries off Alaska, who now lives in Edmonds. Cannon, 78, helped found All-Alaska Seafoods, a company that prospered catching and processing North Pacific fish but also had a series of mishaps that included a 1990 vessel sinking that claimed three lives and a 1994 shipboard fire that claimed one life.
John Young, a spokesman for Katmai Fisheries, said Cannon, who has serious medical problems, is devastated by the sinking of the vessel.
"For him, it's all about the lives lost," Young said.
Seattle Times staff reporter Noelene Clark, and researchers David Turim and Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report. Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or firstname.lastname@example.org; and Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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