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Monday, June 11, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The Mystery of the Arctic Rose: The investigation

Seattle Times staff reporters

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Part One: The final voyage
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Part two of two

From the air, Dutch Harbor's piers wrap around the foot of a cloud-shrouded volcanic peak that rises up at the edge of one of the world's most abundant seas.

This is North America's biggest fishing port, an industrial toehold in the rugged, stark landscape of the Aleutian Islands.

Trawlers unload thousands of tons of fish. Crabbers take on steel-trap pots for their next trip to the harvest grounds. Warehouses - built by the Army during the fight against Japan during World War II - are still used for supplies.

On April 12, a balmy gray day, Coast Guard Lt. James Robertson touched down at the airport, checked in at the Grand Aleutian Hotel, and began his search for clues to the sinking of a trawler called the Arctic Rose owned by a Seattle seafood company.

Robertson is a career "Coasty" whose 16 years have given him an almost forensic knowledge of maritime disasters. He has investigated dozens of them: men pulled overboard by tangled gear, shipboard fires, groundings, collisions and sinkings.

In April, Robertson was assigned the biggest - and perhaps toughest - case of his career.

The 92-foot Arctic Rose had gone down 10 days before his arrival in Dutch Harbor, a high-seas calamity that claimed 15 crewmen and ranked as the worst loss of life aboard a U.S. fishing vessel in some 50 years. It sank suddenly in moderate seas. There were no survivors and no last-minute mayday.

The gravity of the event prompted the Coast Guard to assign the highest priority to this investigation, convening a four-person Marine Board of Investigation that would include the 37-year-old Robertson. Heading the probe is Capt. Ronald Morris, who was joined by Cmdr. John Bingaman and Robert Ford of the National Transportation Safety Board.

The Marine Board of Investigation convenes in Seattle for public hearings that begin tomorrow. Two weeks of hearings are planned before the board shifts venues to Alaska on July 9 for four more days of work.

Just weeks before Robertson's arrival, the Arctic Rose had motored into Dutch Harbor to refuel and resupply; its crew was frustrated by a rocky start to what they had hoped would be a lucrative fishing season.

With scant information to go on, Robertson sought out the suppliers and shipyard workers who had serviced the Arctic Rose. He jawed with fishermen who filter into the Elbow Room, a local watering hole. And in a nine-hour marathon that began one Sunday afternoon, he interviewed all 27 crewmen of the Alaskan Rose, a sister ship to the smaller Arctic Rose and which had been the first to the scene of the disaster.

Other Coast Guard investigators talked to officials at Arctic Sole Seafoods, the boat's Seattle owner. They hunted for the Mississippi builder who'd built the Arctic Rose 13 years ago in what one investigator called a "bicycle boatyard."

In the Coast Guard's Washington, D.C., headquarters, naval architects built a computerized model of the trawler to try to determine what might have made it sink.

Plans are even being laid for a summer expedition to the Bering Sea, where an unmanned submarine would be dropped some 400 feet to photograph the wreck.

Early on, Coast Guard investigators have ruled nothing out - even the bizarre. They checked for falling space junk, freak waves, icebergs and secretive U.S. or Russian submarines that might have surfaced and accidentally gored the Arctic Rose.

Nothing.

Stability questioned

Somehow, the boat's stability - that crucial ability to remain buoyant and upright - had been catastrophically subverted.

The Bering Sea is known for brutal weather. Mountainous waves, tightly spaced, can hammer a boat to the point where it founders and sinks.

But even in calm weather, small amounts of water entering sensitive areas of a boat can be deadly. Water sloshing back and forth produces a "free surface effect" that has sunk many a boat.

The Arctic Rose's stability will hold center stage as the Marine Board of Investigation begins its work. The board wants to question mechanics, former crewmen, naval architects and Dave Olney, president of Arctic Sole Seafoods. With few clues to work with, the board will focus on four areas: human error; the ship's propeller shaft; flooding in the boat's processing plant; and structural failure.

The board eventually will settle on what it deems the most likely scenario, and recommend new safety rules to try to prevent a repeat in an industry that has the highest fatality rate among U.S. workers.

As Robertson and the board work this week in Seattle, family and friends of the lost crew will gather to watch from a gallery. During the proceedings, members of the crew's families and their legal representatives will be able to question witnesses, who will be sworn in.

"I would like to know - very much so - what happened," says Kathy Meincke, whose 20-year-old son, Jeff Meincke, worked as a deckhand. "It's very difficult - not knowing - and I'm having trouble with closure."

Inspiration from a book

When Robertson flew to Dutch Harbor, he carried with him a copy of "Lost at Sea," a detailed chronicle of another Alaska fishery disaster, the twin sinkings of two Anacortes-based vessels, Altair and Americus.

Known as the "A boats," they sank suddenly in mild weather Feb. 14, 1983, less than 100 miles from Dutch Harbor. There were no survivors.

Patrick Dillon, the author, devoted much of the book to the probe into the bizarre double sinking. The Coast Guard turned to Bruce Adee, a University of Washington professor and naval architect, who emerged as a kind of maritime Sherlock Holmes.

Through painstaking research, Adee discovered that boat builders had underestimated - by as much as 60 tons - the vessels' true weight. That meant the ships' operating rules, designed to keep the boats stable at sea, left them vulnerable when carrying heavy crab pots.

Robertson was fascinated by the tale, and inspired by Adee.

But in this investigation, Robertson can't turn to the professor. Only days after the Arctic Rose sank, Adee was hired by the boat's insurers: Arctic Sole Seafoods already has been sued by families of several dead crewmen.

Adee still will try to figure out what happened. But if the insurer doesn't like his conclusions, it can write him a check and bury his findings.

One-of-a-kind mystery

Adee and other experts expect the Arctic Rose inquiry to be more challenging than the A-boats probe.

After the A boats sank, investigators obtained detailed construction plans from an Anacortes boatyard. They also had a sister ship, an exact replica of the two lost boats, to be inspected and measured.

But the Arctic Rose appears to be one of a kind. It was built in 1988 in a small Biloxi, Miss., boatyard. The builder, John Yan Nguyen, may have pieced together the Arctic Rose with scant blueprints. The boatyard is now defunct and Coast Guard investigators can't find Nguyen.

"I have no reason to suspect he's hiding from us," Robertson said. "But the gentleman has disappeared."

The Arctic Rose started out as a shrimper called the Sea Power, then was outfitted to gather Atlantic scallops. It was sold, outfitted for trawling in the Pacific, and renamed Tenacity.

Some former crew say the modifications made the narrow boat top-heavy. Chester Holmes, of Eureka, Calif., was a deckhand aboard the boat when it snagged a net and nearly rolled over off Oregon in early 1993.

"I was on that boat just long enough to get off," Holmes said.

Arctic Sole Seafoods, which has its offices at Fishermen's Terminal, took ownership of the boat in 1999. Olney renamed it Arctic Rose to complement the other boat in his fleet: the 120-foot Alaskan Rose.

The Arctic Rose was drab, rundown and in need of work. A new engine was installed and improvements made. A naval architect inspected it and drew up a list of operating rules.

"We generated a lot of data to help determine the vessel's weight and center of gravity," said Jonathan Parrott, director of engineering at Jensen Maritime, the firm that did the tests. The stability of the Arctic Rose, Parrott recalled, "wasn't the best we've seen, but certainly not the worst."

Along with a hard look at the boat's overall stability, the Coast Guard panel will probe questions about the propeller shaft, possible flooding inside its processing plant, late-night fuel transfers and whether it simply broke apart.

A new propeller shaft

When Olney's company bought the boat it was in rough shape. The previous owners had had problems with the shaft, and at the time of the sale, the old shaft was lying on the deck.

Olney replaced the shaft, but the troubles didn't end there. Bearings that supported it sometimes ran hot; one had to be replaced. Later, custom gauges were installed so the boat's engineer, Milosh Katurich, could monitor the bearings' temperatures. Katurich, unhappy with his pay, quit the ship Feb. 28, a month before it sank.

If the shaft had seized or broken on April 2, sea water could have poured in through damaged packing surrounding the 5-inch stainless-steel shaft.

If water had seeped undetected through a hatch and into a large freezer compartment above the shaft, could it have caused the vessel to capsize in moderate seas? That theory has been suggested by attorneys representing several families of the dead crew.

But shaft breakdowns usually don't sink vessels. More than 730 boats reported shaft-related problems in the 1990s, according to Coast Guard records. Just 18 boats sank; only five of them went down suddenly, records show.

In most cases, crews had time to try to fix the leak or flee to life rafts.

In the case of the Arctic Rose, even if most of the crew were asleep as water seeped in, an alarm in the freezer hold should have alerted them to danger.

"We're hearing a lot about the shaft," Robertson said. "But it won't be our only focus."

Dangers on deck

A buildup of sea water inside the Arctic Rose's enclosed fish-processing station on the deck also could have sunk the boat.

The processing room was staffed by crewmen who beheaded and gutted the day's catch, which was stacked in trays and frozen. Thousands of gallons of sea water were pumped in and out of the plant to clean the fish and flush away waste.

Even 6 inches of accumulated water on the processing-room floor would weigh tons, said Anthony de Sam Lazaro, a former naval captain in India and dean of engineering at St. Martin's College in Olympia.

If the water began to slosh back and forth freely, it could have created an immense and dynamic "free surface effect" and tipped the boat.

To guard against that, two sump pumps were installed inside the processing plant. But water did build up, according to Katurich, the former engineer.

And on the afternoon of April 1, the day before the sinking, Arctic Rose skipper David Rundall complained in a radio call that one pump had been clogged by garbage. That pump was later fixed, he reported, and that evening the crew continued slicing, gutting and freezing tons of sole.

Did water build up inside the processing plant, causing the Arctic Rose to wallow and then suddenly flop over?

Coast Guard investigators will question several witnesses who have been subpoenaed to testify this week on conditions inside the processing plant.

Balancing the fuel tanks

Investigators are poring over whatever information they can find on the loading of the vessel, a key to stability. Former crewmembers have told the Coast Guard that the Arctic Rose would list when big bags of fish were hauled aboard its stern. To correct a serious list, the boat's engineers would shift fuel from tank to tank.

Hours before the boat sank, Rundall reported taking on a big haul of fish. If someone botched the fuel transfer, Rundall probably would have noticed the list and made sure the problem was corrected. But after his watch ended and he went to bed, it is possible additional tank transfers were made as the weight of the day's catch was redistributed, Robertson said.

Could errors in transferring the fuel have caused the Arctic Rose to sink?

A catastrophic failure

The uncertain construction of this vessel, its conversions and the harsh Bering Sea duty raise the possibility the boat simply broke apart.

This scenario would seem most likely had the Arctic Rose sunk during a pounding storm. Instead, it sank in tame seas.

Still, some seamen think that might have happened, catching the crew so unprepared they never had time to scramble into a life raft or don their thick, orange survival suits.

Katurich, the former Arctic Rose engineer, said he felt the boat was worn. "I believe that maybe she broke in half and sank."

Lengthy inquiry

The Coast Guard probe of the Anacortes A boats took more than two years. The agency made a series of recommendations to try to ensure that the industry's drive to build ever-larger fishing boats didn't compromise their stability.

While some recommendations took root, others were dismissed as impractical - or ill conceived - by the maritime industry.

The Arctic Rose investigation, like that of the A boats, may stretch out for months or years. And James Robertson knows the final report and recommendations might be shelved and, in time, forgotten.

But with a loss of 15 men, he hopes not.

"The history of Coast Guard safety regulation is written in blood," he said. "We want to make a difference."

Research for this story was performed by Seattle Times researcher Vince Kueter. Mike Carter can be reached at 206-

464-3706 or mcarter@seattletimes.com.

Hal Bernton can be reached at 206-

464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com.

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