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Thursday, March 27, 2008 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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An icy plunge into the Bering

Chicago Tribune

Jeremy Freitag was asleep Sunday morning when the sinking Alaska Ranger's alarm awakened him.

Within minutes, the 22-year-old and his shipmates mustered on deck to board their life rafts, but there was a problem: One raft became lodged under the bow and another broke away as it was being lowered from the 203-foot fishing trawler.

"I jumped," Freitag said Wednesday.

Eventually he swam through icy seas to a raft, where someone pulled him aboard. There, for an hour, he listened to the screams and shouts of his colleagues floating in the sea. He and others helped those they could while they waited in near-freezing waters 120 miles west of Dutch Harbor, Alaska, for help to arrive.

It took the nearest U.S. Coast Guard helicopter nearly 2 ½ hours to reach the scene; and when it did, crew members with night-vision goggles saw lights flickering in the darkened seas.

"Initially we saw three lights flashing," said Coast Guard Lt. Steve Bonn, the pilot, who soon realized those lights were safety beacons attached to life rafts and the survival suits of Ranger crewmen. "We then saw four, five, six, eight [lights]; we saw a dozen blinking around the water," he said, describing how he flew higher into the sky.

"We were starting to see the scale — they were scattered over a mile."

Bonn and his crew quickly pointed their HH-60 Jayhawk chopper toward the lights of men like Freitag. Flight mechanic Robert Debolt lowered rescue swimmer Petty Officer 2nd Class O'Brien Hollow in a basket, which returned twice, loaded with shivering men. The crew flew 13 Ranger crewmen — all they could fit, even after tossing gear into the sea — to a Coast Guard cutter, which was 60 miles away and rushing toward the scene. By daybreak, the Jayhawk, the cutter, another Coast Guard helicopter and the Alaska Warrior, a Ranger sister ship, had managed to save 42 men.

It was a miraculous moment, but one muted by the fact that four crewmen, including the Ranger's captain, died that morning of hypothermia. A fifth is still missing, and the search has been suspended.

Since Sunday's incident, investigators have been trying to determine what caused the Ranger to take on water as it made its way to remote and rich mackerel fishing grounds.

Investigators plan a public meeting Friday in Dutch Harbor as part of a probe into the sinking.

Coast Guard Capt. Michael Rand, from headquarters in Washington, D.C., will head the meeting.

The Ranger's owner, Seattle-based Fishing Co. of Alaska, has instructed survivors not to speak to the media, but Freitag, along with two former Ranger fishermen who have spoken with other survivors, tell tales of bravery in the darkness that morning, with crew leaders staying aboard, trying to keep the ship from sinking, until some eventually jumped into the water.

The facts seem to back up that anecdote: Four of the five men who died were among the ship's highest-ranked sailors.

Will Sterner, 28, knew two of the men lost Sunday. Satoshi Konno, of Japan, is the crew member whose body was lost.

"He didn't speak English well, but he wouldn't hesitate to chew you out if you messed up," said Sterner, who described Konno as a "very proud," good guy.

Sterner said skipper Eric "Capt. Pete" Jacobsen, 66, was a seasoned sailor, but someone who cared enough to calm his nerves about seasickness before Sterner's first voyage.

"He told me he gets seasick every time he goes out, too," he said. "I don't know if that was true, because he was a worthy seaman, but he made me feel better."

Freitag said the last time he saw Jacobsen, the skipper was still working the radio, bravely trying to get help to his men. Freitag does not know when Jacobsen eventually abandoned ship.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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