A nightmare at sea, a harrowing rescue
Seattle Times staff reporter
Today's hearingThe Coast Guard, in cooperation with the National Transportation Safety Board, has launched a probe into the sinking. The panel will begin work this morning in Dutch Harbor. Proceedings are open to the public and will later move to Seattle.
For the latest updates on today's hearing, go to seattletimes.com.
UNALASKA, Alaska — The Alaska Ranger was pitching wildly. Its lights had cut out. And its engine — sputtering a death rattle — had lurched into reverse, sending the Seattle-based factory ship further out of control.
That's when Gwen Rains, a federal fishery observer and the only woman aboard, heard the call: Abandon ship.
A life raft — big enough for 20 people clad in survival suits — was quickly launched. But just as quickly, the painter line attached to the raft snapped under tension. It vanished along with the raft in the predawn darkness on Easter Sunday.
"I was standing right there and watched it break. There went my life," Rains said. "That was my rescue right there."
The nightmare was about to get worse for Rains and the 46 crew and officers aboard the trawler. Five men would die that morning. The bodies of only four were recovered.
The Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the deadly accident. A marine board of Coast Guard officials will hold a public hearing today in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, into the sinking of the Ranger, a 35-year-old processor owned by Seattle-based Fishing Company of Alaska.
Preliminary reports suggest the ship started taking on water in its rudder room and that it spread quickly into other areas.
Rains is expected to testify, possibly as early as today, before the Marine Board of Investigation.
Another crewman, Julio Morales of Los Angeles, told The Seattle Times Thursday that he noticed even before the ship left Dutch Harbor last weekend that a significant amount of seawater had leaked into the ship's rudder room.
A Coast Guard official Thursday night said Morales had been subpoenaed to testify, possibly today.
Morales said that when he saw the water, he was concerned, but he remained aboard the boat. Other former crew members interviewed by The Times have cited leaks aboard the ship in years past but added they had been repaired.
In a statement earlier this week, Fishing Company of Alaska said it is proud of its vessels, the crews and the company's maintenance and safety record. The company also said it would cooperate with federal investigators and conduct its own probe.
A dream come true
For Rains, a 38-year-old mother of four from Marshall, Ark., going to sea was the fulfillment of a childhood dream. She was trained and worked as a federal observer, one of two aboard the Ranger who tracked the fish catches and sampled the haul.
The Ranger was the sixth fishing vessel Rains had worked aboard during her two-year career in the Alaska fisheries. Rains said the Ranger, built in 1973, appeared to be among the most poorly maintained in her experience. Even the stateroom was a mess, with sodden carpets from a leaky bathroom.
As an observer, Rains was trained to examine a vessel for safety, and she was required to fill out a written checklist.
Upon arriving aboard the Alaska Ranger last week, Rains said, she checked off numerous safety issues, including frayed seals in what were supposed to secure watertight hatches.
The condition of such hatch seals became an issue as flooding began to swamp the ship Sunday morning.
Rains said she was awakened by the sound of the ship phones ringing wildly. She made her way to the wheelhouse. There, she joined the ship's officers, including first mate David Silveira, whom she knew and respected from a previous assignment on another vessel that he had skippered.
During the hour or so before she and the other crew abandoned ship, Rains said, she watched Silveira and other officers track the water that leaked from the rudder room in the stern to other areas.
"It was stated at that time that there was some water already spilling in around the watertight doors. I specifically heard them report that," Rains said.
As the floodwaters grew, a serious situation turned dire, robbing the crew of precious time to wait for rescue ships — a Coast Guard cutter and a sister fishing vessel — speeding to their aid, Rains said.
"If things had worked properly, and the flooding had been contained, we would have had the time to abandon ship to another boat rather than going into life rafts or the water," Rains said.
Several senior crew members said they didn't want to talk about what may have caused the sinking, citing the impending hearings. But they were willing to talk about their years of service aboard the Ranger, which they said was a stable boat owned by a good company that was keen on safety.
And they talked of individual acts of heroism on Sunday — bravery that saved many lives.
"There are times I cursed the boat, but I always felt secure on that boat, and I have spent hundreds of days on it," said Eric Haynes, 45, the Ranger's chief cook. "I always felt we had competent officers who knew what they were doing."
Rafts hard to board
When it became clear the ship could not be saved Sunday morning, the crew headed for the life rafts.
After the painter line snapped on the first raft, there were two other rafts to deploy on the opposite side of the vessel. But because the vessel was moving in reverse and pivoting about, the life rafts were not easy to board.
Rains said she tried to work her way down a painter line leading to a second life raft. But she fell into the water. Stunned by the chill, she still was able to grab the line, pull herself to the raft and clamber aboard.
Haynes said he jumped into the water and made it into a life raft. He struggled mightily to help another crewman into the raft. But he wasn't strong enough, and might have failed except that a third crewman, Chris Cossich, swam up to the raft and offered a strong push from below. Then he, too, climbed aboard.
Evan Holmes, a 25-year-old fish-factory manager from Missouri, was not so lucky. He jumped into the water and floated about in the waves, wearing a survival suit. He met two of his crew, and remembered being trained to grab together and form a human chain so they'd make a better rescue target.
For about two hours they clung together, hoping and praying help would come.
Holmes said he tried to keep his fellow crew members' spirits up. But one man twice lost consciousness as he struggled in an ill-fitting survival suit. Holmes said he felt part of his own body grow numb.
Holmes recalls cresting the waves and seeing signs of other strobe lights attached to the drysuits floating in the water. Then he would fall into the trough of the wave, and the lights would fade away.
Finally, helicopters arrived.
"It felt like eternity. I don't think I could have lasted another half-hour," Holmes said.
As for Rains, she was back Thursday in Dutch Harbor, recovering at the Grand Aleutian Hotel along with some of the crew still in town.
She thinks back to her last view of the officers, including her friend Silveira. While other officers stayed in the wheelhouse, radioing positions to rescuers in a ship bereft of power and steering, Silveira had crept down a pitching stern deck to try to check on one of the troubled life rafts.
Rains said she never saw him again. His body was later recovered.
"I lost a very good friend," Rains said. "He died saving my life. That's the way I will always feel."
Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or seattletimes.com">email@example.com
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