Alaska Ranger crew member testifies officer smelled of booze
Seattle Times staff reporter
UNALASKA, Alaska — Questions about alcohol use among the crew of the Alaska Ranger emerged Sunday as Coast Guard investigators heard contradictory testimony about the sobriety of the chief engineer as he abandoned the Seattle-based factory trawler.
Two crew members — both under oath — gave sharply different testimony about Chief Engineer Daniel Cook, who was among the five who died when the vessel sank a week ago Sunday after taking on water through a major leak in the stern area.
In morning testimony, Julio Morales, a first-year crewman, said he was with Cook in the water and that there was a "heavy alcohol" scent on the engineer's breath.
James Madruga, a surviving engineer, testified that he was with Cook both on deck and in the water, and that at no time did Cook have any alcohol on his breath.
"I know he would never have been drinking or anything like that," Madruga said. "The chief was on medication at the time."
A Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation, working with the National Transportation Safety Board, is examining the circumstances surrounding the sinking of the vessel. It's also looking at the rescue of 42 crew, and safety oversight of the vessel, which netted and froze yellowfin sole, mackerel and other Bering Sea fish.
The hearings here likely will continue until midweek, then resume later in April in Seattle. Investigators are likely to ask more questions about alcohol in an effort to determine whether it could have played any role in the events leading up to the sinking.
In the hours just before the 2 a.m. alarm that signaled the leak, Cook was off duty while an assistant engineer, Rodney Lundy, was on watch. Then, as the vessel began taking on water, Cook awoke and, after a brief inspection below deck, went to the wheelhouse where crew were assembling to abandon ship, according to Lundy, who testified Saturday.
Sunday's testimony by Morales prompted John Neeleman, an attorney for the vessel's owner, Fishing Company of Alaska, to cross-examine a witness for the first time during the hearing.
Neeleman asked Morales how alcohol might have been detected on Cook's breath, when the engineer was zipped into a survival suit among the waves, and there was the smell of diesel and the winds of the Bering Sea.
Morales said he was face to face with Cook and could detect alcohol.
Morales also alleged other incidents of alcohol use aboard the Alaska Ranger in recent weeks, including a Japanese fish master who died when the vessel went down, and several others.
"There had been a lot of drinking on the boat," said Morales, who has hired a maritime attorney to pursue a damage claim against the company. Morales lost a cousin, crewman Byron Carrillo, when the vessel sank.
Ryan Shuck, another surviving crew member reached by The Seattle Times on Sunday, said booze was frequently smuggled on board, despite a company policy forbidding it. Shuck said he saw liquor being purchased just before the ship left on its final trip.
Federal law prohibits licensed officers — such as the chief engineer — from drinking on board vessels, or reporting to duty drunk. And Fishing Company of Alaska has a "zero tolerance" policy for all crew that prohibits them from bringing any alcohol or drugs aboard company vessels and working under the influence. Violations can lead to "discipline up to and including termination," according to the employee handbook.
That appears to be what happened to one American crew member involved in processing who both Madruga and Morales said was fired while the Alaska Ranger offloaded its cargo in Unalaska on March 22, the night before the sinking.
"He [the crewman] could hardly stand up. He just reeked of booze," Madruga said.
Morales also testified that after the vessel left port, two processing crewmen offered him a drink to celebrate a birthday.
"I refused," Morales said. "All I wanted was rest. I knew that it was going to be hard work."
When the Alaska Ranger started to go down, Morales said he was one of the last people to get off the ship. It pitched so sharply that it was possible to slide — not jump — along an icy deck into the sea.
Morales said that for a period of time in the water, he was holding on to Cook, whom he said he liked and respected.
Madruga said he entered the water with Cook and never saw Morales with the engineer.
Hal Bernton: 206-464-2580 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company