Calls to loved ones reveal rough conditions before sinking
By BECKY BOHRER and MARTHA BELLISLE undefined
JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — Calls to loved ones in the lead-up to the sinking of a crab boat in the cold waters off Alaska revealed the rough conditions the crew faced, including icing that did not seem to rattle the boat’s captain.
Gary Cobban Jr., the captain, was among five fishermen missing and feared dead after the Scandies Rose sank late Tuesday. Two others aboard were rescued. The Coast Guard did not release details Thursday on a possible cause, saying that talking to the survivors is part of the investigation.
Cobban’s ex-girlfriend, Jeri Lynn Smith, told the Anchorage Daily News he called her in North Carolina about two hours before the boat sank to wish her a happy new year. She said the conditions hadn’t seemed to worry him.
“When I talked to him, he told me the boat was icing and it had a list to it, but he didn’t sound alarmed. He didn’t sound scared,” Smith said. “The boat ices. The boat ices every winter. It’s just something they deal with. I didn’t worry about it.”
Smith said she wouldn’t have hung up if she thought he was in a crisis.
Others listed as missing were David Lee Cobban, Arthur Ganacias, Brock Rainey and Seth Rousseau-Gano, according to the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard said it used helicopters, planes and a boat as part of a search effort that covered 1,400 square miles and ended Wednesday evening.
Ashley Boggs of Peru, Indiana, said Rainey called her shortly before the ship sank and said conditions were bad. The two had planned to marry after Rainey returned.
“I’m just praying and hoping they find him on land or something,” Boggs told The Associated Press on Thursday.
Those rescued told authorities they were the only ones who made it into a life raft, the Anchorage Daily News reported. Dean Gribble Jr., who’s appeared on the Discovery Channel documentary series “Deadliest Catch,” and John Lawler suffered hypothermia but were released from a hospital.
The boat was carrying a load of crabbing pots for the start of the winter season, Dan Mattsen, a partner in the vessel managed by Seattle-Based Mattsen Management, told the Seattle Times.
Crabbing boats endure perilous conditions in Alaska waters that have been immortalized in “Deadliest Catch.” Workers face dangers like huge waves, harsh weather and massive crab pots that could crush them.
Commercial fishing is one of the country’s most dangerous occupations, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. It said there were 179 deaths in Alaska fisheries between 2000 and 2014, the most recent numbers available.
From 2010 to 2014, there were 66 vessel disasters in Alaska waters, including sinkings and fires, that killed 15 people, the agency said. The leading causes of fatal disasters were instability and being hit by large waves, it said. Many of the fatal incidents involved small boats known as skiffs.
Different fisheries have different risks, said Samantha Case, an epidemiologist in the agency’s Commercial Fishing Research Program.
Case said steps have been taken aimed at making the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands crab fishery safer, including Coast Guard stability checks for vessels; changes in fisheries management that reduced some operational risk, such as a “race to fish” competitiveness; and increased marine safety training.
In a high-profile incident in 2017, six people died in the capsizing and sinking of the vessel Destination in the Bering Sea, which Coast Guard Rear Admiral J.P. Nadeau called a “tragic and preventable accident.” An investigative report found stability, weight issues and excess ice accumulation from freezing spray as contributing factors.
A study Case was a part of looked at survival factors for crew on vessels in Alaska that sank and found use of life rafts and immersion suits increased chances for survival when a boat had to be abandoned. Immersion suits, which provide a bit of flotation and can help keep someone awaiting rescue warm, are critical for people who will be in water for longer periods, Case said.
The 130-foot (40-meter) Scandies Rose was traveling in an area with warnings about strong winds and heavy freezing spray, said Louise Fode, a warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
Its last known position was 170 miles (270 kilometers) southwest of Kodiak Island, and it sank about 10 p.m. Tuesday, the Coast Guard said. The vessel had sent out a mayday call.
Rescue crews battled winds of more than 40 mph (64 kph), 15- to 20-foot (4.5- to 6-meter) seas and visibility that was limited to a mile (1.5 kilometers), Petty Officer 2nd Class Melissa McKenzie said.
“That’s rough conditions,” she said.
The Coast Guard said it suspended the search after “exhausting all leads and careful consideration of survival probability.”
McKenzie said the air temperature was about 10 degrees (12 below zero Celsius). The estimated water temperature was 43 degrees (6 degrees Celsius), the weather service said.
Rescuers saw a faint light in one life raft, but a medic lowered from a helicopter found it empty, the Anchorage Daily News reported. Another faint light was spotted about a half-mile (1 kilometer) away, where searchers found the two survivors.
The men told rescuers they were able to get into survival suits and didn’t know if the other five crew members did, the newspaper reported.
David Otness, a retired crab fisherman in Cordova, Alaska, who spent more than 50 years in the industry, said it’s dangerous work.
“It’s known for its loss,” he said. “We can count the years when that isn’t the case. It’s quite a life, but it’s a labor of love and fear and respect for the world around you.”
The size of the crab pots, which weigh about 700 pounds each, can pose problems in stormy weather, Otness said. They can get covered with ice, which causes the boat to be top heavy, he said.
“It’s a dance, a ballet that transpires,” Otness said. “Your center of gravity is so quickly disrupted.”
Bill Rose of Seattle, who used to work on fishing boats in Alaska, said the conditions can be brutal — even “terrifying for someone who had never done it. But if it’s all you can do to make a living and you’re out there and you’re used to it, you really don’t think much of it.”
He said on the right boat, a fisherman could make $150,000 a year. “I mean, why wouldn’t you do it?” he said.
Bellisle reported from Seattle. Associated Press writer Mark Thiessen in Anchorage, Alaska, photographer Ted Warren in Seattle and researcher Randy Herschaft in New York contributed to this report.