Search for crewman halted as CG resumes quest for others

Three crew members of sunken Kodiak crabber Deep Valley remained missing Monday evening as search ended its third day

Posted: Tuesday, January 18, 2005

ANCHORAGE - Separated from the others, Cache Seel clung to the hull of the Big Valley as the 92-foot crab boat slammed against the waves of the churning Bering Sea.

It seemed like an eternity. Or it could have been a few minutes from the moment the 30-year-old Kodiak man was jolted awake to the time the last light went out in the sinking vessel Saturday morning.

He remains the only apparent survivor among the six-man crew.

"I have no idea what happened," Seel, 30, said Monday. "I was asleep when it started to roll over on its starboard side. I was dang near standing up in my bunk when I woke up."

Seel immediately jumped into his survival suit and for the first few seconds heard the voices of the other crew members. He doesn't recall if they were excited or even what they said. The rest of his recollection is a jumble, flashes of thrashing waves, choking engine smoke, grabbing a life raft, his only instinct to survive.

There was no time for anyone to make a mayday call. Authorities, in fact, were alerted by signals from the Big Valley's emergency location beacon when it sank 70 miles west of St. Paul Island, about 750 miles west of Anchorage.

"I was just getting raked, knocked around," Seel said. "Everything was pretty frantic."

He said he is trying to comprehend the loss of his fellow crewmates.

"It's a tragedy about these guys," he said. "Most of us have been together for years. They're all very dear to me. Saying I'm sorry just doesn't cut it."

Three of the crew remained missing Monday evening as the Coast Guard wrapped up the third day of an intensive search.

A man lost overboard from another boat was presumed dead and the search for him was suspended. Crews had scrambled to save the crewman, even briefly grasping him, but he slipped away into the frigid water, according to Coast Guard officials.

Seel was among three crew members of the Big Valley who were found after the boat sank, but he was the only one to survive, even though all three were wearing bulky survival suits.

Alaska State Troopers identified one of the dead men as Carlos Rivero, 35, of Uruguay. No hometown was given.

The other dead crewman was from Belgium, but troopers have not been able to locate relatives and have asked consulate officials for help, said trooper Dennis Dupras.

A Coast Guard cutter and helicopter went out at first light Monday to hunt for the missing crew members, said Petty Officer Sara Francis. Among the missing is Gary Edwards, skipper and owner of the Kodiak-based Big Valley.

No autopsies are planned for the recovered dead, said trooper spokesman Tim DeSpain. The state medical examiner intends to perform an autopsy only on Edwards should his body be found, DeSpain said.

The crewman who washed overboard from another crab boat, the 134-foot Sultan, was wearing only rain gear, Francis said.

Manu Lagai, 33, of Spokane, Wash., was knocked over by huge crab traps Saturday about 150 miles northwest of St. Paul Island. The skipper of the Seattle-based Sultan immediately turned the vessel around and crews rushed to help Lagai, Francis said.

"One of the crewmen actually got a grip of him, but lost him," Francis said. "That was the last anyone saw of him."

Survival in the 37-degree water is estimated at slightly more than five hours for people wearing survival gear, the Coast Guard says.

The Coast Guard plans to investigate both accidents, Francis said.

Both vessels were after snow crab, a fishery that opened to commercial vessels Saturday in stormy seas and winds up to 40 mph.

A major reason fishing for king and snow crab is so dangerous is that the shellfish are harvested in winter, when their leg meat is at its maximum. Boats heave and dive in the rough weather, large waves break over the gunwales, and wooden deck planking often ices over. Fishermen skip sleep to launch and haul hundreds of 600-pound steel traps.

From 1991 to 1996, 61 people died in Alaska's crab fisheries, with most of the fatalities in heavy weather, according to a study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

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