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Rescuers continue search for missing fisherman in sinking

Posted: Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Coast Guard scanned the icy Bering Sea on Monday for a fisherman who may have been dropped from a rescue basket after the vessel he was on sank, killing four people and leaving survivors bobbing across a mile of ocean.

The 203-foot Alaska Ranger was on its way to mackerel grounds when it began taking on water Sunday in rough seas. A former captain of the ship recalled the vessel Monday as being "very unstable."

Forty-two people on board were helped by rescue swimmers and hoisted to helicopters after the Seattle-based ship sank; additional help came from crew on a nearby fishing vessel. The captain and three crew members died; it wasn't immediately clear what caused the ship to sink.

A preliminary investigation shows the four men did not make it to life rafts and died of hypothermia, said Alaska Wildlife Troopers Sgt. Greg Garcia.

"It appears they were in the water for about six hours, and as you may know the Bering Sea is phenomenally cold," Garcia said.

"I don't know if there wasn't enough room in the rafts or not for them, but it sounds to me that the hierarchy wanted to assure everybody else is saved," he said, based upon the troopers' interviews with members of the Rangers' sister vessel, the Alaska Warrior, which assisted in rescue efforts.

Two Colorado brothers who had considered working on the Alaska Ranger this year saw the short list of victims and were relieved to see that none of their friends were among the missing or deceased.

Will and Doug Sterner of Pueblo received updates from a friend on the ship, whom they declined to identify because the company insists crew members not speak publicly about the sinking, the Sterners said.

"They said the ship went down fast once it started going, about 15 minutes," said 22-year-old Doug Sterner, who did one three-month stint last year on the Alaska Ranger.

"They said the captain had been very brave about the whole thing," he said. "He was one of the last, if not the last, to abandon ship. That might have been the result of him not making it."

The boat's owner, the Seattle-based Fishing Co. of Alaska, has identified the captain as Eric Peter Jacobsen, 65, of Lynnwood, Wash.

The missing crew member was identified as Satashi Konno of Japan. The cutter searched for Konno until late Monday, when it left for Dutch Harbor, about 120 miles to the east. Aerial searches continued late Monday, Lane said.

Konno, whose age was unknown, was wearing a survival suit, but even so, water temperatures are a dangerous 36 degrees, said Chief Petty Officer Barry Lane.

"It's not a pleasant state," Lane said on Monday. "We are trying to find him as quickly as possible."

Konno perhaps fell into the water from a rescue basket, and officials were investigating. It was not clear whether that person might have been Konno, officials said.

When the ship sank, waves up to 20 feet and winds of nearly 30 mph were reported, Lane said, revising earlier estimates of 8-foot waves.

Coast Guard swimmers plucked several crew members - most of whom were able to pull on survival suits - either out of the sea or from life boats onto helicopters during a rescue operation that began about 2½ hours after the mayday call was received.

At least 13 survivors spread out over a mile were not in life boats, but were in the open water.

"Saving 42 people in Bering Sea in the winter is an incredible accomplishment," Coast Guard Cmdr. Todd Trimpert said in a prepared statement.

The Alaska Warrior delivered 22 survivors and three of the dead crew members to Dutch Harbor. The ship went into a private dock, where there was no public access to survivors.

The remaining 20 survivors and the fourth dead crew member were still on a Coast Guard cutter assisting in the search.

The company identified the other victims as chief engineer Daniel Cook, hometown unknown; mate David Silveira of San Diego; and crewman Byron Carrillo, believed to be from Seattle.

Problems began early Sunday when the ship's rudder room began taking on water. A distress call went out just before 3 a.m.

Richard Canty, now a tug boat operator in New York, captained the Alaska Ranger 12 years ago.

"There were a lot of rudder problems on that boat," Canty said. "It was a very unstable boat."

The vessel used to be in the Gulf of Mexico as an oil field services ship but had been converted for fishing, Canty said.

"It was a mess," he said. "It was a top-heavy boat. It was unstable."

Officials with the Fishing Co. of Alaska did not immediately return calls seeking comment.

Jacobsen's son, Scott Jacobsen, told KIRO-TV in Seattle the family wants to know what would cause such a large vessel to sink.

"(It) raises the question, something was wrong, went really wrong, so we're interested in the details," he said. "Things like that don't just happen. My dad's been fishing all his life and he's never had anything remotely close to this happen."



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