Matt Duben could see the air station’s runway from his living room window. It was Saturday afternoon, March 22, and the snowplow was out there, slowly clearing the strip.
Duben flew the Coast Guard’s fixed-wing airplane, the Hercules C-130, or “Herc.” He was forty-five and this was his second Kodiak tour. He and his wife had been stationed on the island in the mid-1990s. They loved it so much they had come back on vacation almost every year since. The town was custom-made for their lifestyle: hiking, fishing, hunting. And the flying was spectacular—arguably the most challenging flying any pilot could ever do. The environment was harsh and there were endless logistics associated with the long distances and violent weather. All the cold, snow, and ice made mechanical problems common. But it was so beautiful. On prettier days it couldn’t get any prettier, and on nasty days you couldn’t imagine anything nastier. It was his kind of place.
Duben and his wife had five-year-old triplets, a girl and two boys. He’d taught them to fish on a local river. They lived right on base. When he was on duty—typically one or two twenty-four-hour shifts a week—he could wait at home for the call. The goal was to be airborne within half an hour of when a search and rescue (SAR) case came in. From his house, Duben could jump in his truck and be at the hangar in less than five minutes.
The weather report at that morning’s air station briefing wasn’t alarming but Duben knew well that the weather in Kodiak often doesn’t align with the forecast. He’d learned to look out the window and gauge the conditions on an hour-by-hour basis. By midafternoon, it was snowing pretty heavily, with serious wind gusts.
The runway at Kodiak is short, and the wind direction makes even a routine takeoff difficult. In the winter, Kodiak C-130 crews regularly predeploy to Elmendorf Air Force base in Anchorage, where they will be better positioned to respond to a search and rescue call. The weather tends to be clearer there, and the runway is far easier to take off from and to approach than the stubby strip in Kodiak.
If we’re gonna go, we better get out of here now, Duben thought as he watched the plow chug up the asphalt. We should take advantage of the clear runway. Duben’s copilot that day, thirty-one-year-old Tommy Wallin, was thinking the same thing. By late afternoon they were consulting with the day’s operations officer. Everyone agreed: Duben, Wallin, and their five-man crew would fly the Herc to Anchorage.
First, though, they had to defuel the plane. The C-130’s standard load of fuel is 45,000 pounds (6,600 gallons)—enough for nine hours of flying, or maybe more if the pilots take extreme measures to preserve gas. But the heavier the plane, the longer the runway needed for a safe takeoff. A wet, slippery airstrip makes things worse, which was another reason to head to Elmendorf. If they got a SAR case, the pilots would try to take off in almost any conditions. But from Kodiak in bad weather, it would be impossible to take off with enough fuel to reach an emergency far out in the Bering Sea. It was better to preemptively head to Anchorage.
It was dusk by the time the plane lifted off above the snow-shrouded island. The flight east took just over an hour. As usual, the weather in Anchorage was far better, and after prepping the plane and refueling, the crew loaded into a van to a hotel on base. Elmendorf didn’t have much room for the Coast Guard. The base didn’t have an extra hangar for them, so the crew left the plane on the taxiway. There were beds, though. Thirty bucks a night in Air Force billeting. Before midnight, the entire seven-man crew was asleep.
EMPTY FOOD TRAYS WERE LINED UP in the Alaska Ranger’s galley, a few holding cold pizza slices hardened with congealed cheese. Every Saturday was pizza night. That was the one constant in Eric Haynes’ weekly menu. It was 2:00 in the morning, but four or five guys were still clustered around one of the galley’s tables—among them boatswain Chris Cossich and factory manager Evan Holmes. They were watching an old boxing video on the galley’s TV, killing time while there was plenty of time to kill.
The ship had been under way for almost fourteen hours, steaming west toward the fishing grounds. There wouldn’t be any factory work until the first haul came up. In the meantime, the crew cherished the downtime. They watched movies and TV shows: DVDs of South Park, Family Guy, and King of the Hill. Between meals, some played poker, a few read. Mostly they just slept.
The Ranger was already more than one hundred miles from Dutch Harbor. Every FCA trawler was headed to the Atka grounds. The Ranger had left Dutch hours ahead of the others, though. Fish master Satoshi Konno was eager to get going. As the ship steamed out of Captains Bay just after noontime on Saturday, March 22, the other FCA trawlers—Alaska Juris, Alaska Spirit, Alaska Victory, and Alaska Warrior—were still tied up at the pier.
Evan and Chris were two of five men on the Ranger’s e-squad, or emergency squad. A couple years before, they had each gone to a week of basic safety training in Seattle. The company had suggested it and paid for it. The class covered everything: firefighting, man overboard, abandon ship. They jumped off a pier into Puget Sound and practiced climbing in and out of life rafts. They learned CPR. Evan thought it was a really good class.
He was twenty-five years old and from Sonora, California. He’d been working on the Ranger for just two years, but had moved up fast. As a new processor, he’d tried hard to impress people, and his effort had paid off. Just a few days before, Evan had been promoted to factory manager, one of the more important jobs on the ship. It didn’t hurt that there was such a high turnover. The previous summer B season there’d been at least a dozen brand-new guys all starting at once on a forty-five-man crew. This year they’d had about an equal number, though spread out over the season. Four or five new guys had started in just the past week. If they were hard workers and stuck around, they’d move up quickly, too.
Evan was pretty sure that the fish master had played a role in his promotion to factory manager. Konno wasn’t friendly with many Americans, but he seemed to like Evan. He was one of the only nonofficers whom Konno knew by name. “Holmes!” he’d yell. Some guys had been on the boat for two or three times as long as Evan and still weren’t even a shift leader. The fish master liked to give people like that a hard time. One time Evan had been sitting with another crew member when Konno pointed at the guy.
“How long on boat? How long fishing?” the Japanese man asked.
“Eight years,” he answered.
Konno turned to Evan: “How long?”
“Ha, ha! Nice,” the fish master mocked.
“Dipshit,” the other guy said.
Konno wasn’t an easy person to like, but Evan figured getting along with him was basically a matter of doing his job well. The man was all about getting the fish, and he was no hypocrite. In freezing weather, when everyone else was bundled up and moving slowly, the fish master would be sprinting around handling the net with bare hands. He was faster than anyone else. Konno was a bust-ass, no-bullshit worker and he expected the same of the people working under him. That was something to respect.
EVAN WAS RECLINING ON A BENCH across from the TV when the galley’s A-phone rang. The A-phone system allowed the crew to communicate between the galley, the bridge, the engine room, and many of the officers’ staterooms. Evan got up.
“Hello?” he said into the plastic receiver.
He hung up, but as soon as he did, the phone rang again.
“Hello?” He waited. “Hello?”
Still, no one.
“What the hell’s going on?” Evan said aloud, but the other guys only shrugged. He left the receiver off the hook and started up toward the wheelhouse.
The ship’s top officers worked twelve-hour shifts, with the captain and chief engineer on days, and the first mate and assistant engineer on duty at night. First Mate David Silveira was in the wheelhouse.
Silveira saw Evan approach the door with boatswain Chris Cossich right behind him.
“We’re taking on water in the ramp room,” Silveira said. “Go down there and do your jobs.”
Evan and Chris looked at each other, then ran two flights back down to the galley.
“Hey, we’re flooding!” Evan yelled at the rest of the guys in the dining area. They were still watching the old boxing tape. Evan and Chris kept moving deeper into the ship, one more deck down to the Ranger’s ramp room, at the stern of the boat. The room was basically the ship’s shop, where the crew kept tools and supplies for repairs. It was called the ramp room because of the platform at the rear, where the Ranger’s massive trawl nets were pulled up.
Evan opened the door.
Holy shit, there was a foot of standing water in there.
He felt the breath sucked out of him.
Evan knew there should absolutely never be water in the ramp room. The space was on the second level of the ship, a full floor above the engine room, and rudder room. If you left a hatch open maybe a little bit of water could have splashed in from the factory, which was in the middle of the ship on the same level. But Evan had never seen it happen. Besides, the factory was shut down right now. Everything should have been sealed up and all the water lines turned off.
Evan could hear another A-phone ringing. Maybe several phones were ringing. He didn’t hear an alarm going off, though. What the hell, Evan thought. It must have taken a while for the water to get this high. Where was it coming from? Evan had no idea, but as he stared at the far wall, he thought he could see the waterline slowly rising.
The pumps! There were two dewatering pumps on the far side of the shop. They’d have to wade through the water to get at them. Evan was wearing tennis shoes. Chris had on flip-flops. They looked at each other. Okay, this is serious, Evan thought. But how serious? He turned to Chris. “We gotta go,” he said. There was no time to go back upstairs to change into their boots.
As soon as Evan stepped into the standing water his feet and calves began to ache and cramp up. The freezing water felt like a million pinpricks over his skin. His heart raced as they waded through the salt water, pulled a pump from a far wall, and struggled with it back across the ramp room.
We gotta get this thing going, Evan thought as they placed the pump down by the ramp room door. It took just a minute for the two e-squad members to get the ship’s fire hose hooked up to the pump. Then Evan headed toward the stairway up to the deck, the long end of the hose looped around his arms.
Just as he was headed up the narrow metal staircase, Evan ran into Chief Engineer Dan Cook, who was coming down. Evan didn’t know Cook that well. The chief was a big man, six foot two and close to 280 pounds, with a shiny bald head and a Santa-like white beard. The fifty-eight-year-old engineer had only been on the Ranger for a couple of months, but Evan could tell he was a jokester from the few times they had talked. Now the older man was deadly serious.
He stopped Evan on the stairs. “No, go to the suits,” he said.
“What?” Evan said. He had the fire hose in his hand and was prepared to bring it up to the deck where he’d run the end of the hose overboard.
The chief was breathing heavily and sweat was running down the sides of his bald head. “Get everybody up there, too, and get your suits on. We might have to abandon ship.”
JULIO MORALES JOLTED AWAKE. An alarm was going off, a loud, ringing sound like an old-fashioned telephone. He looked around the dark, eight-man bunk room. Most of the racks had men in them; only a couple of people were moving.
It must be a training drill, Julio thought. Then, he heard someone yell from lower in the boat: “The rudder room is flooding!”
Julio climbed down from the top bunk. Out in the narrow hallway, he saw one of his bosses, Evan Holmes, running toward him.
“Get ready to abandon ship!” Evan yelled.
“Are you serious?” Julio said. Evan was opening stateroom doors, yelling people’s names and shaking men awake.
“We got to get out,” he screamed. “The rudder room is full of water!”
ERIC HAYNES WAS ALSO ASLEEP in his bunk when he was startled awake by his cabinmate, Assistant Cook Mark Hagerman, knocking at the door. “Eric, I don’t know how bad it is, but we’re flooding,” Mark said. “We’re taking on water.”
Eric pulled on his sweats, grabbed his phone and wallet, and started for the wheelhouse. Captain Pete Jacobsen was up there, along with First Mate David Silveira, and Chief Dan Cook.
“What’s going on, Pete?” Eric asked.
“We’re taking on water in the rudder room,” the captain said. He looked at Eric. “We’re gonna go down. We’re gonna sink.”
What? Eric thought. What could have happened? The weather wasn’t that bad—certainly not bad enough for water to have flooded into the ship from above. They hadn’t hit anything. He hadn’t heard anything.
Captain Pete was serious, though, and there was no time to ask questions. Eric rushed back belowdecks. He had seen the Ranger’s crew ignore the general alarm before. In his time on the ship, they’d had more than one Freon leak. The gas is deadly, but some guys had stayed asleep in their bunks right through the emergency alarm. Eric started knocking on doors, waking guys up.
“It’s a real emergency!” he yelled. “Go up to the wheelhouse!”
The phones were ringing nonstop and the general alarm was broadcasting a single, loud ring throughout the ship. Plenty of people were still slow to get moving, though. One Japanese crewman was in his bunk with the curtain closed when Eric burst into the room.
“Everybody up top!” Eric yelled. “Right now. Move. Move!” The man pulled back the curtain and looked at Eric with a sleepy smile. “Let’s go! You gotta go,” Eric urged.
But when he ran back through several minutes later, the Japanese man was still lying in his bunk.
“Get up,” Eric yelled again.
He didn’t tell the men what Captain Pete had said. He didn’t want to start a panic.
JULIO FOLLOWED EVAN HOLMES down one level to the galley, though the laundry room, and out onto the Ranger’s main trawl deck.
“Go to the wheelhouse!” Evan was yelling. “Go to the suits!”
Julio climbed to the ship’s upper deck, where the factory manager began pulling bags containing full-body, neoprene survival suits out of a plywood box on the side of the wheelhouse. He handed one to Julio. The bulky, bright red suits looked a little like children’s footed pajamas. Despite their awkward appearance, the suits provide insulation and buoyancy and—when worn properly—will keep someone dry, which is essential to retaining enough body heat to survive in cold water. Each suit was folded up inside its own bag, which was color-coded to indicate the size. Inside the bags, the neoprene survival suits were stiff from the cold.
On his first day on the boat, Julio had been shown the suits, and practiced putting one on. You were supposed to do it in sixty seconds. The suit had a fitted hood, and a flap to cover your nose and mouth that was held shut with Velco. Julio had been told that the most important thing was not to let water get inside.
The deck of the ship was coated with ice and so Julio brought the suit into the crowded wheelhouse. He shook the survival suit out of its bag, unzipped it, laid it on the floor, and yanked off his rubber boots. He wiggled his legs into the suit, then pulled the torso up over his sweatpants and FCA sweatshirt. It was pretty easy, but as Julio yanked the neoprene suit up, he noticed a rip at the seam on the left arm. There was another small tear at the suit’s left ankle. This isn’t good, he thought. If we go down, I’m in trouble.
There were other guys waiting to get into the wheelhouse to put their suits on. Julio went outside. It was snowing and windy. Only his face was exposed, but Julio was still cold. He stared back toward the Ranger’s trawl deck. It looked lower than normal. He watched as a big wave crested over the stern. Jesus, that’s bad, he thought. Everyone seemed calm, though. This ship has huge bilge pumps. They should be working now, Julio told himself. They’d just wait, he thought. And things would be okay.
WHEN HE GOT BACK UP ON DECK after waking up the crew, Eric Haynes saw Chief Engineer Dan Cook stopped at the top of the wheelhouse steps. Cook was bent over, with his hands on his knees. He was breathing hard.
“Are you all right?” Eric asked. Cook told him he was just tired from running up from the engine room. The chief had been in bad health, Eric knew. Early in the winter, he’d come down with pneumonia and was sent home to San Diego. When he came back a few weeks later, it was obvious he wasn’t fully recovered. Cook had been hacking and coughing constantly; twice a day he slipped away to his stateroom to use a special breathing machine. He didn’t seem good, but there wasn’t much Eric could do for him at the moment.
Just about everyone was in their suits already. Eric grabbed the last one in the box on the starboard side and then headed back belowdecks to put it on. Most guys were getting into their suits in the wheelhouse, but Eric could see it was packed in there. The suit was tight; he needed help from another crewman to stretch it around his broad shoulders. A few minutes earlier, Eric had passed a brand-new guy who had showed up at the dock just a couple days before. He was standing still, with his suit hanging down around his thighs. It was obvious the guy had no idea what to do.
To comply with Coast Guard regulations, the ship’s crew was required to run extensive drills at least once a month. In the meantime, new crewmen were supposed to be given a primer on the boat’s survival gear, and how to respond to an emergency on the ship. The last few guys who’d arrived hadn’t gotten that instruction. Come to think of it, Eric realized, the drills they’d been doing lately were much less intensive than what they’d done in the past. Most often, the men just held their suits during the drill. It was too much trouble to take the suits out of the bags and get them folded neatly inside again. That was the thinking at least. And Captain Steve Slotvig had been adamant that only the ship’s officers would need to launch a life raft. Every man on the ship had been taught how to do it in the past. Not lately. Plus, the fish master was always so impatient to get back to the fishing grounds, that it seemed they never took the time for a full drill at the dock anymore. Eric had heard Pete Jacobsen complain about it more than once.
Eric had known the sixty-five-year-old captain for years. The Ranger’s cook had first signed up with the FCA almost fifteen years before. Pete had been there much longer. He was fully qualified as ship’s captain, but Eric knew Pete usually preferred sailing as mate. He didn’t like dealing with the fish masters. As second in command, he made the same money, but didn’t have to deal with power struggles with the Japanese.
Pete had first come north in the 1970s, working for the tugboat company Foss. A decade later, he was hired on as one of the FCA’s very first employees. Seafaring was in Captain Pete’s family from way back. He wasn’t really a big talker, but over the years a few crew members had heard some stories about his history back East.
Both of Pete’s grandfathers had worked on whaling ships in Denmark before emigrating to the United States, his maternal grandfather as a sea captain and his paternal grandfather as a chief engineer. Pete’s father, Hans Jacob Jacobsen, became a ship’s engineer as well. Pete was the second youngest of six siblings, all of whom grew up with the family’s sea stories in Weymouth, Massachusetts. Pete’s parents split up when he was young. He left school, got a job working at a nearby shipyard, and married his childhood sweetheart, Marie Allen. By his mid-twenties, Pete was the father of two young children, Karen and Carl. He named his son after his older brother, who’d followed their father out West a number of years before. His dad sounded content in Washington State. There was plenty of work out there for a ship’s engineer. Back in Massachusetts, Pete was working two or three jobs just to pay the bills. He felt like he couldn’t get ahead. Two of his four brothers, Carl and Billy, had moved West not long after his dad, and both had found good work in Seattle’s maritime industry.
Pete was going on a trip to visit his brothers, that’s what he said anyway. His family dropped him off at Boston’s Logan Airport. They stood at the gate, waving good-bye as he boarded the plane. A week passed, then two.
“When’s Dad coming back?” Karen asked her mother.
“Soon,” she told her.
It was 1973. Karen was nine years old. After a few months, she stopped asking. A year later, the divorce papers came in the mail. Karen watched her mother cry as she opened the envelope.
Pete sent money and sometimes letters. Karen would write in return, mailing drawings she’d made. Her dad sent back art supplies and, once, two little Eskimo dolls dressed in real fur that Karen loved to rub against her face. One had a baby on its back, hidden deep in the thick pelt. He’d gotten a job up in Alaska, he wrote to Karen. It was so beautiful there, he said. He called it “God’s country.”
Karen missed him. She’d study her memories, and soak in the moments of her father’s attention. She wondered if the shipyards out West were anything like General Dynamics in Quincy, Massachusetts, where her father had worked as a sandblaster before moving away (the other men called him “Jake the Snake” for his ability to squeeze into tight spots). When she was a little girl the whole family went there one morning for a christening. Karen remembered the champagne bottle crashing against the bow of a ship her father had helped build. They sometimes went to the drive-in theater in Weymouth, where Karen rode a little train that circled the parking lot. Afterward they ordered clam fritters to eat in the car during the movie. She and her little brother curled up in the back, almost asleep by the time the cartoons had finished and the feature film got started. She’d remember how they used to go to a local pancake house on the weekends, or how her dad would pick up a box of doughnuts and the Boston Globe and she’d cut out paper dolls while he read the funnies across their kitchen table.
When Karen was a sophomore in high school she went to visit her father in Everett, Washington, a suburb north of Seattle. By that time he’d been married and divorced a second time and was working most of the year in Alaska. The rest of the time he lived with his brother, Billy, in a bachelors’ apartment in Everett. Karen attended the local high school for a couple months. She felt like she and her father had a lot in common. They were both morning people, both crazy about animals. On that trip, she loved to get up early with him to walk a little dog he had at the time, a Blue Heeler named Andy. He was busy, taking nautical classes, studying for his mate’s license. He had a new girlfriend. But he found the time to teach Karen how to drive.
Put your blinker on even when you’re in a parking lot, Pete Jacobsen instructed his fifteen-year-old daughter, even if there’s nobody else around. You want to build good habits, he said. “Your job as a driver is to make the ride comfortable for the passenger.” Years later, Karen and her mother would repeat the words to each other when one lurched too quickly in or out of traffic. Pete had taught his ex-wife to drive, too. Pete’s lesson was a happy memory they shared of him.
AFTER ERIC HAYNES HAD HIS OWN SUIT ON, his focus turned to the muster sheets. He went back up to the wheelhouse, where lists of the crew were sealed inside a plastic pouch that was taped to the wall. Years ago, Eric had been part of the Ranger’s e-squad. Not anymore, but he was still on the muster team. With his hands encased in neoprene, Eric couldn’t easily rip open the plastic pouch. He struggled with it for a minute, then grabbed a pen, and stabbed into the plastic envelope. He pulled out the sheets, which divided the names of the forty-seven-person crew into three groups, one for each of the Ranger’s twenty-man life rafts.
The muster groups roughly corresponded to the Ranger’s three factory shifts, and the crew was already gathering in the proper groups out on deck. The names on the sheets, though, were two trips old. Since they’d been printed up, at least half a dozen guys had left, and an equal number of new crew had boarded the ship. Eric handed out the sheets, and each group mustered as best they could. Then most of them crowded back inside the wheelhouse.
Evan Holmes looked around. Okay, most of these guys have their suits on pretty good, he thought. When they’d drilled in the past, there’d usually be a couple people who wouldn’t want to take their beanies off. You couldn’t have a hat on and get the hood of the survival suit sealed properly around your face. Evan had to tell one of the Japanese techs to take his off. Overall, the situation seemed relatively calm. Even if this thing sinks, there’s probably time for another boat to get here, Evan thought. The officers were saying the Alaska Warrior was just a few hours away.
“MAYDAY. MAYDAY. MAYDAY. This is the Alaska Ranger.” It was 2:46 A.M. when First Mate David Silveira picked up the HF radio and called the Coast Guard. Evan heard him repeat the ship’s coordinates and listened in as the Coasties answered back.
“Alaska Ranger, this is COMMSTA Kodiak,” the voice responded over the 2182 frequency. It was watchstander David Seidl. He was collecting the information the Coast Guard would need to launch an effective rescue mission to a spot almost eight hundred miles away, across a huge expanse of black ocean.
“Roger, good copy on position. Understand you are flooding, taking on water from the stern. Request to know number of persons on board, over.”
“Number of persons is, um, forty-seven persons on board, okay?” Silveira answered.
Everyone was talking. Many people were smoking. The wheelhouse was growing cloudy with cigarette smoke. Eric Haynes could tell that the captain was stressed. He needed the men out of his way. The Ranger’s long-time cook herded the processors out to the exposed deck, where they immediately had trouble keeping their balance on the iced-over metal platform.
Eric went back inside. Most people already had their suits on, but not the captain or the mate. Konno, the fish master, hadn’t put his on, either. He was talking with his technicians. Just the day before, Konno had been showing Eric pictures of his home in Japan, where he had a wife and teenage children. He had pictures of his Japanese garden. There were rocks with holes in them that Konno had drilled by hand. It looked to Eric like a lot of work.
Eric noticed that Chief Engineer Dan Cook had made his way into the wheelhouse and was sitting in the captain’s chair. Cook was talking with Captain Pete and Assistant Engineer Rodney Lundy.
“It can’t be saved,” Eric overheard the chief tell the captain. “We should abandon ship.” It sounded like Dan was convinced there was no hope, while Rodney thought the Ranger might make it if the watertight doors held. David Silveira was still on the radio with the Coast Guard, answering questions. The Coasties had their position, but Eric knew the rescuers would be coming from far away.
OUTSIDE, THE DECK WAS SLICK WITH ICE. The bow was covered with snow. Almost forty men were gripping the rails, some talking, many managing to smoke cigarettes even with both hands covered in thick neoprene. With everything but their eyes covered up by the red survival suits, it was hard to tell one man from another.
Julio Morales gripped an ice-encrusted rail. It seemed to him that a half an hour had already gone by since the alarm went off and he’d woken up to all the yelling. It looked like almost all of the crew was already in their survival suits. Julio was just outside the wheelhouse, struggling to balance on the icy deck in his footed suit. There was a crowd inside, but he and most of the other factory workers had been ordered out. Now they were lined up against the metal railing, wondering what the hell was going to happen next.
Julio stared back toward the stern. It looked low. The waves were crashing up past the trawl winches. The back edge of the stern deck looked like it was almost to the water line. He looked again at the rips in his suit and scanned the boat for his cousins, Marco and Byron. He was particularly concerned about Byron, who had only been aboard the Ranger for four days. Julio remembered that his cousin had never learned to swim.
Julio wanted to find him, but it didn’t seem like a good idea to move. The deck was so slippery. He’d just wait, he thought, for someone else to tell him what to do.