Evan Holmes had his survival suit on and was ready to go. As a member of the emergency squad, the twenty-five-year-old factory manager was responsible for one of the life rafts and for helping the crew to abandon ship in an emergency. Of course, he’d never launched a raft for real, never done anything more than stand around the sealed canister and talk about what they would do in an abandon ship situation.
Together with a few other guys, Evan grabbed the ship’s Jacob’s Ladders, strong yet flexible ladders made of line and wooden dowels. They secured the ladders to the rail—one near each life raft—and hung them down over the side toward the churning seas. Once the rafts were launched, they’d climb down the ladders to reach them. But for right now, there was nothing to do but wait.
Eric Haynes was inside the wheelhouse. The glass on the wheelhouse windows was iced up, but the windows had a couple of small circles of thicker glass that remained clear even in the worst weather. Through one of the circles Eric could see Marco Carrillo smiling and waving to the people inside. Eric looked at the blurry line of red figures out on the deck. If they were really getting off the boat, he thought, they’d better not be hypothermic before that happened.
“Pete,” he said to the captain, “how about if we do a rotation? Bring a few guys in at a time, just to warm them up. I’ll tell them to keep quiet.” Pete agreed, bring them in, but tell them to keep it down. No smoking. And tell the guys to turn their lights off, the captain added. Each of the ship’s survival suits was equipped with a small strobe light. Many of the men had turned theirs on as soon as they got into the suits.
“They need to conserve the batteries,” the captain said to Eric. “Tell them to turn those lights off!”
THE INDIVIDUAL STROBES WERE PART of a new Coast Guard program called the Alternative Compliance Safety Agreement (ACSA), designed specifically for the Bering Sea head-and-gut fleet. Like the dockside exams that had reduced casualties in the crab fleet since the late 1990s, ACSA had been designed to address safety problems within a very specific group of boats. And like the crab initiative, the ACSA program had been spear-headed by Coast Guard Commander Chris Woodley, with civilian Coastie Charlie Medlicott as his wingman.
There were just over sixty head-and-gut boats sailing out of Dutch Harbor. Like the FCA boats, most of them were owned by companies headquartered in Seattle (85 percent of all fish harvested in Alaska is caught by boats with owners in Washington State). The head-and-gut ships operated with the same unregulated status as little mom-and-pop catcher boats—even though the H&G fleet had proven in recent years to be much more hazardous.
Like with the crab boats, there were some obvious reasons why: The H&G vessels were big, most of them between 100 and 250 feet. All had treacherous processing equipment on board and enormous freezers that were cooled with dangerous chemicals like ammonia and Freon. On most boats, the frozen fish was packed into waxed cardboard cartons, packaging that had proven in the past to be a fire hazard.
The head-and-gut boats sailed with large crews of up to fifty people. Most of those men (and, with rare exceptions, they were all men) were working in the factory, not as full-time deckhands. It was common for the H&G boats to hire workers who were new to fishing and had little to no experience with boats or cold-weather hazards. The ships tended to sail with multicultural crews; cultural and language differences could cause problems during emergencies when quick, precise communication was critical. The ships regularly spent long periods at sea, weeks or even a month or more at a time. It followed that they were often far from port, far from shore—far from rescue should something go wrong. The combined hazards concerned some people in the Coast Guard, especially given recent casualties.
The ninety-two-foot H&G trawler Arctic Rose was home-ported in Seattle, and sailed out of Dutch Harbor. At 3:35 A.M. on April 2, 2001, the Coast Guard received a hit from the ship’s EPIRB, transmitted from a spot several hundred miles northwest of St. Paul Island. The Coasties tried to hail her, with no response. A Hercules C-130 from Air Station Kodiak was launched around 4:00 A.M. and arrived at the EPIRB’s coordinates at 8:40 A.M. The search plane identified an oil sheen and a large debris field. Another ship owned by the same company arrived around the same time and spotted a single person in the water, a man in a bright red immersion suit. A crew member jumped into the ocean to recover the man, and the body was hauled up on deck. The crew recognized him as the Arctic Rose’s captain, David Rundall. The fishermen attempted CPR on Rundall but with no success. The captain’s survival suit was flooded with seawater.
Seven more suits were later found amid the debris—all empty. The Arctic Rose’s life raft was spotted floating upright and vacant. Rundall’s body was the only one to be recovered. The boat wasn’t fishing at the time of the disaster; most likely, the majority of the other fourteen men on board were asleep when the tragedy occurred. With fifteen fatalities, the Arctic Rose sinking was the deadliest single fishing vessel casualty in the United States in fifty years. The Coast Guard investigation into the sinking later found that of the fifteen men lost, nine were new processors who had been in the job for less than a year. Three of the dead were Mexican nationals working under assumed names.
Whatever happened to the Arctic Rose happened fast. There was no Mayday call. The debris provided few clues as to what had caused the tragedy, though a later examination of the sunken ship by an unmanned ROV (remotely operated vehicle) revealed that the aft weather-tight door that led from the stern deck to the processing space had been left open at the time of the sinking. What was known was that the tiny Arctic Rose had a reputation as one of the most poorly maintained boats in the H&G fleet (and the Coast Guard investigation found that the ship’s owners had ignored many of the stability requirements mandated by its marine architects). Many in Dutch weren’t surprised by her sinking. More than a few people wondered why someone in the Coast Guard hadn’t stopped that “piss pot” from leaving port.
A year and a half later, there was another major casualty in the head-and-gut fleet, on the 180-foot freezer long-liner Galaxy, which had been built as a Navy minelayer in 1942 and converted to a fish-processing vessel in 1997. It started with a fire in the engine room, and a backdraft explosion that blew several crew overboard. While a rescue effort for those men was under way, a massive fireball from the engine room vents set the wheelhouse on fire and separated most of the rest of the twenty-six-person crew from their survival suits. Heroically, the captain remained in the burning wheelhouse long enough to get out a Mayday call and to help launch a life raft from the ship’s top deck. He suffered severe burns in the process, but he lived—as did all but three of the other people on board.
There was some significant luck involved: Fifteen of the crew members managed to jump into the ship’s just barely launched raft and were rescued by a Good Samaritan vessel about an hour and a half later. Three more people were rescued directly from the water by Good Sams, also within a couple hours of the sinking. Finally, Coast Guard rescuers were nearby, predeployed in Cold Bay, at the western tip of the Alaskan Peninsula, for the fall red king crab season. Five Galaxy crew members were successfully airlifted from the burning ship by a Jayhawk helicopter in the final hour before the sixty-year-old boat disappeared beneath the waves. Several of them had to leap into the water first to escape potentially toxic smoke and ongoing explosions.
It took several years for the Coast Guard to release their final reports on the sinking of the two ships. When they did, there was pressure to improve safety in the rest of the head-and-gut fleet. Many people in the Coast Guard thought the service didn’t have the power to do much without new federal legislation; these were uninspected boats, after all.
Chris Woodley saw things differently. He found a loophole in the law, one that would allow the Coast Guard to improve safety in the H&G fleet, without waiting for Congress to act.
WOODLEY HAD BEEN THE LEAD INVESTIGATOR into the Galaxy sinking and was also involved in the Arctic Rose proceedings. Both investigations had found that the lost ships were doing more processing than they were regulated to do. Under U.S. Code, the H&G fleet had very specific products they were permitted to make. They were allowed to cut the head off a fish, but not the tail. They were allowed to remove a fish’s entrails, but not to package and sell what were referred to as ancillary products, like fish eggs or roe. There was little logic to the regulations. There was no added danger in gathering the eggs from the refuse. Leaving them there was just money out the shit chute, as more than one fisherman had pointed out. And did cutting the tail off a fish rather than the head somehow justify more government regulation? Nope, it really didn’t make much sense. Coasties and fishermen were in agreement about that.
But the law could be used to make everyone safer nonetheless, Woodley realized.
He started digging into the records. National Marine Fisheries Service data clearly showed that just about all the sixty-some-odd vessels in the Dutch Harbor head-and-gut fleet were selling products that only processing boats were technically allowed to make. In order to keep making those products—legally—they needed to be categorized as processing vessels, which meant they needed to be classed and load-lined. They were breaking the law, though it was a law no one had bothered to enforce.
At least not yet. Woodley saw the Coast Guard’s in.
The vessel owners were invited to a series of meetings, and the Coast Guard explained their plan. The new program was voluntary, the owners were told. The choice was either stop making ancillary products and become a true head-and-gut-only vessel (what they’d said they were all along), or join the Alternative Compliance program. With the Coast Guard’s help, their ships would get safer. And, with the Coast Guard’s ACSA certification, they’d legally be allowed to keep making all their products without worrying about a future crackdown on enforcement.
It was a compromise—a pragmatic approach to a sticky problem. The Coasties understood that many of the H&G ships simply could not become classed and load-lined. Most of the independent societies that performed those tests would not accept boats over a certain age that had not been previously certified. Instead, the Coast Guard would institute its own safety program. The philosophy was separate but equal, or as close to equal as possible.
For the first time, Coast Guard fishing vessel examiners would be boarding the H&G boats at dry dock, examining their hulls and their watertight doors, and truly looking at their structural integrity. There’d be new, additional standards for training and for safety equipment—including the strobe lights on the survival suits.
Almost all the boat owners decided to join the program. Some needed to keep making the ancillary products to stay in the black, but, in Woodley’s view, many of the owners were honestly attracted to a program that would make their ships safer.
Ship owners learned of the program by late 2005. They had to opt in or out by mid-2006. The Fishing Company of Alaska opted in. All seven of their boats—five trawlers and two long-liners—would join the ACSA program.
In the couple years after, the expense of joining ACSA had been made plain. By spring 2008, an estimated $40 million had been spent fleetwide on upgrades mandated by the program. So many boats were participating that it was difficult for the Coast Guard to keep up. They’d even gone so far as to send examiners to a shipyard in Japan, where the FCA dry-docked their boats. There weren’t any other companies that serviced their ships outside of the United States. To the inspectors, it seemed like a lot of time and expense to sail a ship all the way to Japan for dry dock work. Yet that was the way the FCA did it, and so the Coast Guard went along. In early winter 2007, the Alaska Ranger, as well as the Warrior, the Juris, and the Spirit, had spent several weeks at a Japanese shipyard. There’d been a long checklist of improvements that needed to be made. The ship sailed back to Dutch Harbor with about half of the work undone. The amount involved was more than the company—or the Coast Guard—had anticipated.
When the ACSA program officially got off the ground in 2006, it was agreed the final deadline for compliance would be January 1, 2008. By that date, all the H&G vessels enrolled should have reached an equivalent standard to the load-lined boats, according to Coast Guard documents. But several months before the deadline, it was clear to Coast Guard inspectors that the original date was way too ambitious. More boats had enrolled than originally anticipated, straining Coast Guard resources. The program was a collaboration between two Coast Guard districts: District 13, headquartered in Seattle, and District 17, which includes all of Alaska. Neither district had much spare manpower to devote to the new program. Across the board, the ships needed more work than the Coast Guard inspectors had expected. In some cases, it had been impossible for the ships to schedule dry dock time given the increased demand. There were really only a handful of shipyards in Alaska and Washington State equipped to keep one-hundred-plus-foot boats in dry dock for weeks at a time. And of course, most boat owners wanted to schedule dry dock time during the same times of year, when the fishing grounds were closed.
By late 2007, the Coast Guard was informally letting ship owners know that there would most likely be another six months to get things in order. They were making progress, and that was what was important. Woodley felt that most of the boat owners were making a good faith effort. Certainly, most of the ships in the fleet were in better shape than they’d been just a couple years before—and much safer than they would have been if the Coasties had just let things stand as they were.
JULIO MORALES WAS ON THE NARROW DECK in front of the wheelhouse, holding tight to the ship’s rail. He’d been scanning the ship for his cousins, Byron and Marco. Byron was assigned to a bunk room one deck lower than the one Marco and Julio shared with six other men. He hadn’t seen his cousin when he was in the wheelhouse, getting on his survival suit. But he spotted him now, about fifteen feet away, with a group of men leaning against the wheelhouse windows on the ship’s port side. He recognized him because of his hair. Byron had the hood up on his survival suit, but his shoulder-length hair was all over his face.
“Byron!” Julio yelled across the deck. “Put your hair in. Under the hood!”
Julio motioned along the seam of his own survival suit. If Byron went in the water, he wouldn’t be able to see.
“Tuck it in!” Julio yelled again.
Byron wasn’t listening. He looked scared. Julio was scared, too. They’d been shown how to put on the strange suits, but that was it. Now what were they supposed to do? They didn’t know how to get off the boat or what to do once they were in the water. He didn’t want to let go of the boat to go help Byron. It wasn’t safe; the deck was too icy. He’d been told he should stay with his muster group on the starboard side of the upper deck.
BACK INSIDE THE WHEELHOUSE, David Silveira was still locked on the radio, updating the Coast Guard and other FCA ships in the area, including the trawlers Spirit and Warrior. The Warrior was the closest—less than four hours away.
At 3:06 A.M., Kodiak watchstander David Seidl radioed the foundering vessel again.
“Alaska Ranger, this is COMMSTA. Request you confirm that you have set off your EPIRB, over.”
“Roger,” Silveira answered, the EPIRB was transmitting. “We lost a rudder,” the first mate told Seidl. “That’s where the water was coming in.”
“Alaska Ranger, this is COMMSTA,” Seidl replied. “Understand you have set your EPIRB off, you lost your rudder, that’s where the flooding is coming in. Also be advised, the Coast Guard cutter Munro is en route with an ETA unknown at this time, over.”
“Roger, roger,” Silveira answered.
COAST GUARD LIEUTENANT TOMMY WALLIN was asleep in military billeting at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage when the phone rang, at exactly 3:00 A.M. The operations center in Kodiak reported that a fishing boat was in trouble 140 miles west of Dutch Harbor. A 60 Jayhawk crew predeployed to St. Paul Island would be launching soon. The C-130 crew was needed to provide backup for that aircraft.
Wallin wrote down the position.
First introduced in the mid-1950s, the ninety-seven-foot-long Lockheed C-130 is a versatile aircraft that’s popular among militaries worldwide; the four-engine turboprop has been used as a gunship, for troop and supply transport, medical evacuation, and aerial firefighting. In 2008 the Coast Guard had thirty-three C-130s in service, five of them in Kodiak. The back of the plane is designed to adapt to the needs of the moment. Commercial-airplane-style seats can be installed to transport staff or the occasional television crew up for an Arctic awareness trip to check out the decaying state of the sea ice and report on the Coast Guard’s plans to expand into the ever-growing northern seas. A removable computer bank with high-powered cameras makes it possible for technicians on the plane to study vessels or debris in the water below on TV screens on board. It comes in handy for fisheries patrols, when the air crew are often trying to read the name on a ship’s stern, or to identify the gear on deck.
The rear of the plane opens up in a ramp to the ground, allowing the aircraft to fly a full-size SUV out to St. Paul, Attu, Cold Bay, or any of the more remote stations. Even the 65 Dolphin helicopter can be disassembled and transported in the Herc’s bay, though reassembling the little bird is a multiday chore that many mechanics dread. During search and rescue cases, the rear opening also allows the plane to drop rescue supplies to vessels—and people—in distress. The crew can “punch” a dewatering pump, a life raft, medical supplies, or a data marker buoy, an arrow-shaped orange float that broadcasts GPS coordinates and allows a rescue team to relocate an emergency site and to track the flow of debris with winds and currents.
The Herc is the Coast Guard’s workhorse for the “search” part of search and rescue. But despite all the plane’s capabilities, it can’t actually lift anyone out of the water. That’s a job for the helicopters. When a casualty site is known, the C-130’s most important role is often flying cover for a helo crew. Usually the helicopter will be doing the work of dropping rafts, pumps, and supplies, and lifting any victims from a ship or from the ocean. The C-130 is there in case the helicopter gets into trouble. If the helo goes down, the plane will pinpoint the location and drop a raft.
It took just minutes for the seven-man C-130 crew to pack their bags and load into the van for the half-mile ride back to the aircraft. The plane’s engines were still warm from the flight from Kodiak, and the aircraft was already fueled. But with the rescue site almost a thousand miles away, the crew decided to add another several thousand pounds of fuel.
The Herc crew knew the Jayhawk helicopter should reach the scene close to an hour before they did. It sounded like a fairly standard case. Most likely the helo crew would be dropping the ship a pump. That was usually how this type of thing would go.
ERIC HAYNES COULD HEAR THE ALASKA RANGER’S engines struggling. He was moving in and out of the wheelhouse, trying to help make room for more men to rotate through. “What’s going on?” “Are we going to be all right?” the crew was asking Eric.
“The Coast Guard knows our location,” Eric said, trying to reassure them.
Based on what he’d overheard, Eric said, it sounded like they’d be able to hold out. “The Coast Guard is on the way,” he told his crewmates. “And the Alaska Warrior is coming, too.”
The engines sounded like they were fully underwater. Someone said they’d lost steering. But there was still power. Eric could hear the ship’s officers talking about whether to shut down the engines. It seemed like Captain Pete was against it. The captain was consulting mostly with the ship’s assistant engineer, Rodney Lundy. Rodney had been on the Ranger for more than a decade. The other two engineers, including Chief Dan Cook, were in their first season on the ship. Dan was still advocating for an immediate abandon ship. Eric got the impression that everyone was listening to Rodney instead.
At 3:11 A.M., watchstander David Seidl radioed the ship once again. “Alaska Ranger, this is COMMSTA. Request to know how much fuel and what type of fuel you have aboard, over.”
In any marine casualty, the Coast Guard works with state and federal environmental authorities to document and monitor any environmental damage. Already, the Coasties were thinking ahead to the worst-case scenario.
“We have…roughly one hundred forty-five thousand gallons….” Silveira responded.
“Alaska Ranger, this is COMMSTA. Confirm one hundred forty-five thousand pounds of diesel, over.”
“One hundred forty-five thousand gallons, okay?” the first mate clarified.
“Alaska Ranger, this is COMMSTA. Understand. Nothing further. Talk to you in five mikes, over.” (The substitution of “mikes” for “minutes” is common in radio communication.)
A few minutes later, the ship’s lights began to flutter. “We’re going to lose them,” Eric heard one of the ship’s officers say. He stepped back out onto deck. The stern looked like it was completely underwater.
“We’re about to lose power,” Eric yelled to the men clustered around the rail. “The lights are going to go out. Don’t panic!”
It was 3:23 A.M. when Silveira relayed the outage to COMMSTA Kodiak.
“COMMSTA Kodiak, Alaska Ranger.”
“Alaska Ranger, this is COMMSTA Kodiak, over.”
“Yeah, COMMSTA Kodiak, Alaska Ranger. We just lost all the lights.”
“Alaska Ranger, this is COMMSTA. Understand you have lost all your lights at this time, over.”
“Roger that,” Silveira answered. “We just got the emergency lights on right now, whatever flashlights we have.”
A few minutes later, the Alaska Ranger got an ETA to their position from the Warrior: 6:30 A.M.
OUTSIDE, THE DECK WAS SLICK WITH ICE, and waves were beginning to crest over the stern. It was spitting snow and blowing hard. The temperature was no more than 15°F and the black water that waited for the men a couple of stories down was guaranteed to feel much, much colder.
Processor David Hull was leaning against the wheelhouse window, the bow of the ship directly in front of him, when the Alaska Ranger went dark.
Oddly, the boat seemed to shift into reverse.
There was a stench of diesel smoke coming from the stern, where the Atka fishing gear was piled in massive mounds. Several men watched as a formidable wave crashed over the rear of the ship and retreated with the Ranger’s trawl net in its grasp.
“There goes our million-dollar net!” someone yelled as the huge woven mass spread like a puddle on the surface of the water, and started drifting up the ship’s starboard side.
Within seconds, the thirty-five-year-old trawler took a sudden, violent list to starboard. David felt the ground drop out from under him. He lunged for a rail and held tight as crew members clinging to the metal beneath him gazed up in horror. Twenty-two-year-old steward Jeremy Freitag was right below David.
“Don’t let go, David! Don’t let go!” Jeremy yelled as two men slid straight down the narrow deck, through the open rails—and into the ocean. If David lost his grip, he would hurtle down the rail like a bowling ball, knocking Jeremy and half a dozen more men right off the edge.
Jeremy ground his feet into the metal floor and locked his arms to the rail.
“Hold on!” he yelled again at David.
It was pitch-black, the wind whipping across the exposed deck. After a few more seconds the boat seemed to shift upright a bit. Still, the list was at least 30 degrees. People were yelling, “Man in the water! Man in the water!”
Jesus, those guys went straight through the rail, Jeremy thought.
Everyone was talking at the same time. There was a plume of diesel smoke wafting forward from the stern deck. Jeremy heard someone yell, “Abandon ship.” He started thinking about a TV program he’d seen, about how people could get sucked down with a ship. If you were right next to the boat—or on deck—when it sank, the force might pull you under, too. I’ve got to get away from the boat, Jeremy thought. I need to get far away, as fast as possible.
David had his arms wrapped around the metal rail. He still had his computer bag slung around his body. Around him were several newer guys, among them thirty-one-year-old processor Alex Olivarez. David and Alex had been working together in the freezer all winter. Both men were from Washington State. A couple years before, Alex’s little brother had been murdered. It was a gang killing, still unsolved.
After his brother’s death, Alex had become deeply depressed. He was fired from his mill job. His mother was suffering, distraught over the loss of her son. For a couple years, Alex had been watching the reality show Deadliest Catch. Fishing would be a good way to make some fast cash, he thought. He could help his mother and maybe hire an investigator to find his brother’s killer.
“I don’t know how to swim!” Alex was yelling across the deck.
David saw the newer processor clinging to the rail. He looked terrified. The ship was still listed hard to starboard and draped in darkness.
“Alex, let’s pray together,” David said.
He knew Alex was religious.
“Yeah,” Alex said. He bowed his head. David and several other men nearby did the same. “Will you help us with this tragedy?” Alex said aloud. “We’re scared. We know some of us might die. Will you help us, God? Help us, and let the majority live.”
THE SUDDEN LIST HAD ALSO STARTLED everyone inside the wheelhouse. Evan Holmes saw Captain Pete fall down against the carpeted floor as the ship took the sharp fall to starboard. The factory manager pulled him up, then helped the captain zip up the survival suit that was down around his waist.
“All right, Captain, we’re going now?” he asked Pete.
“Yeah. We’re going,” the captain answered.
Evan raced out to the starboard side of the wheelhouse deck to his assigned life raft, number three. Eric Haynes was right behind him. The raft was stored inside a white, barrel-like container mounted right up against the rail on the ship’s deck. TheRanger’s bow was elevated high above the water, as though a huge weight was pressing down against the stern trawl deck. Tiny balls of icy snow stung Evan’s cheeks.
It felt like the ship could capsize at any moment.
First, he needed to tie the ninety-two-foot-long painter line that was attached to the raft to the ship’s rail, above where he’d earlier tied the Jacob’s Ladder. The list was so bad that Evan felt like he was being pushed up against the metal bars.
The full moon was breaking in and out of the clouds, but Evan could barely see anything.
Meanwhile, Eric Haynes felt along the metal strap holding the raft’s container shut. Eric couldn’t see anything either; his eyes were still adjusting from the sudden loss of the Ranger’s bright lights. Years ago, they had regularly reviewed how to launch the rafts, but now as Eric squinted at the ice-encrusted raft nestled in its cradle, he was drawing a blank.
Finally, the ship’s cook remembered the light on his suit, and turned it on. He leaned over the barrel-shaped case and there it was: the clip. You were supposed to hold down the clip then pull off a ring to release the life raft, Eric remembered. With all the ice, it took Eric both hands to push the clip in far enough. Another crewman popped off the ring, and the barrel cracked open, emitting the rubber life raft.
The raft inflated with the tug of the painter line, and swung out and down into the black water.
The plan had always been to launch the raft and then climb down the Jacob’s Ladder from the side of the ship to get in. By pulling on the painter line, a crewman still on the vessel should have been able to hold the raft in place until everyone was inside. Then, the line would be cut.
But when Eric’s raft hit the waves, it immediately shot forward, toward the Ranger’s bow.
“It’s going too fast! It’s going too fast!” someone yelled.
Eric stared. The raft was still in sight, but it was nowhere near the Jacob’s Ladder.
Raft number one was also on the starboard side, about twenty feet closer to the bow. Evan watched as another group of men struggled to launch that raft. They, too, were having a hard time. Finally, he saw the forward raft inflate and swing out toward the water. Again, the raft bolted forward, toward the bow of the ship. Then it seemed to disappear.
Holy crap, Evan thought. One of the rafts is gone.
He started doing the math in his head. There were forty-seven on board. With one raft gone, they would just have to try to crowd everyone in the other two. Evan had tied a dozen granny knots in the painter line holding raft number three to the rail. “If you can’t tie a knot, tie a lot,” seasoned mariners sometimes joked about the knot-tying skills of newbie crew. In this case Evan had taken the saying seriously. This thing isn’t going anywhere, he’d told himself. But now the raft was so far from the ladder. There were only a few crew members who had actually ever tried getting into a raft straight from the water. Evan had done it during his training in Seattle, but it’d been damn hard. And that was in daylight, in calm water that was a whole lot warmer than the Bering Sea.
Evan and Eric and a couple other crewmen grabbed onto the painter line. They pulled the rear starboard raft with all the strength they had, but it barely budged. It was as if they were on the stern platform of a water-ski boat, trying to pull a guy on a tube in toward the boat as it was skipping at high speed across the water. There was just no way, it wasn’t happening.
The boat’s list seemed to be increasing—or at least the ship seemed to be getting lower in the waves. Water was all the way up past the base of the gantry. Eric felt like the ship might flip over at any moment. He and Evan told the men at their muster station to start going down the Jacob’s Ladder and to try to swim to the raft.
“Let’s get going, guys! You’re going in one way or another!” Eric yelled. “Keep going,” he instructed as one man after another gripped the ladder and started down the side of the ship.
The men were quiet; they looked calm.
They were scared, Eric knew. He watched each man follow the ladder down and drop into the waves.
In seconds, each one was gone.
BACK ON THE FRONT SIDE OF THE WHEELHOUSE, Julio Morales was still hugging the rail. He’d been holding tight when the ship listed. He’d seen those men fall off and heard everybody yelling “Man overboard!” It seemed like everything had gone from calm to chaos in the moment that the ship tilted to its side. Julio had been thinking that the Warrior would get there in time to save everybody. Now, looking out at the empty horizon, he knew no one was coming. They were going into the water.
Other people were moving, but Julio just stayed put. He was thinking. The Coast Guard was on their way. He had overheard the officers making a Mayday call, and made out the words “U.S. Coast Guard” in the answer that came back. It would be better to wait until the last minute to get off the ship, he thought.
Julio could see that the men had launched the life rafts. They were far away from the side of the ship, but they were still in sight. Carefully, Julio made his way to the starboard rail. Byron was already there. There was a raft attached to the ship with a line, and Julio saw a couple of guys grab on to the rope and follow it into the water. It seemed like they knew what they were doing.
“Grab the rope,” Julio told Byron. “Grab it, follow it down!”
Julio watched from the tilted deck as his cousin grabbed onto the painter line. Byron had his feet against the outside of the ship, and was leaning back with the taut rope in his hands, like a rock climber rappelling down a sheer cliff face.
“Ayúdame, Julio!” Byron yelled back up to the deck. “Help me!”
He was only a few feet from the water. The list was so great that the distance from the upper deck to the surface of the ocean was no more than a single story. But Byron seemed stuck.
“Help me!” he yelled again in Spanish.
“How can I help you? Just follow the rope!” Julio yelled back. It was dark, and with the list, it was hard to see from the side of the ship into the waves. Already, it was only blinking strobe lights that allowed the men on deck to identify people in the water. Julio could see that more and more people were going in. Maybe three-quarters of the crew had already abandoned ship. He watched as several men jumped from farther back, on the starboard side.
When he looked down again, Byron was gone.
INSIDE THE WHEELHOUSE, DAVID SILVEIRA and Captain Pete Jacobsen were taking turns working the radios, talking to the Coast Guard and the other FCA ships. They knew several boats were steaming toward them with everything they had.
It was around 4:15 A.M.—an hour and a half after the original Mayday call—when the Alaska Ranger initiated a call to the Coast Guard.
“COMMSTA Kodiak, Alaska Ranger.”
“Alaska Ranger, Alaska Ranger, this is COMMSTA Kodiak, over,” watchstander David Seidl answered.
“We are abandoning ship.” It sounded like a different voice from the one Seidl had heard before.
“We are abandoning ship,” the Ranger’s officer repeated. His voice was strained but calm.
“Alaska Ranger, this is COMMSTA Kodiak, roger. Confirm you are abandoning ship at this time, over.”
“Alaska Ranger, this is COMMSTA. Understand you are abandoning ship. Request you keep your EPIRB with you, keep your EPIRB with you, over.”
“Alaska Ranger, this is COMMSTA Kodiak. Also, be advised a rescue C-130 is airborne and en route to you guys at this time, over.”
Again: “Roger. Roger.”
“Alaska Ranger, this is COMMSTA,” Seidl said. “Roger. Be safe. We’ll be there when we can, over.”
“That’s a roger,” came the reply, the voice weak across the eight-hundred-mile swath of sea.