JUNEAU — Five fishermen missing after a crab boat sank in the frigid waters off Alaska were feared dead after authorities called off a search for those working in the one of the most dangerous industries in the U.S.
Two other crew members were rescued after the disaster Tuesday, telling 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 have been released from a hospital.
The Coast Guard said it used helicopters, planes and a boat to look for the missing crew members for 20 hours before ending the search late Wednesday because they were not likely to have survived. The agency didn’t release any details Thursday on what caused the boat to sink, saying that talking to the survivors is part of the investigation. The boat, named the Scandies Rose, 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.
Gary Knagin of Kodiak, Alaska, the brother-in-law of the boat’s captain, Gary Cobban Jr., told The Associated Press that he doesn’t think the five crew members will be found alive. “We know the risks involved in this profession, and I’m not holding out hope,” said Knagin, who worked on a crab boat for 30 years in Alaska’s Bering Sea. “I’ve seen this too many times. There’s a 13-hour window in those conditions, and they passed that.”
Also missing are the captain’s son David Lee Cobban, Arthur Ganacias, Brock Rainey and Seth Rousseau-Gano, the Coast Guard said.
The boat 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.
The conditions didn’t seem to worry the boat’s captain, his ex-girlfriend told the Anchorage Daily News. Jeri Lynn Smith said Gary Cobban called her in North Carolina about two hours before the boat sank to wish her a happy new year.
“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.”
Ashley Boggs of Peru, Indiana, also said Rainey, her fiance, called her New Year’s Eve and said the conditions were bad. She hasn’t given up hope.
“I’m just praying and hoping they find him on land or something,” Boggs told AP. The 130-foot boat sent a mayday distress call, and the Coast Guard launched a rescue. The vessel’s last known position was 170 miles southwest of Kodiak Island, near the southern tip of Alaska, and it sank about 10 p.m. Tuesday, the agency said.
Rescue crews arrived about 2 a.m. Wednesday and battled winds of more than 40 mph, 15- to 20-foot seas and visibility that was limited to a mile, Petty Officer 2nd Class Melissa McKenzie said. “That’s rough conditions,” she said.
McKenzie said the air temperature was about 10 degrees. The estimated water temperature was 43 degrees, 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 away, where searchers found the two survivors. The men told rescuers that they were able to get into survival suits and didn’t know if the other five crew members did, the newspaper reported. The suits offer some flotation and hypothermia protection.
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 sheer 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 makes the boat top heavy, he said. “It’s a dance, a ballet that transpires,” Otness said. “Your center of gravity is so quickly disrupted.”
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health calls commercial fishing one of the country’s most dangerous occupations. 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. Leading causes of fatal disasters were instability and being hit by large waves, it said. Samantha Case, an epidemiologist at the agency’s commercial fishing research program, said steps have been taken to make crab fishing safer in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands. That includes Coast Guard stability checks for vessels; changes in fishery management that reduced some risks like competitiveness; and increased marine safety training.
Rosseau-Gano has been fishing for years, traveling to Alaska from Washington state, said his sister-in-law, Ann Marie Rosseau.
“He loves the sea, and he loved fishing,” she said.
Rosseau said the family spent time with him on Christmas, the day before he left for Alaska.
“He just had a light and energy about him,” she said. “That just made everything better.”
• By Becky Bohrer and Martha Bellisle, Associated Press