Hearing Starts on Sinking of Trawler in Bering Sea

In this July 26, 2016, frame from video provided by the U.S. Coast Guard, crew from a sinking fishing boat, left, board life rafts off Alaska's Aleutian Islands in the Bering Sea. U.S. Coast Guard via AP
In this July 26, 2016, frame from video provided by the U.S. Coast Guard, crew from a sinking fishing boat, left, board life rafts off Alaska's Aleutian Islands in the Bering Sea. U.S. Coast Guard via AP

SEATTLE -- When Jonathan Jensen boarded the Alaska Juris last summer for his first stint at sea as a fishery observer, he learned early on that an alarm was supposed to sound should the crew ever need to evacuate.

But on July 26, off Alaska's Aleutian Islands, there was no such emergency signal -- or electricity -- as engine-room flooding cut the power and forced the crew to abandon the Washington-state-based factory trawler. The 46 crew members were forced to rely on word-of-mouth that they all were to assemble on deck, don survival suits and climb into life rafts, Jensen said.

"The captain was doing his best to keep it lighthearted and us calm," Jensen said. "He said, 'When we get back on land, the first round is on me.'"

What caused the flooding -- and sinking -- of the 229-foot Alaska Juris on a relatively calm day in the Bering Sea has not been determined, and will be investigated during two weeks of Coast Guard hearings that begin Monday in Seattle. The Coast Guard hopes to be able to pinpoint factors that contributed to the sinking, and use the findings to improve safety in the fleet and prevent future high-seas mishaps.

Jensen is not on the witness list, but more than three dozen other people are expected to be called to testify, including crew members, Coast Guard inspectors and shore-side personnel involved in maintaining the Alaska Juris.

The Alaska Juris was part of the head-and-gut fleet, a group of boats that catch and process fish in the North Pacific and that over the years have been involved in a series of serious accidents.

The vessel's loss was the latest setback in the troubled history of its owner -- Fishing Company of Alaska, based in Renton, Washington. The company catches and processes yellowfin sole and other fish. In 2008, the company lost another factory vessel, the Alaska Ranger, and five crew members in a disaster the Coast Guard would later attribute to the failure of a hull that had not been properly maintained.

Coast Guard investigators charged with the Alaska Juris investigation also will look at the hull -- as well as piping and valves -- as they try to determine what caused the engine-room flooding.

"This is not supposed to happen," said Cmdr. Michael DeLury, the lead Coast Guard investigator.

Officials will also look for any possible sabotage. This is a routine part of any major investigation when the cause is not known, DeLury said.

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This article is written by Hal Bernton from Seattle Times and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network.

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