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NTSB probe of dramatic Alaska sinking finds safety flaws

WASHINGTON — For the fourth time following a fatal marine accident, the National Transportation Safety Board will recommend that the U.S. Coast Guard ask Congress for the authority to inspect the nation's commercial fishing fleet, which currently must meet only minimal and largely voluntary safety standards.

The board's suggestion came Wednesday as it made public the finding of its investigation into the March 2008 sinking of the Alaska Ranger in the treacherous but resource-rich fishing grounds of Alaska's Bering Sea.

Five people perished and another 42 were saved from near-freezing waters by helicopters and a sister fishing vessel — one of the most dramatic cold water rescue missions in Coast Guard history. The vessel itself lies at the bottom of 6,000 feet of sea, unrecovered.

The Coast Guard recognizes that commercial fishing is a high risk area, said NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman, who said she has spoken about the matter to its commandant, Adm. Thad Allen. So far, though, Congress has not acted.

In many ways, Hersman said, there are more regulations for the fish and their habitat than there are for the fishermen who were risking their lives in the 20- to 25-foot swells and 25-knot winds the morning of the Alaska Ranger’s sinking.

“The fish are more protected than the fishermen,” Hersman said. “Throughout the years, for decades, we’ve recommended that the Coast Guard have authority to inspect these vessels. These vessels are exempted from inspection and we think that the statistics show, unfortunately, that this is the deadliest industry. There are more lives lost per million, for fishermen, than there are for any other profession in the United States. We need to rectify that.”

NTSB investigators determined that the Alaska Ranger began flooding in the rudder room, likely when the vessel lost a rudder. The crew failed to close watertight doors that led to the progressive flooding that eventually sank the vessel, investigators also found. The 35-year-old boat, originally built to service offshore oil rigs, was retrofitted in 1987 as a fishing processing vessel.

As the ship took on water, it lost electrical power, which caused the pumps that controlled the pitch of the vessel’s propellers to lose hydraulic pressure. Although that could have been resolved by cutting off the main engines, no one did, and the boat began moving backwards, investigators determined. As a result, the ship moved away from the life rafts, preventing the crew from entering, and forcing many into the water, in survival suits.

Board members raised a number of questions about the investigation, including about the possible use of drugs and alcohol aboard the Alaska Ranger, the qualifications of the ship's three engineers, and the routine failure to close watertight doors that could have prevented additional flooding that led to the vessel’s sinking.

They also asked questions about the relationship between the ship's captain, Peter Jacobsen, and the fish master, Satoshi Konno, who worked for the Japanese buyer of the fish caught by the Alaska Ranger. Investigators learned that Konno had a contentious relationship with the previous captain, who had left the Alaska Ranger only weeks before its sinking.

Some crew members told the investigators that they believed Konno – who wielded great influence as the buyer’s agent -- may have pushed the captain to venture into ice-choked waters where the boat wasn’t equipped to operate.

“Perception or not, the reality is that people were scared of this man and he may have directed the boat to do something it should not have done,” said one of the board members, Robert Sumwalt.

Although they did not explore the matter further, in its findings the NTSB points out that employees with the vessel’s owner, Fishing Company of Alaska, were “under the mistaken impression that the Alaska Ranger had been strengthened for operation in ice.”

The theory that the rudder may have been damaged by ice is one about which Jacobsen’s daughter, Karen Jacobsen, said she regrets the NTSB wasn’t able to find out more. What if the fish master pushed the previous captain to venture through ice the ship wasn’t equipped for, she asked Wednesday, after watching the proceedings.

“The ship maybe took some hits through some ice that maybe damaged the…the rudder, and that would be my guess, cause no one knows really what happened,” she said.

Some questions about the sinking will never be answered, investigators said Wednesday. The captain, first mate and chief engineer – those most likely in the wheelhouse in control of the vessel and with the most knowledge of what happened that morning – perished in the shipwreck.

Investigators remain uncertain why exactly the ship began taking on water, and because the Alaska Ranger is at the bottom of the sea, can only speculate based on their interviews with survivors and their examination of the ship’s records.

Sometimes, propellers and rudders fall off, Jack Spencer, director of the NTSB’s Office of Marine Safety told the three-member board.

“It’s a very rare occurrence, and the cause isn’t consistent from vessel to vessel,” Spencer said. “Nobody wants a rudder to fall off, but a lot of times there are failures in there that really can’t be detected ahead of time. We really can’t think of an additional thing that could be done in checking rudder systems. It’s one of those very rare events that we just sort of have to accept.”

Rescuers recovered four of the five bodies of those who died in the sinking, and were able to conduct alcohol and drug testing. The results were negative. However, since no other crew members were tested, the NTSB was unable to determine whether alcohol was a factor in the sinking, said the chief investigator on the case, Liam LaRue.

The NTSB concluded that crew members who were picked up by the Alaska Ranger’s sister ship, the Alaska Warrior, could have been screened. The two ships were both owned by Seattle-based Fishing Company of Alaska.

The company had a zero tolerance policy on drugs and alcohol, and while “talked the talk,” LaRue said, they “it’s pretty clear they did not follow through on that.”

One observer on board the Alaska Ranger with the National Marine Fisheries Service told investigators of smelling marijuana. The NTSB on Wednesday recommended that the Fishing Company of Alaska “review and modify as necessary” its enforcement of its drug and alcohol policy “to ensure full crew compliance.”

There are no laws governing the alcohol use by crew members on board commercial fishing vessels. The only law, investigators told the board Wednesday, is that whoever is operating the vessel have less than a .04 percent blood alcohol level.

The board also will suggest to the National Marine Fisheries Service and the North Pacific Fishery Management Council that they reconsider fishery management regulations. As written, they bar vessel owners with permission to fish in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Island management area from replacing their boats with newer vessels unless their existing vessels are a complete loss.

In its findings, the NTSB also concluded that there were flaws in the voluntary Coast Guard inspection program for fishing vessels, known as the Alternate Compliance and Safety Agreement program. It failed to catch some problems with the hull, the report found, and didn’t catch that the three engineers aboard the vessel didn’t have the appropriate licensing.

The NTSB singled out for praise some Coast Guard practices, saying that the voluntary compliance program “has provided a higher level of safety for the enrolled commercial fishing industry vessels than existed previously.”

Although they would like to see mandatory inspections, the voluntary program is better than nothing, said Hersman, the NTSB chairwoman.

“It’s not as if there are no standards but there are very few standards that apply to these vessel, that apply to most other sea-going vessels,” she said. “And these vessels are operating in an environment that’s more challenging and more deadly. The Bering Sea is an incredibly difficult environment and we want to make sure that the vessels operating there in these most remote and hard-to-get-to locations – especially for rescue operations – are protected.”

The findings also praised the decision to base a Coast Guard rescue helicopter on St. Paul Island in the Bering Sea during the crab fishing season. That decision aided the rescue effort, the NTSB found.

Jacobsen, the daughter of the ship’s captain, said that she hoped the board’s recommendations would be carried out. A soft-spoken woman from Massachusetts, Jacobsen said she might be emboldened enough by what has happened to seek out members of Congress to urge them to give the Coast Guard the authority to enforce stricter safety regulations on fishing vessels.

“If there’s anything I can do,” she said, “I’d like to do it.”

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