After roughly 15 hours adrift in a life raft on the frigid, turbulent North Pacific Ocean, four crewmen whose fishing vessel disappeared near the Aleutian Islands early Wednesday morning were rescued in good condition, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.
But as night closed in on the search area in the remote Amchitka Pass, the number of confirmed dead stood at five. And the two remaining crew members from the vessel Katmai were still missing, though they likely had their survival suits on.
The four survivors are reporting that all 11 crewmen were able to get into their survival suits, said Petty Officer Levi Read.
The intensive search for the 93-foot ship and its remaining crewmen was focused between the Bering Sea and the Pacific Ocean about 100 miles west of Adak, an area that has been battered by storms and turbulent seas in recent days.
When the survivors were lifted from the sea at about 4:30 p.m., the plan was to fly them to Adak, where a Coast Guard doctor had been deployed in anticipation of survivors being recovered. But the crewmen were in such good shape that they didnt need emergency medical care, Lt. Eric Eggen said.
They werent hypothermic, and they stayed on board the helicopter to help continue searching, he said.
The four were ultimately transported to Adak. None of the crewmens names were released Wednesday.
The Coast Guard first got word of Katmais trouble through a distress beacon signal picked up just after 1 a.m. The Coast Guard had not received a voice Mayday call.
By evening, what went wrong on the Katmai remained unclear, Read said. The Coast Guard reported that at some point in the morning, it had gotten an e-mail from the crew of another vessel, the Blue Ballard, which passed on a message that the Katmai had lost steering and was taking on water in its lazarette an enclosed area at the vessels stern, Read said. The Coast Guard was unable to contact the Blue Ballard for elaboration or to find out how its crew got that information, he said.
The Katmai is a catcher-processor whose home port is Kodiak. It is the only vessel Katmai Fisheries Inc. of Seattle owns, said the companys chief financial officer, Jeff Debell.
It was fishing for cod with pot gear and was heading back to the major fishing port of Dutch Harbor to unload its haul when it disappeared, Debell said. He was unsure how long the vessel and crew who were from areas ranging from Portland and Seattle to Anchorage had been at sea.
After receiving the distress signal, the crew on a Coast Guard C-130 flew to the scene on a 4-1/2-hour sortie from Kodiak, arriving at about 6 a.m. to find signs of a potential disaster. Crewmen reported spotting a survival suit, a partially deflated life raft, an emergency beacon and strobe lights in the North Pacific about 1,300 miles southwest from Anchorage.
Emergency beacons can be triggered manually or automatically by contact with water, and searchers in the airplane, unable to tell if there were people below in the dark, dropped two life rafts. After sunup, however, searchers spotted no sign of survivors and found their life rafts empty.
A Coast Guard helicopter crew came across what appeared to be an empty survival suit at 11 a.m., but upon returning at 1 p.m. realized the suit actually contained the first confirmed victim, Read said.
Because searchers had not spotted any oil sheen on the water, the Coast Guard couldnt say with certainty that the vessel had sunk.
The Coast Guards out there looking for the vessel and the crew, so we dont have any definites, said Katmai Fisheries operations manager Martin Morin.
Then at about 4 p.m., a good Samaritan vessel, the Courageous, pulled the body of a second fisherman from the water. He, like the previous fisherman, had been wearing a Katmai survival suit. Chances of finding survivors were waning as darkness neared. Search conditions were poor and the water was a bone-chilling 43 degrees.
At this point, if something went wrong, theyve been in the water for a long time, Read said.
Still, there was hope.
You have to be hopeful, Debell said just minutes before the Coast Guard announced its searchers had found four survivors.
The four, wearing survival suits, were found in the raft at about 4:30 p.m. and picked up by a Coast Guard helicopter, Read said.
About an hour later another good Samaritan vessel, the Patricia Lee, found the third body. And at about 8:40 p.m., Read said, the Patricia Lee found two more bodies.
The search Wednesday included two Coast Guard C-130 surveillance airplanes and a helicopter from Kodiak, which were joined by an Alaska Air National Guard C-130 and a Pave Hawk helicopter. They were continuing to scan the area in rotations into the night, Read said.
The Coast Guard cutter Acushnet was on its way from Dutch Harbor, expected to arrive at about 10 p.m. today, he said.
Weather conditions during the search included 50-knot winds from the north, seas rising 17 feet, with a mix of rain and snow and visibility of 3 miles. The National Weather Service was predicting winds overnight to slow to 15 knots with seas at 14 feet.
At this point, we are planning on searching through the night, Read said. We search for survivors. That is what we do.
Find James Halpin online at adn.com/contact/jhalpin or call him at 257-4589. Find Wesley Loy online at adn.com/contact/wloy or call him at 257-4590.
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