Afloat and cold in the North Pacific, tossed by two-story swells, a group of men wearing survival suits shivered and huddled on a raft after their fishing boat, the Katmai, went down in the early morning dark Wednesday. Blistering winds approaching 50 knots and ocean spray battered them, ultimately ripping off the raft's canopy. Then bad turned to worse: The raft flipped, and when it came back up, some men were missing, vanished in the blackness.
"There were six of them in the life raft and it overturned," said Linda Puletau, sister of one of the surviving men, Captain Henry Blake III. "They lost two people."
Eleven souls were on board the Seattle-based Katmai when it apparently rolled over off the Aleutian chain; the bodies of five have been recovered. Four crewmen, including two from Anchorage, survived. Two others remain lost at sea.
Though all the crewmen had survival suits on when they went into the water, not all were found in rafts. The catcher-processor was equipped with two rafts, both large enough to hold all the crewmen, said John Young, an attorney representing the ship's owner, Katmai Fisheries Inc. One of them was found floating empty and partially deflated hours before the U.S. Coast Guard picked up the four men in the other, he said.
"The raft that was found may have flipped more than once," Young said. "And it is certainly quite possible that everyone was in one of the two life rafts and they simply were dislodged in the bad weather at some point."
Their bodies were still being transported to Adak aboard the Courageous, a good Samaritan vessel that assisted in the search. Katmai Fisheries late Thursday identified the dead men as: Cedric Smith and Glenn Harper, both of Portland, Ore., Jake Gilman of Camas, Wash., Joshua Leonguerrero of Spanaway, Wash., and Fuli Lemusu of Salem, Ore.
The company identified the four survivors as Blake of Worcester, Mass., and crewmen Guy Schroder and Harold Appling, both of Anchorage, and Adam Foster of Shoreline, Wash.
The search for the remaining two people - Carlos Zabala of Helena, Mont., and Robert Davis of Deming, Wash. - continued with urgency through the day Thursday and into the evening, nearly two full days after the Katmai went down along the Aleutian chain in Amchitka Pass, which links the North Pacific with the Bering Sea about 1,400 miles southwest of Anchorage.
Searchers in C-130s, helicopters and boats were to be joined by the cutter Acushnet Thursday night. The weather had broken somewhat, with winds down from 50 knots to 18 and waves down from 15 feet to 2, said Petty Officer Wes Shinn.
"We're going to continue searching for the two missing people as long as the assets are able to stay in the air, weather permitting," Shinn said.
But water temperatures in the low 40s made chances of survival appear slim after all those hours.
People tossed in water that cold without a survival suit would live only a matter of minutes, Petty Officer Levi Read said. Depending on their physical condition, a survival suit could extend that time by a matter of hours, he said.
"It's been a long time," Young said. "Everyone that was found in the water was deceased, so we remain hopeful, but with the passage of time hope starts to dim."
The fate of the 93-foot Katmai also remains uncertain, though some details were beginning to emerge Thursday.
Reached by telephone in Sitka, Puletau said her brother, a life-long fisherman who was planning a career change after this trip, had reported good fishing in the days before tragedy struck and that the vessel was making its way back to Dutch Harbor to unload a haul of cod.
"This was supposed to be his last trip," she said. "They had a full load of fish, and what happened was, he lost the steering. ... It caused the boat to turn to where it was going into the waves in a bad way, so it took on water."
Shortly before an emergency locator beacon from the vessel sent out a signal just after 1 a.m. Wednesday, the crew of another ship, the Blue Ballard, sent an e-mail to the Coast Guard saying the Katmai had lost steering and was taking on water in its lazarette - an enclosed area at the vessel's stern, Petty Officer Sara Francis said.
Coast Guard Lt. Zachary Koehler, one of the rescue pilots, told the Seattle Times the crew of the Katmai reported being pummeled by two-story waves in "chaotic" seas after their vessel went down.
The vessel had been taking water in its lazarette and the pumps couldn't keep up, he said. As a result, the ship lost its steering and was unable to turn its bow into the pounding waves, causing the vessel to go "beam to the seas," he told the Times. With the waves at a 90-degree angle and the vessel in a trough, the boat rolled and tossed the crew into the sea.
GOOD FRIENDS SAVED, AND LOST
About 15 hours later, Koehler's crew spotted the survivors and dropped a rescue swimmer to the raft.
"When he got there, three of the guys pointed to the fourth, who was in worse shape, and said, 'Take him first,' " Koehler told the Times. The swimmer loaded the men into a basket that hauled them to the chopper above.
Though cold, hungry and shivering, the men insisted on staying aboard the helicopter to continue searching for their crew mates. They were eventually taken to Adak and were being flown to Anchorage Thursday night.
For Puletau, the rescue was bittersweet.
"We all thought that he was dead," she said. "We were so relieved to find out that he was OK, but of course, we're concerned for the rest of the crew members and their families. ... A lot of the people he lost were really good friends."
The survivors will be interviewed, possibly as soon as next week, by a three-person Marine Board of Investigation to determine what went wrong, Francis said.
Results from the investigation could be some time coming. For example, the investigation of the Alaska Ranger, which sank Easter Sunday - 42 were rescued and five were killed - is still under way, Francis said.
Because of its size and the waters it fished - it targeted a state fishery within three miles of the coast - the Katmai was considered as an "uninspected fishing vessel that was part of the head and gut fleet," Francis said.
"Physically, they operate closer to shore, so they're less vulnerable," Francis said. "Obviously, it looks like they were operating a little bit farther out than that.
That's something they'll look at in the investigation."
Larger ships in federal waters are required to undergo more detailed inspections, but the Katmai's class is not, she said. The vessel did, however, participate in a voluntary safety program in which it was examined for safety features such as having enough survival suits and rafts, Francis said. The last such exam took place in December 2007 and it, like others in recent years, did not turn up any significant problems, she said.
Find James Halpin online at adn.com/contact/jhalpin or call him at 257-4589.