Heavily loaded boat, rough seas worried at least one clammer

FATAL VOYAGE: Washington man opted not to join 5 others in boat.

May 23, 2011 

Before a skiff loaded with men and razor clams motored from a muddy Cook Inlet fishing ground last week, one of the clam diggers in the group saw the potential for danger and didn't get in the boat, troopers investigating the case said Monday.

Noel Garcia, 42, of Aberdeen, Wash., told Alaska State Troopers the boat was overloaded with more than 100 buckets full of razor clams, each weighing about 35 pounds. The seas were rough. It was windy. The tide was rushing in.

While troopers had revealed Friday that the skiff was overloaded, new, dramatic details from Garcia's report emerged Monday.

On the afternoon of May 17, Garcia set out walking several miles from the commercial clamming grounds along the western shore of Cook Inlet back to the fish camp at Polly Creek. He last saw the boat, with the five doomed clam diggers aboard, at about 2:30 p.m., motoring to camp as he was walking there, trooper Thad Hamilton said.

Waves likely rose up over the bow of the 22-foot skiff and swamped it, Hamilton said. Only one of the men, Roberto Ramirez, 42, was wearing a life jacket. He and the other four drowned or succumbed to the frigid water, Hamilton said.

Other clam diggers found the boat at low tide, full of water and sitting on the mud. Forty to 50 clam buckets were still aboard and others scattered around it, the trooper said. Because it was upright, it appears to have swamped and sunk, he said.

The others killed were: Jose A. Sandoval, 34, of Bakersfield, Calif.; Avelino Garcia 36, of Oregon; Jose Rever, 24, of Los Angeles; and Ramon Valdiva, 31, of Oregon, troopers said. In at least some cases, they used different names to get their state commercial clamming permits and to register with the Department of Fish and Game, according to a spokeswoman for Pacific Seafood Group, the parent company for Pacific Alaska Shellfish Co.

The U.S. Coast Guard is investigating what led to the deadly accident that put the five clam diggers into the water.

Commercial clam diggers have pulled razor clams from the Cook Inlet tidal flats for decades. Pacific Alaska took over the operation in 1983, said spokeswoman Shannon Berg. The parent company has never had a workplace death in its 70-year history, she said.

This year, the clam diggers arrived May 12 for what was expected to be a nearly three-month stint working as independent operators, kind of like a salmon crew selling to a processor.

Before the deaths, Pacific Alaska had some 23 diggers. Since the deaths, the clamming, which produced some 6,000 pounds a day, has been dramatically scaled back. The company flew home anyone who didn't want to stay, Berg said.

As of Monday, seven diggers remained, she said. Some who left may decide to come back, and she didn't believe the company was hiring.

All of the men killed were experienced clam diggers, Berg said. One had been working there for 20 or so years and another for 15, she said.

"They were considered close friends of many in our company," she said.

BACKBREAKING WORK

Each digger fills up his own buckets and is paid by the pound, making $130 to $150 or more a day for backbreaking work. Sometimes they put the clams in a raft that they pull and haul back to camp. But they've also used company-owned skiffs for years, Berg said.

Pacific Alaska arranges for the harvested clams to be picked up multiple times a day in a small plane and flies them to Nikiski to be processed for shipment.

It's unknown why all the diggers weren't wearing life jackets, Berg said. The company provides each a life jacket, whistle and flares, she said.

Technically, the skiff should have been equipped with survival suits, the neoprene Gumby-like suits that have saved the lives of fishermen in high seas for years, said Ken Lawrenson, the Coast Guard's commercial fishing vessel safety coordinator for Alaska.

Setnetters, who also operate out of skiffs, have gotten exemptions but under Coast Guard rules then the crew must wear life jackets and have a VHF radio and flares on board.

Pacific Alaska didn't get an exemption but is working on that now, Berg said.

NAMES DON'T MATCH

One murky issue concerns the double names of the men who were killed.

The state medical examiner provided the names released by troopers. Each man's identity was confirmed through photo IDs and identifying information provided by families, said Ann Potempa, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Health and Social Services.

Those names didn't match any of those listed as razor clam permit holders on the state Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission website. A couple were close but three were entirely different.

Berg said the men used different names to get their permits, perhaps due to the Mexican practice of using both paternal and maternal last names.

Berg said all the workers were legal residents. Immigration officials on Monday were unable to confirm that.

Wildlife troopers checked the clamming permit and registration files and are satisfied the men had complied with state requirements, Trooper Hamilton said.


Reach Lisa Demer at ldemer@adn.com or 257-4390.

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