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Search suspended for man who fell overboard near boat launch

Michelle Theriault Boots,Zaz Hollander
A U.S. Coast Guard MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter from Kodiak participates in a major search Monday for a 28-year-old man who fell off a skiff into the water near the Anchorage Small Boat Harbor late Sunday. The man was "overcome by the current" while transferring from the skiff to the tug Sam B, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.
Erik Hill
The Anchorage Fire Department light rescue boat backs out from the launch as a major search continues Monday morning, October 7, 2013, for a 28-year-old man who fell off a skiff into the water near the Anchorage Small Boat Harbor late Sunday. The man was "overcome by the current" while transferring from the skiff to the tug Sam B, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. The tug operation in the photo was not involved.
Erik Hill
Helo 2 of the Alaska State Troopers and the Department of Public Safety searches the Pt. Woronzof beach Monday afternoon for 28-year-old Peter McNeal of Wasilla.
Erik Hill

The U.S. Coast Guard suspended the major search Monday night for a 28-year-old man who fell off a skiff into the water near the Anchorage small-boat harbor late Sunday.

Peter McNeal of Wasilla was on a skiff heading from the small-boat launch at Ship Creek to the anchored tug Sam B when he stood up and fell into Cook Inlet waters, said U.S. Coast Guard spokesman Shawn Eggert.

He was not wearing a life jacket. Crew members aboard the tug called the Coast Guard for help just before midnight.

Eggert said it's not clear whether McNeal was at work when he fell into the water. The tug is owned by Brice Inc., a subsidiary of the Calista Corp., with offices in Fairbanks and Anchorage. Brice Inc. representatives did not return phone calls Monday.

Wearing a life jacket on the water at all times is standard for the tugboat industry, said Katrina Anderson, a tugboat captain with Cook Inlet Tug & Barge.

A skiff ride to a tugboat near midnight wouldn't necessarily be out of the ordinary, Anderson said. Tugboat crews live and work onboard, sometimes for weeks at a time at irregular hours.

"You live on the boat and essentially try to get to town when you can," she said.

Darkness and a "really extreme" tide Sunday night complicated initial rescue efforts, said Anchorage Fire Department Capt. Rob Harris. The 33-foot tide dried up the boat launch, forcing the fire department to wait until morning to launch its dive boat, Harris said. Two smaller AFD boats patrolled the water overnight.

Rescue efforts focused on a drift chart based on the last known position of the skiff, wind speed and water movement, Harris said.

A tide like the one in play here can create a current that moves at upward of 9 knots, he said. "There's a lot of movement. Of course, with the darkness and the speed of that tide, it makes for a huge search area."

At 3 a.m. Monday, a few hours after McNeal was reported missing, the Coast Guard reported 1- to 2-foot seas, 20-knot winds and water temperature of 46 degrees.

Numerous agencies turned out to search: an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter from Kodiak; an H-60 Pave Hawk helicopter from the Alaska Air National Guard's 210th Rescue Squadron at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson; and several privately owned vessels described by the Coast Guard as "good Samaritan" vessels. Anchorage police and Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport security searched the shoreline as well.

Searchers covered a 10-square mile area for approximately 18 hours before the operation was suspended. Eggert said that the Coast Guard considered a number of factors before suspending the search, including weather, water temperature, McNeal's health and attire.

While Eggert said the search conditions were "very good" with high visibility Monday, strong winds were forecasted for early Tuesday morning.

"The decision to suspend a search mission is never easy," said Coast Guard Cmdr. Shawn Decker of Anchorage. "The thoughts and prayers of the Coast Guard are with this man's family and friends during this difficult time."

Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at mtheriault@adn.com or 257-4344. Reach Zaz Hollander at zhollander@adn.com or 257-4317.


By MICHELLE THERIAULT BOOTS and ZAZ HOLLANDER
mtheriault@adn.com, zhollander@adn.com