The search was called off for a crabbing vessel and its six crew members missing for nearly three days in the brutal waters of the Bering Sea, the U.S. Coast Guard said Monday night.
The fishing vessel Destination, a Seattle-owned, Sand Point-based ship with a reputation as a "battle ax" and a crew of veteran Bering Sea fishermen, was on its way to start the snow crab season when its emergency locator beacon activated at 6:11 a.m. Saturday.
When the Coast Guard arrived, there was no trace of the 95-foot boat save for a collection of debris in the water: a life ring, buoys, tarps and a slick of oil.
The boat has not been declared sunk and the men aboard are still considered missing. But the Coast Guard offered its "deepest condolences" to the family and friends of the six crew members Monday night in a prepared statement.
"The decision to suspend a search is always difficult and is made with great care and consideration," said Rear Adm. Michael McAllister, Coast Guard 17th District commander.
Search crews had combed an area of 5,073 square nautical miles, following currents southwest of the spot where the only sign of the boat was found, 2 miles off the northwest tip of St. George Island, according to Petty Officer 3rd Class Lauren Steenson.
The cutter Morgenthau and an HC-130 Hercules were both in the area and actively searching on Monday.
On St. George, an island with a population of about 100, people had been riding ATVs on routes hugging the 400-foot cliffs on the island's northwest shoreline looking for any sign of the mariners or their boat.
"They've been going out, spending three or four hours driving around the island on the cliff edge," said Mayor Pat Pletnikoff. No one had reported seeing any debris.
The weather had been bad.
"It's blowing hard, wind chill is probably 20 below," the mayor said.
What happened to the Destination remains a mystery. The Coast Guard says an investigation is in its initial stages. Other Bering Sea fishermen say whatever happened, it must have happened fast: No one heard even a mayday call from the crew Saturday morning.
Conditions in the area at the time suggest sea spray icing, which can cause dangerous destabilization, may have been a factor.
St. George residents know as well as anyone how treacherous the Bering Sea waters are.
Local fishermen who go out in 30-foot boats know the area where the Destination's debris was found is a cauldron of "really heavy currents," said Pletnikoff. "When the seas are up the currents get really gnarly, and even on a nice day they are bad."
If no survivors are found, the sinking of the Destination would be the deadliest commercial fishing disaster in Alaska since 2008.
On Oct. 22 of that year, the 93-foot vessel Katmai sank in heavy seas off the Aleutian Islands. Seven of the 11 crew members died. A federal inquiry determined that open doors allowed the boat to flood and ultimately sink.
That same year, on March 23, five people were killed aboard the Alaska Ranger, a boat that was also part of the "head and gut" fleet, boats that catch and process fish. The Alaska Ranger sank 130 miles west of Dutch Harbor. Investigators found that a poorly maintained hull contributed to the sinking of the ship.
Former workers on the Destination have described it as a meticulously maintained ship.
The head of its ownership group is David R. Wilson, a lifelong fisherman originally from the Sand Point area who now lives in Edmonds, Washington. An attorney who is acting as a spokesman for Wilson, Michael Barcott, said the names of the crew members would not be released until their families had been consulted.
Some of the crew members have already been publicly identified by family members: A GoFundMe page details the life of Charles Glenn Jones, a fisherman from Belfair, Washington. The fundraising page calls Jones a devoted father who was raising three children with his wife on his income alone.
The wife of another man, Larry O'Grady, told TV stations in Seattle that her husband was on the Destination. The two lived in Poulsbo, on the Kitsap Peninsula in Washington state.
"He was one of the best," Gail O'Grady told the TV station.
Another Seattle TV station, King 5, identified Kai Hamik as another crew member. Hamik, whose Facebook profile says he lived in Chandler, Arizona, posted videos to YouTube of prior seasons on the Destination that reveal both the hard work aboard the Destination and the friendships among the crew members.
Pletnikoff, the mayor of St. George, said people on the island are used to seeing fishing boats passing by. They know how rough the seas are and how close danger can be.
"I wish we could do more," Pletnikoff said. "When a tragedy like this occurs near our island, it affects us as well."
Alaska Dispatch News reporter Jerzy Shedlock contributed to this story.