The six men lost when their crabbing boat sank on a cold morning in the Bering Sea last month were declared legally dead at an unusual court proceeding Monday, allowing heartbroken families to take a first step toward closure and settling their loved ones' affairs.
The proceeding, known as a presumptive death hearing, is a kind of mini-trial held to determine whether a missing person can be declared dead. They are often held in the cases of people who have disappeared in such extreme terrain as to have exhausted the chances of survival or recovery.
The fishing vessel Destination sank 3 miles north of St. George Island on the morning of Feb. 11, just before starting the winter snow crab season. The bodies of the men aboard — captain Jeff Hathaway and crew members Kai Hamik, Darrik Seibold, Larry O'Grady, Raymond Vincler and Charles G. Jones — have not been found.
Without the recovery of a body, the families of the men can't get the death certificates necessary to resolve a host of legal issues such as claiming survivors benefits or administering estates. That's where the presumptive death hearing comes in.
Hearings like the one Monday are relatively rare in Alaska. Last year there were 20 statewide, according to the Alaska Court System.
Other missing Alaskans who have been declared dead at such proceedings in recent years include Michael LeMaitre, the 66-year-old Anchorage man last seen racing in Mount Marathon on July 4, 2012; Valerie Sifsof, an Anchorage woman with Dillingham roots who disappeared on a camping trip at Granite Creek with her boyfriend in 2012; and Bradford Broach, a Texan vacationing in Alaska who went missing while hiking the Winner Creek Trail in Girdwood last August and was declared legally dead at a hearing in October.
The legal corporation that owned the F/V Destination petitioned the court for the hearing on behalf of five of the men. Susan Hathaway, the wife of captain Jeff Hathaway, independently petitioned the court on her husband's behalf.
At Monday's hearing in the courtroom of Anchorage District Court judge Brian Clark, a jury of six people heard evidence from two witnesses, with family members of several of the crew members listening in to the proceedings via phone.
David Freeman, an attorney for five of the six men on the crabbing boat, called David Wilson, the president of the corporation that owned the boat.
Wilson described the Destination as a 110-foot-long crabbing boat he'd owned and operated since 1985. Wilson said the crew was last seen alive departing from Dutch Harbor on the night of Feb. 9.
He told the court that the only known communications from the boat after that were a call from the captain to another crab fisherman, Doug Shelford. There may also have been a call to Trident Seafoods on St. Paul Island, he said.
Wilson, who is originally from Sand Point but lives in Edmonds, Washington, testified that the U.S. Coast Guard called to tell him that an emergency locator beacon from the Destination had been found on the morning of Saturday, Feb. 11.
An intensive three-day search turned up a small slick of oil, a buoy, tarps and other debris but no other signs of the boat or crew.
"I believe they were lost at sea," Wilson told the court.
Susan Hathaway, the wife of captain Jeff Hathaway, testified that Wilson had called and told her of the search around 8 a.m. that Saturday morning.
"The rest of the day was standing by the phone," she said.
The jury deliberated for about 15 minutes before returning to declare each of the men dead. Judge Clark said he would order death certificates to be completed immediately.
Fundraisers for the families of the six crew members have raised more than $100,000. A GoFundMe site set up by a "Deadliest Catch" captain has raised $90,000, with a benefit held by the Norwegian Rat Saloon in Dutch Harbor contributing another $37,919.
Monday's hearing may have resolved the legal limbo families of the crew were facing, but it did little to explain what actually happened to the boat.
Answers about what led the Destination to sink may come out in a top-level U.S. Coast Guard investigation that's underway. The Marine Board of Investigation panel of three officials is investigating the sinking along with the National Transportation Safety Board, with hearings likely to be held in Seattle in coming months, said Lt. Amy Midgett, a spokeswoman for the U.S Coast Guard.