Two men who died when a ship sank in Alaska's Bering Sea in late 2016 might have survived if they had more preparation and training, according to the national board that investigates transportation accidents.
A report released by the National Transportation Safety Board in late December described the final minutes before the M/V Exito sank as the ship began to take on water, eventually sinking and claiming two lives.
The Exito sank in the evening of Dec. 6, 2016, on its way from Dutch Harbor to the nearby community of Akutan. The Exito was working under an agreement with Trident Seafoods Corp. to haul waste from fish processing plants to an offshore area on the eastern side of Akutan Island.
The report found that the ship likely sank due to flooding from an "undetermined location" on board. A lack of emergency preparedness contributed to the loss of life. And the ship — an old 117-foot crabbing vessel — should never have been hauling fish waste, the report said.
Three people survived. Two others, contractors for Trident Seafoods, were never found.
The deceased men's names were not released in the report. The U.S. Coast Guard and NTSB did not immediately respond to requests for their names.
'Something doesn't feel right'
On Dec. 6, 2016, the Exito left Dutch Harbor around 6:50 p.m., embarking on the seven-hour journey to Akutan. Waves were about 10 feet high, the captain told investigators. Five people were on board — the captain, deckhand and three contractors. One contractor slept in a bunkhouse. Another went to the wheelhouse, and the third watched a movie in the galley.
After 9 p.m., the Exito "experienced a roll and did not right itself," instead leaning 2 or 3 degrees to the right, the report said.
Around 9:20 p.m., the captain called the owner of the ship. "Something doesn't feel right," the captain told the owner. He said he was going to turn the ship around, according to the report.
Pallets on the decks began to shift and break loose, the survivors told investigators. The deckhand worked to secure them as the captain worked to clear the water from the ship, including lower-level tanks, in an effort to get the vessel back upright.
But the captain's actions actually destabilized the ship, the report said, making it harder for the ship to right itself.
Waves started washing over the ship, covering the main deck with water. The captain sounded the alarm.
The deckhand told investigators "everything was floating" as he walked across the left side of the ship, with the right side submerged. There was water up to the deckhouse door, so the deckhand climbed a railing to get into the wheelhouse. He started getting into his immersion suit, a waterproof dry suit used in cold water to prevent hypothermia.
The three contractors, who were all in the galley, also started putting on their immersion suits.
'I can't do this'
The captain made a distress signal on the VHF radio. But the Coast Guard didn't have VHF reception in that area, the report said. The first the Coast Guard learned of the ship's distress was from the owner, who called to report the situation.
When the captain went down to the galley, he found one contractor in his immersion suit. A second contractor was lying on the deck, putting on his suit. Even with help, the zipper couldn't be pulled up the last few inches. The second contractor told the captain that he couldn't swim.
The two contractors in their suits were told to go to the wheelhouse. The surviving contractor later told investigators that the ship was leaning so far that climbing the stairs was more like climbing a ladder.
The third contractor had trouble getting his suit on. The man, who was larger in size, got the hood on, but the zipper only closed to the middle of his chest. By that point, the ship was leaning about 10 degrees to the right, the captain estimated. The captain told the contractor they needed to get upstairs.
"I can't do this," the third contractor replied.
The captain said the man "seemed to almost give up," so the captain dragged him across the deck. But he couldn't carry the man up the stairs, so he asked the man to follow him.
As the captain prepared to abandon the sinking ship, nearby fishing vessel Afognak Strait responded to his distress signal.
The captain came back to the wheelhouse. He and the first contractor tried to push the second contractor out of the door, but the man wouldn't budge, bracing himself with his hands at the doorway.
"Realizing that their efforts were futile, the captain helped the first contractor out the door and remained behind in an attempt to help the second contractor, who was still resisting exit," the report said.
The captain helped the deckhand launch the life raft. He saw the second contractor hanging on to the handrail at the top of the stairs and the third contractor at the landing steps on the second deck. The captain went back to help them, but the ship sank before he could reach them.
The deckhand told investigators that the "boat went out from underneath my feet" as it sank. The captain, deckhand and first contractor swam to the life raft. The two other contractors were never seen again.
Two fishing vessels, the Afognak Strait and Commitment, arrived to help, in 10- to 20-foot seas with 30-knot winds.
The two good Samaritans remained in the area through the night, searching for the two lost men. A two-day search by the U.S. Coast Guard came up emptyhanded.
More than a year later, the NTSB issued its findings on the incident. The ship wasn't salvaged, so investigators didn't determine the exact reason the ship began to lean right.
"Critical time" was lost in getting the men's suits on, the report said — if they had previously tried on the immersion suits, the process would have been faster, and the crew would have known that one man didn't fit in the regular suit size.
There was an exit that the men could have used to access the wheelhouse, but the captain didn't point it out to the men, and it had a sign saying it wasn't an exit. There were no emergency exit signs on board.
"Had the contractors who were lost been informed of alternate means of escape, they may have survived," the report said.
Also, the agreement between Trident Seafoods and the Exito didn't include carrying Trident employees or contractors, the report said.
"Although the captain and owner accepted the responsibility for carrying persons with no maritime survival training or experience — a task different from what the vessel was contracted for — Trident Seafoods also had a responsibility to assess the risk and honor the conditions of the charter agreement," the report said.
One of the NTSB's recommendations focused on the VHF distress signal that wasn't picked up by the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard doesn't have much ability to continuously monitor the VHF channel in that area, the report said, but that fact isn't widely known among mariners who traverse those waters.
"Operators and crews in the Aleutian chain and Bering Sea need to be aware of the limitations of VHF coverage and should be prepared to communicate by other means," the report said.
Also, the Exito was listed as "unclassified," but should have been classified as a fish tender, as it was primarily hauling fish waste. Had it been, then it would have had additional certifications, endorsements and inspections.
But the Exito, which was part of a 2004 fishery conservation program, was not supposed to take part in any fishing activity. "It should not have been used as a fish tender," the report said.
The Exito was last inspected in 2003. Numerous repairs had been made on the ship in the last several years, all without oversight from the Coast Guard or other organizations, the report said.
"Much, if not all, of the reported steel work and welding repairs were conducted without following any welding standards and procedures," the report said.
Both the captain and owner knew of leaks in the right side of the forward space, and only temporary measures were taken to patch it up, the report said.
The report recommended better maintenance and safety briefings, and understanding that the Coast Guard has limited radio reception in the Aleutians, for other vessels in the area.