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The National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) released a summary today of their report into the cause of the sinking of the fishing vessel Alaska Ranger. The Alaska Ranger, a 180-foot factory trawler, sank on March 23, 2008 in the Bering Sea. Five of the 47 crewmen aboard the vessel died in the accident. Many of the surviving crewmen spent 4-6 hours fighting for their lives in leaky survival suits in freezing cold waters and high seas before being rescued by the United States Coast Guard.

The lengthy casualty report, which will be issued to the public in the following week, follows nearly a year of joint investigation into the sinking by the United States Coast Guard and the NTSB. The report concludes that the Alaska Ranger apparently lost its rudder, and then began taking on water in the vessel's steering compartment. The flooding caused the vessel to lose power, and once the vessel lost power it automatically went into reverse, causing major down-flooding. Crewmen also had difficulties launching the survival rafts stored on the bow of the vessel. Because of the vessel's reverse course, two of the rafts were immediately swept away by the high seas and were useless to the crewmen who were abandoning ship. Twenty of the crewmen were unable to make it into the vessel's life rafts. The Alaska Ranger sinking prompted the Coast Guard to issue a safety warning about the dangers of variable pitch propellers going into reverse during power failures. There are hundreds of vessels equipped with propulsion systems similar to that of the Alaska Ranger.

NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman called for new laws to protect commercial fishermen. The Board recommended that Congress pass laws requiring mandatory inspection of certain fishing vessels. In calling for changes, Hersman commented that we protect the quality of fish better than we protect the safety of fishermen.

Although the sinking of the Alaska Ranger tragically resulted in the loss of five lives, it was a near miss that the whole crew of the Alaska Ranger was not lost. Although the fishing industry claims that fishing vessel safety has improved, questions linger about whether the vessels have become more safe or whether disasters have simply become more survivable.

During the investigation the Government's investigators also questioned the Fishing Company of Alaska's possible ownership and control by Japanese interests. Crewmen testified during the casualty investigation that the Japanese fish master aboard the vessel had run the vessel at excessive speed through ice on a previous voyage. There was disputed testimony about the control the fish master exerted over the running of the vessel, including possibly initiating the firing of the Alaska Ranger's prior captain.

Seattle maritime lawyers Stacey & Jacobsen represented 13 of the surviving crewmen in claims against the vessel owner for negligence and unseaworthiness. They also represented the Estate of Byron Carrillo, one of the seamen who lost his life in the sinking. Tragically, Carrillo was killed when he could no longer hold onto the rescue basket while being hoisted into a Coast Guard helicopter. All but two of the 47 Alaska Ranger crewmen's lawsuits against Fishing Company of Alaska have been settled. The settlements are being held confidential.

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