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Coast Guard Releases Investigation Report on ALASKA RANGER Sinking

January 12, 2011

Nearly three years after the sinking of the ALASKA RANGER in the Bering Sea, the United States Coast Guard is releasing the report of their casualty investigation into the cause of the sinking. The report which is to be released today is the result of an extensive investigation into the cause of the fishing vessel sinking in which five men lost their lives. 42 crewmen narrowly escaped death in the accident, although they abandoned their ship in the freezing waters of the Bering Sea. 22 of the surviving crewmen were able to board survival rafts, but the other 20 surviving crewmen floated for hours and were near death before being rescued by the Coast Guard helicopter crews.

The Coast Guard report points to the probable cause of the accident being progressive flooding in the engine room of the ALASKA RANGER. The report indicates the failure may have been caused by poor maintenance and repair of Kort nozzle struts which caused weakening of the hull in the stern of the vessel. The Coast Guard investigation also indicates the engine room crew on the vessel were not properly licensed for the amount of horse power on the vessel. Attempts to use the ALASKA RANGER's portable dewatering pumps were never tried after the engine room flooding was discovered. The investigation report stated that the Chief Engineer abandoned attempts to pump the engine room too early either because he thought the flood rate exceeded the capacity of his pumps or he simply panicked.

The investigation report found that the owners of the ALASKA RANGER , Fishing Company of Alaska, failed to properly maintain the structural condition of the vessel. The Coast Guard investigators found that the Fishing Company of Alaska were aware significant structural repairs were needed inside the aft ballast tank of the ALASKA RANGER before the vessel entered the shipyard in the fall of 2007. However, the Fishing Company of Alaska did not obtain an assessment from a qualified structural engineer, failed to ensure that proper repairs were completed in the tanks, and permitted the vessel to continue to operate, despite these structural deficiencies.

Although vessels such as the ALASKA RANGER are required to carry enough immersion suits for the number of crewmen aboard their vessel, there have been no regulations to require that those suits fit the crew. The ALASKA RANGER accident and other similar accidents have pointed out that it is critical to have properly fitting immersion suits. A suit that is too large or too small may quickly fill with water, providing a crewman with little protection. The investigation report recommends that each crewman be provided with a properly fitting immersion suit with designated locations to ensure access in the event of an emergency. Crewmen should be drilled in proper distribution of the survival suits in the event of emergency to ensure that crewmen receive proper fitting survival suits.

The Coast Guard investigation candidly examined the Coast Guard's own inspection procedures for fishing vessels such as the ALASKA RANGER. The report criticized its own inspection procedures as it applied to the ALASKA RANGER and recommended that all fishing vessels in the Alaska head and gut fleet operating under exemptions undergo further immediate inspection to determine their seaworthiness. It was recommended that those vessels found unlikely to meet class and load line requirements should be prohibited from operating until they obtained load line and class certification. The investigation report recommended disestablishment of the Alternate Compliance Safety Agreement and recommend no further issuance of exemptions or waivers for safety requirements for vessels such as the ALASKA RANGER. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Thomas Atkin, who reviewed the report, did not concur with this recommendation and continues to support the Alternate Compliance Safety Agreement.

The investigation report recommends further investigation into several issues discovered during the investigation, including the lack of proper licensing of the engine room crew, lack of post casualty drug and alcohol testing of the night engineer, and whether or not the ALASKA RANGER was improperly under the control the Japanese ship master who was unlicensed and a non-U.S. Citizen. The report specifically found that on previous occasions the Japanese fish master was in control of the vessel.

The investigation ruled out several previous theories relating to the possible cause of the sinking of the ALASKA RANGER. The report indicated there was not enough evidence to link the hull failure to running the vessel through ice fields. Unlike the previously published National Transportation and Safety Board Report, the Coast Guard did not believe it was likely that loss of the vessel rudder caused the ALASKA RANGER to sink.

As the ALASKA RANGER was sinking, the vessel unexpectedly defaulted into reverse as the life rafts were being deployed by the crew. This made many of the life rafts inaccessible to the crew as they attempted to abandon ship. The Coast Guard report indicated that it was unknown whether or not the captain and engineer of the ALASKA RANGER were aware that the vessel could default into reverse, and also unknown whether they knew where the remote shut off switch for the engines were in the pilot house. There remains much speculation that the ALASKA RANGER's default into reverse was one of several major causes of the loss of lives and the vessel.

Following the sinking of the ALASKA RANGER, the Fishing Company of Alaska filed a petition in the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington attempting to limit their liability to the crewmen killed and injured in the vessel sinking. Stacey & Jacobsen, PLLC represented 12 crewmen who survived the sinking, and the estate of deceased crewman Byron Carillo. Tragically, during the rescue operations to save the crewmen, Carrillo was dropped as he was being transferred into the helicopter from the rescue basket. Excessive water in Carrillo's survival suit, which was too large, was a direct contributing cause to his death. All the personal injury claims and wrongful death claims arising from the sinking of the ALASKA RANGER have now been settled.

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