A four-year-old federal law could have saved nine men who vanished in calm, frigid waters in the Bering Sea last March when a fish processor named the Aleutian Enterprise rolled over and sank.
The owners of the 162-foot-long vessel didn't comply with the statute, and the U.S. Coast Guard didn't widely enforce it, investigators say. As a result, they say, a hole in the side of the vessel - used to discard fish guts and unwanted catches - was not adequately covered. Cold and frightened crewmen had no way of closing the hole when the ship leaned over under the weight of a huge catch of fish.
The hole, a little larger than a cookie sheet, submerged under the waves, and water gushed in past a steel flap that covered it. The ship went down in minutes, taking nine men with it, and leaving 22 survivors with nightmares.
Coast Guard investigators say if the vessel had complied with a law known as the ``load line'' statute, the hole would have been equipped with a watertight hatch that could be bolted shut from the inside.
The sinking of the Aleutian Enterprise is another lethal chapter in the story of America's most dangerous and under-regulated industry, where more than one fisherman, on average, dies every week.
Officials of Arctic Alaska Fisheries Corp., which operated the Aleutian Enterprise, say their company violated no laws, and they feel the cause of the accident is not yet explained. But, when the facts are laid out in government reports now in draft form, the case promises to be a disturbing chronicle of carelessness and politics, a forecast of the debate that will follow as survivors and the families of the dead seek compensation in the courts and look to Congress for help in preventing future tragedies. In draft form, the Coast Guard report contains more than 40 recommendations, investigators say.
The relatives of the missing men and nearly all the survivors have filed claims totaling more than $100 million in U.S. District Court in Seattle. Coast Guard Capt. Rene Roussel, the chairman of the accident hearing board in Seattle, says a criminal-negligence statute could apply in this kind of case. The Coast Guard commandant can refer the matter to the U.S. attorney for prosecution if the board reports evidence of flagrant violations.
The Coast Guard tangled with Arctic Alaska over the load-line law both before and after the Aleutian Enterprise sank. For instance:
-- Last year, before the accident, U.S. Rep. John Miller, R-Seattle, intervened to help Arctic Alaska resist the Coast Guard's effort to apply the load-line law to another Arctic Alaska vessel, the U.S. Enterprise. Miller, an advocate of fishing-boat safety, says he was just helping a constituent.
-- Six months after the accident, still another Arctic Alaska vessel, the Island Enterprise, heeled over in the Bering Sea under circumstances somewhat similar to the Aleutian Enterprise case. The ship safely righted itself after the crew dumped a load of fish off the deck. But, when the ship returned to Seattle, the Coast Guard detained it for violating the load-line law and learned of other stability problems.
As investigators see it, several factors contributed to the Aleutian Enterprise accident on March 22 at 1:30 p.m. in relatively calm weather. The ship was nearly full of frozen fish when the 28-year-old skipper, Mark Siemons, had his crew pull up the last catch before going home. The net was so full it split, spilling tons of fish onto the deck. Some witnesses say the ship was already leaning slightly to the left, or port, side so the fish slid that way, too.
Meanwhile, on the processing deck one floor below, some witnesses say, a sump pump wasn't working, so water that had collected on the floor flowed to the same side of the ship.
The vessel leaned 20 degrees. The trash-chute hole, one of several openings on the leaning side of the vessel, sank under the waves, and cold sea water gushed in as if spewing from a broken fire hydrant. The ship was doomed.
It is unclear whether other holes leaked but, according to a National Transportation Safety Board report, a previous locking device, which might
have secured the trash-chute flap, was no longer in place.
Fish processor Armando Valencia, the last man alive to see the water coming in, still trembles as he recalls the massive flood. He tried to help fellow crewman Matthew Schneider close the flap on the hole, but it was hopeless. Schneider was never seen again. Valencia barely got out.
Other things went wrong, too, according to testimony before the Coast Guard board last spring. An alarm the company had failed to test didn't work. Cardboard fish-packing boxes blocked the causeways, trapping crewmen. Other crew members couldn't get at survival suits that were jam-packed in lockers, and most crewmen had no training in their use.
There were heroes, too. Chief engineer John Dieterich was trapped and presumably died in the engine room trying unsuccessfully to right the ship by transferring fuel from port-side tanks to tanks on the other side. Russell Clifford helped fellow crew members get into survival suits but never got one on himself.
Clifford, Valencia and the other survivors jumped into sea water that was just two degrees above freezing. Clinging to debris and life rafts, the men were paralyzed
by the cold and sick from swallowing the diesel fuel leaking from the ship. Valencia, in work clothes, floated for nearly 15 minutes. He couldn't move his arms and legs and had started to pass out. He was near death when he was rescued. Other Arctic boats that happened to be nearby collected the survivors.
Valencia, now living at home in Mexico, says he can't sleep without thinking of the terror, and he wonders why anyone would send him out in a ship with a hole in its side.
``They play with our lives,'' he said.
He and others have vowed never to return to sea. The skipper returned to shore duties at company headquarters just a couple of weeks ago and is unsure of his future. Some crewmen are in counseling. Many are bitter.
``They never cared,'' said crewman Tim Thompson of Issaquah. ``We just make too much money for them.''
The federal law that would have affected this case is called a load-line statute because its main provision requires a standardized mark on the side of a ship showing how deeply in the water it can safely be loaded. Load lines are nicknamed Plimsoll marks after a British Parliament member who started the tradition in the 19th century to stem a rash of cargo-ship sinkings.
American fish processors were required to have such markers under a 1973 law that was amended and clarified in 1986. Some fish processors were grandfathered, but clearly under the recast law load lines are required on those built after Aug. 16, 1974, or converted to processing after Jan. 1, 1983. The Aleutian Enterprise, converted in 1984, fit in the latter category.
Companies that fail to comply risk $5,000 daily fines, but many processors didn't, and the Coast Guard wasn't going after them.
The law is important in this case not so much for the load line itself, but for what it takes to get one. To be certified with a load line, a ship must undergo extensive stability tests by an organization of ship surveyors - the U.S. version is known as the American Bureau of Shipping - and the test is witnessed by the Coast Guard. The surveyors are stringent about protecting holes in the hull from leaking. Every opening between the waterline and the designated weather deck must have at least one, and usually two, watertight closures. Examples include a hatch that is bolted shut or a cover that is slid into place.
Shipping Bureau and Coast Guard experts who have examined the evidence say the opening in the Aleutian Enterprise hull would not have met load-line standards.
Crewmen say the hole often leaked when waves hit it. Coast Guard exhibits show that the ship was in a gale a month before the accident when water splashed through the hole and collected on the processing deck because a power outage had stopped the sump pumps. The water spilled over a lip into a cargo bin, damaging the frozen fish. The crew raised the lip on the cargo bin rather than securing the trash chute, one exhibit says.
For its part, Arctic Alaska insists that the hole had nothing to do with the Aleutian debacle. John Schmiedtke, vice president of operations for Arctic and a veteran of 36 years in fishing, says the trash chute couldn't have taken on so much water so quickly (estimates of the time the ship took to sink range from 4 to 19 minutes). He says the hull must have cracked, maybe because the engineer, in a hurry, pumped diesel fuel out of an unvented tank, causing the tank to implode - or suck in - the side of the ship.
Coast Guard and NTSB investigators said nothing supports that theory. Said one Coast Guard analysis: ``There has been no evidence that a failure of the hull or piping within the hull caused the accident.''
``No evidence. That's the problem,'' retorted Schmiedtke, who has been dumped twice into northern oceans in his fishing career. ``Something out of the ordinary has happened, but what we don't know.''
Schmiedtke says the ship, now entombed in 400 feet of water, is the only evidence that would solve the mystery, but hauling it up would be an extremely expensive proposition.
Instead, the Coast Guard is relying on 5,000 pages of hearing testimony from 42 witnesses, plus 300 exhibits and a wealth of analytical data. The three-member board the Coast Guard appointed to investigate consists of Roussel, a Coast Guard safety officer with a law degree; Lt. Cmdr. Jim Watson, a marine architect; and Cmdr. William Morani, an experienced officer from Alaska.
Watson said in interviews that the Aleutian Enterprise probably would not have sunk - or at least not as quickly - if Arctic Alaska had covered the trash chute's hole with a watertight hatch.
Mauricio Garrido, a marine architect who studied the accident for the NTSB, says it is clear to him that the ship would not have sunk if the hole were covered. ``In the seas she was in, she would have probably held. It wasn't that rough.''
Arctic Alaska had reorganized since the accident and hired a new safety director, Tony Ford, a former Coast Guard officer and fish-processor skipper. Ford says new training and inspection programs are in place, and the company has applied for load lines on 16 of its 27 vessels.
But Schmiedtke says that action doesn't mean the ships need load lines.
``We are in the process, to make people happy. I mean the harassment we are getting in this line, it's terrible,'' Schmiedtke said. ``You take so much, and you throw your towel in. I mean, to heck with it.''
The pressure for load lines is now coming from the Coast Guard, but it wasn't always that way.
The agency didn't widely enforce the law on processors until after the Aleutian Enterprise accident because of poor resources and because, under the law, it's hard to spot a processor needing a load line by just looking at it, says Lt. Cmdr. Glenn Sicks, fishing vessel safety coordinator in Alaska.
Besides the grandfathering, the law says a ship isn't a fish processor for load-line purposes if all it does is decapitate, gut and freeze the fish. The same ship would be a fish processor if the work included filleting or grinding up the fish, the Coast Guard says. Inspectors weren't well trained in these subtleties before the accident, and today there still aren't enough of them to enforce load lines and do everything else, Coast Guard officials say. The agency has reduced its inspector corps by 102, almost 25 percent, since the early 1980s.
But, added Sicks, ``the bottom line is: There is no good excuse. If there's an applicable law and we are not enforcing it and people die, it's not a good situation.''
The American bottom fishing industry had better luck than the Coast Guard back in the early 1980s with resources. American fishermen were given first priority to the rich Bering Sea fishery, resplendent with bottom fish such as cod and pollock, after Congress created a 200-mile offshore boundary.
But the fishermen had to be equipped to take advantage of it. Francis Miller and Terry Baker, two veteran Seattle fishermen who eventually founded Arctic Alaska, seized the opportunity and hired Gulf of Mexico shipyards to convert vessels such as crabbers and offshore oil-rig supply boats into fish processors capable of hauling up nets and processing fish in the Bering Sea. Others followed, and from 1985 to 1988, the total Bering Sea fleet grew from 11 to 43 ships. Federal regulators say there are too many vessels and have served notice they will limit the fleet, putting a financially risky industry under further stress.
Arctic Alaska is now publicly traded and has the largest American-owned processor fleet in the North Pacific. The company recently reported third-quarter profits of $1.6 million, 15 percent higher than the same period a year ago.
The company has muscle, and it was used in 1987 when a marine architect, converting a 224-foot-long vessel into a fish processor for Arctic Alaska in New Orleans, asked the Coast Guard whether the ship, the U.S. Enterprise, needed a load line. An officer in the Coast Guard's enforcement branch replied that, yes, the ship would have to get one.
Arctic Alaska officials didn't feel that the new load-line requirement, barely a year old, applied to their ship. Documents show that company officials believed it would be expensive - about $250,000 per vessel - although a marine architect later testified that the cost would be more like $20,000.
The New Orleans shipyard applied to the American Bureau of Shipping for a load line, but the company halted the application process, saying its vessel would be a fishing boat, not a fish processor.
When Coast Guard inspectors boarded the vessel in Seattle in early June 1988, though, they found processing equipment and other processing evidence on board, documents show. The regulators didn't detain the ship for a load-line violation, as they could have. Instead, they allowed Arctic Alaska to operate the vessel, without a load line, while it appealed the requirement.
The company's July 1988 appeal said the Enterprise was still a ``fishing vessel'' and that the Coast Guard's interpretation of the law was wrong. It noted there were ``literally scores of catcher-processors currently operating in the North Pacific'' that could also be required to get load lines under the Coast Guard interpretation.
``Despite numerous boardings and inspections, the Coast Guard has never cited any of these vessels for failure to have a load line,'' the Arctic Alaska lawyers said.
Nevertheless, the commander of the 13th Coast Guard District in Seattle denied the company's appeal in August 1988. The commandant of the Coast Guard rejected a follow-up appeal in January 1989.
That's when Miller, a member of the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee, came in. He sent a strongly worded letter to Coast Guard commandant Adm. Paul Yost saying in part: ``The U.S. Enterprise should not be required to obtain a load line. It is a fishing vessel.''
In view of Miller's intervention, Yost canceled a threat to detain the U.S. Enterprise the next time it came into port. Yost insisted in a follow-up letter, though, that the vessel needed a load line. Miller requested a meeting. In April 1989, Miller and one of his aides, accompanied by Baker and an Arctic Alaska attorney, met with three Coast Guard officers involved in the case. The officers told them other processing companies were getting load lines without argument, but Arctic Alaska and Miller stuck to their guns.
Yost then sent Miller a letter in July 1989 emphasizing that load lines are meant to ensure stability and safe loading of vessels, and he said that if Congress wanted to exempt processors from load lines, it would have to change the law. But, he added, ``this would be inconsistent with our endeavors to provide for the safety of all persons working on board fish-processing vessels.''
Miller says he dropped the matter. But by then, the Coast Guard was distracted by another event, the aftermath of the March 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. The load-line issue and the U.S. Enterprise were all but forgotten, Roussel says, until the deaths on the Aleutian Enterprise.
On April 19, 1990 - a month after the Aleutian Enterprise accident and a year after Yost and Miller met - the Coast Guard detained the U.S. Enterprise in Bellingham, ordering it to get a load line.
Families of the missing Aleutian crewmen are puzzled by Miller's actions. ``Why in the hell Miller got involved in that is beyond me. I think it is a shame. I'd like his role to be explained,'' said Robert Davis of Connecticut, who lost his 26-year-old son on the Aleutian Enterprise.
The case throws a shadow over Miller's fishing-safety reputation. He was a co-sponsor of a 1988 law that brought new safety standards calling for survival suits and lifeboats on fishing vessels. The Coast Guard says the 1988 law has saved other lives, and it also mandated a study into the possibility of licensing fishing vessels and processors. Now, fish processors are neither licensed nor annually inspected by the Coast Guard. Licensing fishing vessels and processors would require an increase in the Coast Guard budget for inspectors, agency officials say.
Miller says he intervened for Arctic Alaska as a routine favor for a constituent who, he notes, is a major employer in his district. The Arctic Alaska political action committee and the company's two founders contributed $3,400 to his last campaign, but Miller says his load-line intercession had no relation to election support.
Miller says he didn't intend to affect safety and that he'll support changes in load-line laws if the Coast Guard report indicates a need.
``Clearly, if this report shows load lines are a crucial factor safetywise, then it is clear the Coast Guard made the right decision on the U.S. Enterprise,'' Miller said. ``It says that the issue I raised was without substance and that they were right.''
Arctic Alaska safety director Ford says the U.S. Enterprise case was a ``miscommunication between us and the Coast Guard,'' but he declined further comment. Last week a Coast Guard hearing examiner dismissed a disciplinary case against the company over the U.S. Enterprise because of the confusion that occurred when the company was told of the requirement then allowed to delay compliance.
During the hearings on the Aleutian Enterprise last spring, Coast Guard officers got an eyeful when they visited another Arctic Alaska processor, the Northwest Enterprise, at an Alaskan dock. They saw one hole in the hull covered by a plywood board and another that had no cover at all, says Watson, the hearings-board member. The vessel was detained until the company demonstrated that it was grandfathered. Last month, the company applied for a load line for the Northwest Enterprise.
Cmdr. John Veentjer, chief of Coast Guard inspections in Puget Sound, says the Coast Guard started its crackdown on processors in May, but the boats were difficult to find and identify.
On a case-by-case basis, the 50 vessels that needed load lines were given up to a year to complete the load-line process, because detaining them in the middle of their season would have been a hardship, Veentjer says. Nearly 20 already had load lines. Other vessels may have been missed, he says.
Each vessel that was allowed to continue fishing was required to get a preliminary stability survey and to carry a stability booklet on board showing the captain how he should load the ship under different conditions.
That didn't solve all problems on Arctic's Island Enterprise, though. On Sept. 10, a calm day, the Island Enterprise heeled over 20 degrees in the Bering Sea under the weight of a net full of 71 tons of fish that had slid slightly to one side of the deck. The alarm went off, and crewmen were frightened enough to don their survival suits. The 304-foot ship, with a crew of nearly 80, safely righted itself after its valuable load of fish was dumped overboard.
``Obviously, it was a dangerous situation,'' said Steve Johnson, a fishing observer for the National Marine Fisheries Service who was on board and says he immediately thought of the Aleutian Enterprise sinking.
The company wisely returned the ship to Dutch Harbor and then to Seattle for drydocking and a stability review.
Company officials discovered there was no stability booklet on board, says Lt. Cmdr. Rich Fitzpatrick, senior Coast Guard investigating officer in Seattle. Also, a captain who had handled the ship before the Bering Sea trip told Fitzpatrick there wasn't much room for stability errors in loading it. Fitzpatrick now believes that the crew, without the booklet to help, contributed to the listing problem by incorrectly loading two water ballast tanks.
Arctic Alaska didn't report the incident to the Coast Guard. Johnson, the federal fishing observer, made the report a week after the ship got to Seattle.
The Coast Guard detained the Island Enterprise, citing a violation of the load-line law. The detention order says the company had applied for a load line on the ship when it was being converted last year from a freight ship to a fish processor in Mobile, Ala.
The Coast Guard gave the ship an exemption to sail in February without a load line from Mobile to Seattle. But the vessel headed out from Seattle to fish in the Bering Sea without getting a load line or another exemption, the detention order says.
Ford says he doesn't know why the booklet was missing, because he had one in his Arctic headquarters desk. The Arctic Alaska safety director says the skipper acted properly when the ship heeled over, and it never was in danger of capsizing.
Weight will be added down low to make the ship more stable, and it will have a load line before it returns to sea, Ford says.
Fitzpatrick says the Coast Guard won't discipline Arctic for not reporting the ``near miss,'' and no other fine has been issued. However, he thinks the company should have been more forthcoming.
``Should they have to tell the Coast Guard if nothing happened?'' Fitzpatrick said. ``Well, it almost happened.''
Family members who lost their loved ones on the Aleutian Enterprise were incensed when they were told about the Island Enterprise.
``It's outrageous, but it doesn't surprise me,'' said Davis, of Connecticut.
Jack McCord, who lost his 35-year-old son in the accident, described the fishing industry as: ``Unstructured. Seat of the pants. Money-grasping.''
The two fathers have similar safety expertise - Davis as an electrical and nuclear engineer managing a team that reviews safety on Trident submarines and McCord as a retired naval aviator and a physicist at McDonnell Douglas Corp. in California.
Both say they have never seen safety standards as lax as those in the fishing industry. McCord says basic awareness of safety is needed, plus ``strong regulation, strong inspection, attention to detail.''
The dead men's families and others who have lost loved ones in fishing accidents have written to the Coast Guard calling for additional regulations since improvements made in the 1988 fishing-vessel safety act.
They want better alarms, accessible survival gear, better training, tougher stability rules and more inspections. Jan Schneider, the mother of the crewman who died trying to close the trash-chute hole, suggested that the government tax the ships' catches to pay for inspections.
Mary Frances Blackstone, mother of missing chief engineer John Dieterich, says she has another wish.
``I think the company should pay,'' said Blackstone, who teaches law at the University of Wyoming.
``I think they should be put out of business. Criminally. Civilly. It seems to me it should give some sort of a message to the industry.''
THE LAST, DESPERATE MINUTES ABOARD THE ALEUTIAN ENTERPRISE
On a relatively calm day in the Bering Sea, the
fish processer Aleutian Enterprise rolled over and
sank. Thirty-one people were on board; nine are missing
and presumed dead. The 162-foot ship remains at the
bottom of the sea, so the investigators for the U.S. Coast
Guard are relying on the testimony of 42 witnesses and
and available documents regarding the ship.
FULL NET SPLITS
At 1:30 p.m. on March 22, the ship's net was pulled
out of the water with as much as 70 tons of fish
inside, an unusually large catch. Part of the net
split, spilling tons of fish on the deck. The fish
slid to the port side, causing the vessel to list.
The full net would have been the last catch of the
WATER POURS THRUGH FISH-WASTE CHUTE
A lot of water was on the processing deck. One
of the pumps that remove water from the deck may
not have been working. They were prone to malfunction.
When the ship listed, the water on the deck shifted to
the port side, aggravating the lean and forcing under
the waves a chute used to dump fish guts and other waste
off the deck. Only a hinged steel flap covered the 18-
by 24-inch hole. Water rushed in past the flapper,
flooding the lower decks and dooming the ship.
THE STRUGGLE TO SURVIVE
- The ship's fuel tanks were low, and may have been
uneven in weight. The chief engineer tried to right
the ship by shifting fuel from the port side to
the starboard side, to no avail.
- The general alarm on the vessel hadn't been tested,
and it failed to sound. Some crewmen were asleep when
the vessel started going down.
- Survival suits were jammed into the bottom of lockers
and were difficult to get at. Crewmen weren't trained
in their use, and few got them on.
- Cardboard boxes for fish packing were stacked in the
causeways. Witnesses say they jammed exits and trapped
some of the victims.
- Watertight doors between the processing deck, the
engine room and two other rooms had been removed,
allowing water easily to flood other areas.
Sources: U.S. Coast Guard; Witness testimony and
interviews by Eric Nalder
THE ALEUTIAN ENTERPRISE'S CREWMEN WHO DIED
45, Yakima. Cook and former processing foreman. A father. Had planned to return home a week before the accident but remained on Aleutian Enterprise to make extra money. Didn't get out of vessel. May have tried to rescue chief engineer.
Javier Martin Castro Valenzuela
27, Guadalajara, Mexico. Processor. Married with five children. Fishing three years, but this was to be last trip. Lived in Seattle with friends when not home or fishing. Last seen in the water with no survival suit. Disappeared before rescue.
Robert Davis Jr.
26, Renton. Processor. A former Navy man who was on his last fishing trip before returning home to Connecticut to work in a family business. Was sleeping when ship listed. Was last seen standing in a six-man bunk room.
31, Seattle. Chief engineer. Attended UW and a maritime school in Seattle. Worked with Washington state ferry system. Family is now campaigning for fishing safety. Never got out of the engine room, where he was trying to transfer the heavy fuel to help right the boat.
Jeff (Skip) Houston
21, Warren, Ore. Processer. Left for Alaska with $100 in his pocket, expecting good fishing to improve his finances. Second trip out on fish processers. Was sleeping and never got out the bunk room. ``I feel cheated,'' says mother, Linda Houston.
19, Fontana, Calif. Passenger. Quit first-ever processing job on another company boat and was returning to port on the Aleutian Enterprise. Fell on deck rail getting out of vessel. Not seen again. His mother tells other teen-agers: ``It's not worth the money.''
55, San Diego. Mate. Married 30 years with five children. Popular licensed officer with 40 years' experience. Originally scheduled to be on different company boat. Asleep in captain's cabin and never got out. Says wife, Betty: ``I pray God one day I can find some kind of answer for losing Nello.''
Robert W. McCord
35, Englewood, Colo. National Marine Fisheries Service observer. On vessel to watch for fishing violations. College degree in forestry. Outdoorsman who wanted to learn about the sea. Had been in back of processing deck. Was last seen in the water without a survival suit.
22, Issaquah. Foreman on processing deck. Was to be married. Four brothers work for Arctic Alaska. Mother Jan Schneider suggests taxing the fish catch to finance Coast Guard inspections. Matthew, a hero, was last seen trying to close the trash chute hole to save the ship.