An inquiry into the sinking of the Alaska Ranger will include a review of a mishap involving an unidentified crew member dropped from a helicopter's basket.
UNALASKA, Alaska — As he floated in the Bering Sea, James Madruga, first assistant engineer for the sunken Alaska Ranger, saw salvation Sunday morning in the arrival of a Coast Guard helicopter and rescue swimmer.
Floating next to him was crewman Byron Carrillo, who during their time in the water kept saying he was cold. So cold.
Take him first, Madruga said, and he watched as the basket — with the crewman inside — began to rise toward the hovering helicopter.
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A few minutes later, Madruga also was lifted into the helicopter.
But he was surprised to find that Carrillo was not in the aircraft. “I am thinking he fell out of the basket,” he said.
Madruga testified Friday in the first day of a wide-ranging Marine Board of Investigation inquiry into the sinking of the Seattle-based factory ship, federal safety oversight of the vessel and the major rescue effort — involving a Coast Guard cutter, two helicopters and sister fishing ship — that saved 42 members of the crew of 47. The investigation is expected to last several days and include testimony from more than a dozen people, before it later reconvenes in Seattle.
Carrillo, a processing crewman from California, was one of the five crewmen who died. The 36-year-old was on his first Bering Sea fishing trip, according to his cousin Julio Morales, who also was on the Alaska Ranger. Carrillo was buried Friday in Inglewood, Calif.
Coast Guard officials declined to comment Friday about what happened to Carrillo as he was hoisted.
But they did confirm that the board investigation into the sinking of the Alaska Ranger will include a review of a mishap involving an unidentified crew member dropped from a basket. They said there already is a separate Coast Guard aviation investigation under way.
The Coast Guard has received widespread praise for the difficult rescue effort.
“We … pull hypothermic people out of the water,” said Capt. Michael Rand, chairman of the Coast Guard board. “That is the nature of the business we do. When we have something like this [apparent mishap], it has to be a learning process. … What happened differently so it doesn’t happen again.”
Rand said the inquiry will try to determine why the Ranger sank. It will also look for actions worthy of commendation and look for “any incompetence, misconduct, unskillfulness or willful violations of the law” by crew members, the owners of the vessels or Coast Guard officers.
As the hearing opened, Rand said that Fishing Co. of Alaska, the owner of the 203-foot vessel, would be named a “party of interest.” That is often the case in such inquiries, he said, and does not necessarily mean it is suspected of wrongdoing.
As a party of interest, the company may call witnesses, and two lawyers representing the company appeared at the hearing Friday.
The first witness Friday morning was Scott Krey, skipper of the Alaska Warrior, another Fishing Co. of Alaska vessel that rescued 22 crewmen after the Ranger sank on Sunday.
Krey said he learned of the Alaska Ranger’s distress about 3 a.m. His ship raced to the scene, arriving about 6:30 a.m. The Ranger’s life rafts, equipped with strobe lights, were easy to see, he said.
The Alaska Warrior crew hung ladders over the side and also had slings to help haul the survivors aboard.
At first, they tried to pull the crew aboard on the side of the vessel exposed to the sea, but it didn’t work well. The first survivor fell back into the water twice before making it aboard, Krey said.
Then, the life raft was maneuvered to the lee side of the vessel, and the rescue was easier.
“By the time we finished, we were pretty proficient at it. They just flew up in a few seconds,” Krey said.
Krey said his crew also recovered the bodies of three of the deceased crew.
Krey was followed by Madruga, of San Diego, who said he’s been at sea since the age of 16.
During his afternoon testimony, he wore a blue sweat shirt that read “Bering Sea Fishermen — Second to None” and bore a skull and crossbones.
Madruga said he was grateful to the Coast Guard, and he wanted to write a letter to thank his rescuers.
Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or firstname.lastname@example.org.