Cuong Dang thought he had discovered a shortcut to the good life. The Vietnamese immigrant had heard from friends that he could make money...

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Cuong Dang thought he had discovered a shortcut to the good life.

The Vietnamese immigrant had heard from friends that he could make money, good money — between $10,000 and $30,000 a season — working aboard fishing vessels on the Bering Sea.

The processing of pollock on these floating fish factories is nasty, grueling work, the risk of injury constant in an industry with a death rate 28 times that of the national workplace-fatality rate.

Dang, a husband and father from Bremerton who had come to the United States in the years after the Vietnam War, figured the payout was worth it. He could do the work for a while and use the money to buy and rent out houses so his wife, Khung Thi Lam, could stay at home to care for their son.

But Dang’s journey onto the high seas that winter of 2001 would prove riskier than either he or his family imagined. The 37-year-old fillet flipper died aboard the trawler Northern Eagle less than three weeks out to sea — not from a work-related injury but from complications related to diabetes.

“When they are out fishing in the middle of nowhere, the only access to medical care is what’s on the ship, which often is not a lot,” said Jennifer Lincoln, of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

Dang’s death from such a treatable illness illustrates how sickness can turn fatal when the only link to medical care is distant and tenuous — in this case, land-based doctors in Seattle linked to the vessel by faulty phone connections. The family alleged that Dang’s doctor failed to provide adequate treatment.

The case has spawned one lawsuit now in mediation and another that ended in a $750,000 settlement from the Northern Eagle’s owner to Dang’s widow.

It offers a glimpse, too, into a workplace increasingly dominated by immigrants drawn each winter to the unforgiving waters of the Bering Sea.

Court records show that within a week of the ship’s departure, Dang had become too ill to work. For days after that, Dang, who spoke only limited English, wandered the deck of the massive trawler, acting bizarrely and sleeping in doorways.

Sixteen days out to sea from Alaska, the purser, LeAnn Duncan, who was communicating about Dang’s care via telephone to Drs. Raymond Jarris and Dale Gowen in Seattle, reported that Dang was sleeping with his eyes open, wasn’t responding verbally and that she couldn’t wake him up.

Jarris told her he thought Dang was “psychotic,” intentionally not responding, and suggested the “safe thing to do was to get him off the vessel and into St. Paul [Island] and turn him over to Public Safety.” A Washington court would later point out that U.S. Coast Guard medevac services were available to evacuate Dang.

Instead, Dang died the following day.

Question of liability

Many say the fishing industry has grown safer in recent years, driven by technology, competition for workers and pressure from insurers.

While statistics from NIOSH, a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, show a steady decline in the number of fatal shipboard accidents, there’s no one tracking deaths like Dang’s that result from noninjury illness.

After his death Feb. 2, 2001, Dang’s widow filed two wrongful-death lawsuits. The first, in U.S. District Court against the Northern Eagle and its owner American Seafoods, was settled in 2002. Next, she filed suit in King County Superior Court against Global Medical Systems and its Drs. Jarris and Gowen, who served as medical consultants to the vessel.

The doctors argued that maritime law trumped state malpractice laws and that they owed no duty of care to Dang because they had not examined him. Judge Cheryl Carey agreed and last year dismissed the case against them. But in May, the Court of Appeals reversed her decision, establishing new legal precedent when it ruled that the state’s medical-malpractice standards could be applied to maritime cases brought in state court.

The ruling establishes that the doctors owed a duty of care to Dang, even if they’d never met or examined him.

The doctors had argued that, ultimately, responsibility for Dang’s care rested with his employers. And, along with the fishing company, they have maintained that Dang contributed to his death by failing to disclose that he had diabetes and to take his medication for it.

Dang was diagnosed with the type 2 form of the disease the autumn before he left on the ship, and he died of complications from type 1, a more serious form of the disease. Yet on a pre-employment questionnaire, he had checked “no” to every medical condition on the list — including the common cold.

Global says its doctors’ role is as consultants, to help vessel personnel care for crew members who become ill or are injured.

“The involvement of Global Medical’s physicians in any given case is often limited by difficult circumstances, including the difficulties of communicating with vessels at sea, of getting accurate information from personnel, and the difficulties vessel personnel may have in getting accurate information from ill or injured crew members,” Erik Anderson, the physicians’ attorney, said in a prepared statement.

Jeff Cowan, Lam’s attorney, said Dang, like other immigrants with limited English skills, was at a disadvantage in filling out the pre-employment forms. “The application was in English. The medical questions were in English,” he said.

And Dang didn’t know what the word diabetes looked like in English, Cowan said. Yet he had the classic symptoms of the disease, and a call to his wife or a search of his possessions might have helped save his life.

“These doctors market themselves and provide this service precisely because they know these ships don’t have medical professionals of any kind on board,” he said. “Then they turn around and claim they’re not liable because these are not their patients.”

Opportunity and risk

Dang came to the U.S. in 1982, seeking a better life. He landed a job with Net Systems on Bainbridge Island, which produced nets for American Seafoods’ fishing vessels. He and Lam met in 1987, and he helped get her a job at Net Systems. They married two years later, energized by the possibilities in their new country.

Both tried, with varying and limited success, to learn English. They saved their money — her earnings of $11 an hour and his of $12 — and bought a modest house in Bremerton, in a neighborhood popular among Vietnamese.

Then, in 2000 or so, Dang’s Vietnamese friends told him he could make more money faster by processing fish on a factory trawler in the Bering Sea.

“I was against it from the start,” Lam said through an interpreter. “But he kept begging me. I finally had to agree with him. I figured if all the others could do it, he could do it, too.”

Hired by Northern Eagle as a flipper who straightens fillets on the processing belt, Dang wasn’t the first immigrant to see the possibilities of the Bering Sea, where thousands of workers are needed each season to process pollock.

For decades, the work force aboard these vessels was mostly Americans from economically depressed areas of Idaho and Eastern Washington. But through the 1990s that began to change as more immigrants hired on — Mexicans, Filipinos, Vietnamese, West Africans and a smattering of Russians.

“These are not the kids of the rich and powerful,” said Steve Finley, a former staff member of the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee in Congress.

“A lot of them are immigrants, who are more reluctant to stand up for their rights.”

Often, language is a problem, said Charlie Medlicott, fishing-vessel safety coordinator for the Coast Guard in Anchorage. “There are multiple cases of accident investigations where language has been a factor in how things ended up.”

But for those who could overcome the barrier, the prospects looked promising.

“These workers are coming from Third World countries,” Medlicott continued. “They get work for six months and go home with 20 grand — that’s a lot of money. They’re getting fed and a place to sleep and all that.”

But Cowan, who has represented many such workers, says they’re often victimized.

“The crews are people who often have to have permanent-resident status but are told, informally, that if they complain they’d get fired; if they’re injured, they’ll get fired; if they quit for any reason, they’d be sued. In all the ways that ignorant people can be exploited, they are.”

Lam remembers the day in 2001 when her husband left Seattle for what was to be a four-month stint at sea. It was Jan. 13 — “a day for bad luck,” she said.

“He told me to be careful and to be safe and to watch the kid and to keep the doors shut,” she said.

She never heard his voice again.

Conditions at sea vary

The trawler on which Dang found work — and ultimately died — is the jewel of the American Seafoods fleet.

The 341-foot Norwegian-built vessel is capable of hauling in some 200 tons in a single tow of its trawl net. It is among dozens of floating fish processors that populate this northern extension of the Pacific Ocean between Siberia and Alaska in the January-through-April hunt for pollock — the small, white-fleshed fish used for fish sticks, McDonald’s fish fillets and fake crab sold around the globe.

The vessels are not subject to Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations and are required by federal law only to have someone onboard with first-aid training and CPR certification.

“These vessels are out of sight, out of mind,” Finley said. “They are exempt from minimum-wage requirements, from Coast Guard inspections, OSHA regulations and other safety laws.”

But some say the recent push for safer conditions is in the industry’s best interest.

Some vessels go beyond what the government requires, providing sick bays, onboard emergency-medical technicians or physician assistants. An increasing number have safety officers, NIOSH’s Lincoln said.

In some cases, “What kind of medical expertise is on board has more to do with the size of the crew,” said Leslie Hughes, executive director of the North Pacific Fishing Vessel Owners’ Association.

Increasingly, many like the Northern Eagle contract with land-based medical groups to provide care to crew members who fall ill. And all have access to free medevac service from the Coast Guard, although weather conditions and distance determine whether a rescue takes place.

Medlicott said there’s more attention to accident prevention. Unlike in the past, he said, “Medevacs are not an everyday occurrence; once a month we’re hearing of one.”

Many employers show videos depicting the rough conditions, Hughes pointed out, saying it’s not in a vessel’s best interest to cover up the work’s harsh nature.

“It’s hard, physical factory work on a rolling platform out at sea,” she said. “You want to hire people who can adapt to the workplace. You don’t want to see people injured or become ill.”

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com