The Coast Guard begins two weeks of hearings Monday into what caused the flooding that sank a Washington-based factory ship off Alaska, forcing the evacuation of its crew of 46.
When Jonathan Jensen boarded the Alaska Juris last summer for his first stint at sea as a fishery observer, he learned early on that an alarm was supposed to sound should the crew ever need to evacuate.
But on July 26, off Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, there was no such emergency signal — indeed, no electricity — as engine-room flooding cut the power and forced the crew to abandon the Washington-based factory trawler. Instead, he says the 46 crew members were forced to rely on word-of-mouth that they all were to assemble on deck, don survival suits and climb into life rafts.
“The captain was doing his best to keep it lighthearted and us calm,” Jensen recalls. “He said, ‘When we get back on land, the first round is on me.’ ”
Just what caused the flooding — and sinking — of the 229-foot Alaska Juris on a relatively calm summer day in the Bering Sea has not been determined, and will be investigated during two weeks of Coast Guard hearings that begin Monday in Seattle. The Coast Guard hopes to be able to pinpoint factors that contributed to the sinking, and use the findings to improve safety in the fleet and prevent future high-seas mishaps.
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Jensen is not on the witness list, but more than three dozen other people are expected to be called to testify, including crew, Coast Guard inspectors and shore-side personnel involved in maintaining the Alaska Juris.
The hearing will be held in the Henry M. Jackson Federal Building in downtown Seattle, and will be livestreamed.
Alaska Juris was part of the head-and-gut fleet, a group of boats that catch and process fish in the North Pacific and that over the years have been involved in a series of serious accidents.
The vessel’s loss was the latest setback in the troubled history of its owner — Renton-based Fishing Company of Alaska, which catches and processes yellowfin sole and other fish. In 2008, the company lost another factory vessel, the Alaska Ranger, and five crew members in a disaster the Coast Guard would later attribute to the failure of an aging hull that had not been properly maintained.
Coast Guard investigators charged with the Alaska Juris investigation also will be looking at the hull — as well as piping and valves — as they try to determine what caused the engine-room flooding.
“This is not supposed to happen,” said Cmdr. Michael DeLury, the lead Coast Guard investigator.
Officials will be on the lookout, too, for any possible sabotage. This is a routine part of any major investigation when the cause is not known, according to DeLury.
And, the investigators will look into the effectiveness of a safety programthe Coast Guard began a decade ago for this fleet.
That program includes a focus on training to help get crews safely off a ship in distress and requires equipment such as board ladders to help in an evacuation, according to Chris Woodley, a former Coast Guard safety official who helped launch the program and will testify this week.
Older vessels make up much of the head-and-gut fleet.
The Alaska Juris, for example, was built in 1975.
Jensen, the observer, said the crew used to joke that the Alaska Juris was “going to fall apart at any time.”
Jensen says the evacuation occurred under good conditions, with plenty of daylight and only modest swells. As the flooding began, he was in his bunk preparing for the noon start of another 12-hour shift as an observer contracted to monitor the catch in reports filed with the National Marine Fisheries Service.
“The cook came in and said we were abandoning the ship, and I thought it was a drill because there was no alarm,” Jensen recalls. “Then I hit the light switch, and no lights went on and I realized something may be up.”
Jensen was in one of two lifeboats that were initially tethered to the sinking Juris but eventually were cut loose. He says the occupants of his life raft were picked up some seven hours after they first abandoned ship.
By the time they were rescued, he said it was obvious the Alaska Juris was sinking ever lower in the water.
Jensen, 32, has not been deterred by that harrowing first trip from continuing his work as an observer.
He has signed up for a four-day refresher course this winter, then plans to head out on another vessel.