The Coast Guard launched an extensive search Saturday for four commercial fishermen missing off Southwest Washington.

Share story

The Coast Guard on Sunday morning suspended its search for four commercial fishermen who went missing Saturday off Willapa Bay.

The search was suspended at 9:44 a.m., 30 hours after the Coast Guard received a distress signal from the Lady Cecelia, a 70-foot fishing trawler homeported in Warrenton, Ore.

The missing crew members were identified as Dave Nichols, 42, and Jason Bjaranson, 38, both of Warrenton; Luke Jensen, 19, from Ilwaco, Wash; and Chris Langel, 25, from Kaukauna, Wis.

The first search crews arrived at the site of the distress signal — some 17 miles offshore — and found debris, an oil sheen and a fully inflated but empty life raft, said Petty Officer Shawn Eggert, a Coast Guard spokesman in Seattle.

“The life raft was in fine condition,” Eggert said Saturday. “It was inflated, but there was no one onboard.”

The search area had grown from 640 square miles to 1,350 before being suspended. A Coast Guard cutter continued the search overnight, and an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crew conducted a first-light search Sunday morning.

The Lady Cecelia is registered to Dale Kent of Bay City, Ore. He could not immediately be reached by The Associated Press. The vessel was first registered in Oregon in 1991.

It was part of the Northwest trawl fleet, which scoops up fish with nets drawn behind the boats. Typically this time of year the fleet is fishing for Dover sole, black cod and other deep-water fish, according to Brad Pettinger, director of the Oregon Trawl Commission.

It’s unclear what the vessel was harvesting on this trip.

“My heart goes out to the families of the crew,” Pettinger said Saturday. “I can’t imagine a worse time for them than now.”

Whatever went wrong is likely to have happened fast.

Crews in an emergency try to send mayday radio calls, but there was no record of any such call from the Lady Cecelia, according to Eggert. And the Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon that set off the distress signal goes off automatically as a vessel sinks.

Life rafts are designed to self-inflate and float free from a sinking vessel even when no one is able to launch them, Pettinger said. Hence, the presence of the inflated life raft does not necessarily mean that the crew had time to deploy it.

Pettinger added that the vessel would have carried survival suits.

A buoy 20 nautical miles off the Washington coast recorded water temperatures of 43 degrees at 4 a.m. Saturday.

Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or Drew DeSilver: 206-464-3145 or