A fishing vessel’s chance discovery of human bones from the bottom of the Bering Sea adds an unlikely new chapter to the 2001 sinking of the Arctic Rose, a stunning tragedy in which all of the trawler’s 15 crew members perished.
Six days before Christmas 2014, the doorbell rang at Kathy and David Meincke’s home, set amid the rolling hill country of Western Washington.
Two women were at the door, FBI agents, who pulled out their badges to identify themselves and gave the couple some stunning news.
Five years earlier, fishermen had brought up three bones from the bottom of the Bering Sea.
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One bone, a tibia, had been finally identified through DNA analysis. It was the remains of the Meinckes’ son, Jeff, the FBI agents told them.
He died on April 2, 2001, when his fishing vessel, the Seattle-based Arctic Rose, went down, claiming the lives of all 15 crew members in the worst U.S. fishing industry disaster of the past half-century.
Just what caused the vessel to sink around 3:30 a.m. was never precisely determined. But Coast Guard officials believe the most likely scenario was that water flooded through an open door into a processing area, undermining the vessel’s stability.
Whatever went wrong, it happened fast. Only one body, that of skipper Dave Rundall, was ever recovered. Most of the crew likely were in their bunks and may have been trapped on board as the Arctic Rose capsized.
Now, more than 13 years after they lost their son, the Meinckes were learning that Jeff’s remains had been retrieved from the depths of the Bering Sea.
Kathy, seated on a couch, moved closer to her husband. At first, she couldn’t speak. She put her hand over her mouth, closed her eyes and cried.
“I figure Jeff wanted to come home,” Kathy would later say. “I consider this a miracle.”
Jeff Meincke was a freckled 20-year-old when he went to sea aboard the Arctic Rose, leaving behind a girlfriend and a beloved black cat named Spyro.
The 92-foot vessel was one of the smallest boats in a fleet that uses trawl nets to scoop up fish from the sea bottom and then heads, guts and freezes them on board.
Jeff was the youngest member of a largely inexperienced crew that left Seattle in January 2001 for the winter harvest in the rough but bountiful waters off the Pribilofs, several treeless islands in the Bering Sea.
Jeff never intended to make fishing a career. He planned to go to college and hoped to study veterinary medicine at Washington State University.
Once at sea, Jeff was a quick study. He joined other greenhorns who spent their first months laboring on the “slime line,” cutting up fish. But he also got to work on deck with the trawl crew who caught the fish.
“The fact that he was on deck was a real vote of confidence in him by the skipper,” said Hugo Kugiya, author of “58 Degrees North: The Mysterious Sinking of the Arctic Rose.”
The crew worked marathon hours, often under miserable conditions. The fishing was poor, so the crew wasn’t making good money, and there were plenty of other frustrations aboard what Jeff nicknamed the “Savage Rose.”
“We had to break ice yesterday. Fun, not really. Cold … with a bat hitting the ice off everything on deck, getting hit by waves,” he wrote in a letter to his girlfriend.
“It helped get rid of a little frustration, but that all came back when we stopped fishing for the day. There’s nothing to keep my mind occupied so all I can do is think about you and us together, the past and what might happen in the future.”
The day before the Arctic Rose sank, the crew finally found good fishing some 200 miles to the northwest of the Pribilofs, pulling in 20,000 pounds of flathead sole.
Their fortune was short-lived. That evening, the Arctic Rose was forced to quit fishing to repair a net. The captain, Rundall, radioed the Alaskan Rose, a sister ship some 10 miles away, and spoke with a longtime friend, the first mate, John Nelson.
This was the last communication from the Arctic Rose.
By the time dawn broke the next morning, the ship had sunk.
The crew did not relay a mayday signal or other sign of distress via radio. But as the Arctic Rose went down, an emergency locator beacon popped loose from its fitting on the wheelhouse and sent off a satellite signal picked up by the Coast Guard.
The Alaskan Rose was the first vessel to reach the beacon’s location. The crew found only a smear of oil and a smattering of debris. About 10 a.m., crew members spotted a single body floating, clad in a survival suit. Nelson, the first mate, donned a survival suit and dived in to retrieve the body of Rundall. The suit of Nelson’s friend was filled with seawater.
The Alaskan Rose crew spotted one other body, perhaps two. They sank before they could be recovered.
A Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation conducted an exhaustive inquiry into the Arctic Rose disaster that included the use of two submersibles to take underwater video of the wreck.
The first submersible found the Arctic Rose upright on the bottom in 428 feet of water, buffeted by strong underwater currents. But it got only a brief look before it was lost, entangled by multicolored lines that had been used to repair the vessel’s trawl net.
Undeterred, Capt. Ron Morris, who headed the inquiry, returned with a larger submersible that took video of an open watertight door. That would have left the vessel vulnerable to sinking as a squall kicked up in the pre-dawn hours.
Investigators concluded the flooding likely took less than five minutes, leaving no time for most of the crew to don survival suits or get into life rafts.
Kathy Meincke closely monitored the Coast Guard investigation, hoping for more clues of what happened to her son. Along with other families of the crew, she viewed underwater video of the sunken Arctic Rose in a screening arranged by the Coast Guard.
Kathy also was in contact with an Alaska state trooper who recommended she provide a DNA sample that could help identify her son’s remains should they ever be found.
The odds of that happening appeared ever so remote.
Still, in the summer of 2001, she made an appointment with the Lacey, Thurston County, police. They took a swab from the inside of her cheek, then entered the sample into a national DNA database.
“It was optional. I thought, what the heck, but figured nothing would ever come of it,” Meincke recalls.
Snagged from the deep
Eight years later, in the early evening of Sept. 12, 2009, a 160-foot longliner called the Blue Gadus was fishing in the Bering Sea with two sets of gear set out along the bottom.
Each line stretched for some 12 miles, rigged with 21,000 hooks.
In the wheelhouse, skipper Dude Fothergill, a Bering Sea veteran who started his career as a teenager trapping lobster off Hawaii, was pleased with how things were going. The weather was mild, with blue skies and fairly calm seas. The crew was catching plenty of cod.
Suddenly, there was danger.
Hooks had snagged a large piece of a net on the bottom and it came up to the surface on a line. Some 40 feet long, the net was at risk of drifting back to the stern, fouling the propeller and disabling the vessel’s sole engine.
Fothergill gave an order to cut that net. And fast.
Down on the deck, assistant engineer Matt Vierling pulled out a short, serrated knife. Slashing away, he spotted about a half-dozen bones tangled in the mesh. He was able to bring three of the bones on board and laid them on deck.
“We were going to put them back in the ocean because they were whale bones and we’re not supposed to have them,” Vierling recalled. “One of my jobs was to not have stuff on the boat that we could get in trouble with.”
A federal fishery observer aboard took a closer look. A biologist trained to identify different fish species, she concluded they were probably human remains.
The bones were placed in the freezer. Three days later, when the Blue Gadus docked in the Aleutian Islands port of Dutch Harbor, they were turned over to Alaska Wildlife troopers.
A trooper’s report noted the bones were found at a depth of 426 feet.
The location, it would later be noted, was some 40 miles to the southeast of where the Arctic Rose had, eight years earlier, been found resting on the sea bottom.
The bones were forwarded to the medical examiner’s office in Anchorage for further analysis.
An archaeologist determined they were not the remains of an ancient human.
This turned the discovery into an unidentified person’s case.
But the medical examiner’s office initially didn’t have a place to send the bones for DNA analysis, according to Stephen Hoage, an operations administrator at the office. So they went into storage with dozens of other unidentified remains.
“I had heard of the Arctic Rose,” Hoage said. “But I did not associate it with this at all. There are a lot of vessels that went down and also burials at sea.”
The bones were stored in Alaska until last September. Then they were sent to the University of North Texas Health Science Center, which receives federal funding to help solve missing-person cases.
At the Fort Worth laboratory, a tibia bone was selected for testing. It was carefully sanded and scrubbed with bleach and other cleansers to remove any chance of contamination by those who had handled it before. A section of the bone, pulverized into powder, was sent through a chemical-extraction process to obtain a DNA profile.
That profile was sent through a computerized search of a national database of missing persons.
A match came back with the DNA sample provided 13 years earlier by Kathy Meincke. An analysis concluded the odds that this was not her biological child were 7.1 million to 1.
The other two bones are also believed to be Jeff’s, but still need to undergo DNA analysis.
New safety effort
The sinking of the Arctic Rose was followed the next year by a fire that caused two deaths aboard the Galaxy, another vessel in the head-and-gut fleet. The twin tragedies spurred a new effort by the Coast Guard to improve the safety of the aging fleet, with operators enrolled in the program required to comply with stability and other standards.
“That really ushered in a whole new area of focus for the Coast Guard,” said Chris Woodley, who while in the Coast Guard helped develop the new program.
Kathy Meincke served on a federal committee that advises the Coast Guard on fishing-industry safety, but after two years she stepped down.
“I had to. It was like digging at a sore every day,” Meincke says.
In the years that followed, she retired from an accounting job in state government, and through her church reached out to other families who had lost children.
The FBI visit in December brought back more painful memories.
It also brought some closure.
She had always believed that Jeff didn’t get trapped in the vessel and somehow made it out. The recovery of the bones gave credence to those beliefs.
At Christmas, Kathy and David gathered with their two daughters and shared memories of Jeff. “It felt like everyone was here this Christmas,” Kathy said.
There was also gratitude for the people along the way who made it possible for Jeff’s remains to be identified.
“This is very much a gift to us,” she said.
Once all the bones undergo DNA analysis, they will finally be returned to the Meinckes.
Family members hope the wait is not too long.
They already have a cemetery plot for Jeff with a view of Mount Rainier.
It holds a small casket filled with his mementos. The granite headstone bears an engraved image of Jeff holding Spyro the cat.
The ashes of Jeff and Spyro will be buried there together.