A former federal maritime investigator offers a new theory for the 2001 sinking of the Seattle-based Arctic Rose and its loss of 15 lives, the worst U.S. fishing casualty of the past half century.

Share story

In 2001, a remote-operated camera on the bottom of the Bering Sea captured ghostly images of the sunken Arctic Rose fishing vessel, including footage of a narrow, dark splotch along the hull.

Could this be a clue to what happened to the Seattle-based vessel and its entire crew of 15 in the worst loss of life in the U.S. fishing industry in the past half century?

Coast Guard officers who investigated the April 2, 2001, sinking eventually concluded that the video showed only an area of peeled paint, and was of no consequence in a calamity they say was most likely the result of flooding through an open hatch door.

But a former National Transportation Safety Board investigator initially assigned to the case came to a radically different view of what went wrong; this theory was never publicly disclosed.

Bob Ford, the former investigator, is convinced the video shows a gash in the hull, one of several he thinks were caused by fishing equipment that broke loose during rough weather. He believes that damage caused the Arctic Rose to lose power, take on water and sink.

“When you put all the pieces of the puzzle together, this is what fits,” said Ford. “Absolutely, there is no doubt in my mind that it’s a hole.”

Ford felt strongly enough about his findings to write an Oct. 30, 2005, draft report, which was obtained by The Seattle Times, that lists hull damage as the probable cause of the sinking of the Arctic Rose.

Courtesy of the Arctic Rose Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation

The Arctic Rose was an aging vessel that used big trawl nets to catch flathead sole and other bottom-dwelling fish. The fish were then processed by crew who worked in crowded quarters and often-rough seas.

Since there was no mayday alert and no survivors, investigators will never know for certain the series of events that caused the disaster before dawn that day.

Ford says he decided to speak publicly about his analysis after reading a Seattle Times article this year about the retrieval of bones from the bottom of the Bering Sea. Through DNA analysis, the bones were identified as those of Jeff Meincke, 20, the youngest crew member.

Ford says he believes the families should know about his belief that the sinking was caused by a punctured hull.

Coast Guard officials who participated in the investigation remain unconvinced by Ford’s scenario of what went wrong.

“While I respect Bob immensely and I definitely appreciate his view, I do not believe this is the most likely cause,” said retired Capt. John Bingaman, who served on the three-person Coast Guard board.

In the 2005 NTSB memo, James Scheffer, Ford’s supervisor at the time, wrote that the draft analysis “was very well developed” and “points out holes in the CG (Coast Guard) product.”

But in response to a question from The Seattle Times, an NTSB spokesman, Eric Weiss, said agency officials believed Ford went further than the facts show, and the draft report was “full of speculation and conjecture.”

Turbulent tenure

Ford is a maritime-industry veteran who joined the NTSB in February 2001. A few months later he was assigned the Arctic Rose case. He collaborated with Coast Guard board members for four months.

Then, just weeks before the Coast Guard investigators ventured out to the Bering Sea to explore the wreck with a remote operating vehicle, Ford said he was taken off the case because his superiors felt he was needed on other cases.

“They said we were so short-handed and we should wait and see what the Coast Guard comes up with,” Ford recalls.

In December 2003, the Coast Guard produced a 132-page report on the Arctic Rose that examined 19 different scenarios for the sinking.

The Coast Guard board concluded the vessel showed no sign of hull damage. They found the most likely scenario involved the Arctic Rose capsizing while taking on water through the open hatch. That door was supposed to be closed to prevent flooding in a sensitive below-deck area.

“I know in my heart that we did our absolute best to figure out what was the most likely scenario, realizing that we would never know 100 percent,” Bingaman said. “We especially wanted to do our best for the families (of the crew) and hopefully find something that would prevent this from happening in the future.”

Ford, during a turbulent five years at the NTSB, went on to investigate other major cases, including the 2003 crash of a Staten Island ferry that killed 11 people. But he was frequently frustrated by a bureaucracy that he says too often got in the way of his investigative efforts. He quit in March 2006.

While working there, he never entirely put aside his own theory about the Arctic Rose.

And, six months before his departure, Ford submitted a draft report on the most likely cause of the accident.

Ford states that the hull damage most likely resulted from a piece of heavy steel fishing gear, known as a trawl door, breaking lose in turbulent weather. While still attached to the vessel by a slack cable, he believed the trawl door repeatedly knocked into the starboard side of the Arctic Rose.

Once Ford left the NTSB, his Arctic Rose document underwent a major overhaul. His 41-page draft report was boiled down to an 11-page NTSB “closeout” memorandum — dated Sept. 5, 2006 — written by Scheffer.

The memorandum concluded that “It is not possible to determine the exact cause of the sinking of the Arctic Rose.”

Underwater video

An important part of Ford’s case hinges on his interpretation of the August 2001 underwater video shot by a camera mounted on a remote operating vehicle.

The footage was shot at a depth of 428 feet as Coast Guard board members used the remote operating vehicle to explore much of the wreck resting on the Bering Sea bottom.

More than 14 minutes of footage focuses on the dark splotch on the starboard side of the hull.

“We did linger over that particular area because it seemed like an anomaly at the time,” said Bingaman. “In the end, the conclusion was that it was more of a scrape and not a hole.”

Ford believes the video is a hole, and then builds on the image with other evidence he thinks helps make his case:

• The video camera showed that the two trawl doors were missing from the stern, or back, of the boat while it rested on the sea bottom. That indicates that they could have broken lose from the vessel before the sinking, and damaged the hull, according to Ford.

• Coast Guard search crews reported an estimated five-mile-long oil slick left behind by the Arctic Rose. Ford says that vessels that sink without a hole in a fuel tank don’t leave behind such a large surface spill, but Coast Guard officials say such slicks can appear without a breach in the tank.

• There was no mayday call by the skipper or an emergency distress signal. Ford believes that trawl doors knocked a hole in the forward auxiliary space where the batteries are stored, and that seawater then quickly shorted out communications and prevented the emergency signals.

Now retired and living in Virginia, Ford has spent recent months reviewing his old files of the Arctic Rose disaster.

“This is something I just couldn’t let go,” Ford said. “I believe that the family members should know that there was an alternative story of what went wrong.”