On the 10th anniversary of the sinking of the Seattle-based fishing vessel, a survivor and key witness says he left out part of the story — an incident he believes had grave consequences.
Rodney Lundy has a story to tell. He says he should have told it a lot sooner.
As the Seattle-based Alaska Ranger prepared to head out to the Bering Sea to fish for Atka mackerel, Lundy, an assistant engineer, says he saw trouble.
It was the evening of March 21, 2008, and Lundy says crew had stacked bundles of netting around one of two air vents. That would make it impossible — in the event of severe main-deck flooding — to shutter that vent to keep the engine room dry and the vessel afloat.
Lundy wanted the gear moved. The conversation grew heated as fishmaster Satoshi Konno — leader of a small group of Japanese crew members — refused.
“I told him that it was a safety thing … It was a huge argument, and I lost,” Lundy told The Seattle Times.
Lundy says his inability to seal that vent on the starboard side of the Seattle-based factory trawler contributed to the high-seas tragedy that unfolded two days later after the vessel left the Aleutian Islands port of Dutch Harbor. On March 23, 2008, the Alaska Ranger went down in 6,000 feet of water. Five of the 47 crew members died, including Konno.
On the 10th anniversary of the sinking, Lundy is speaking publicly for the first time about why he says he could not close the vent, and what he believes were the grave consequences of that failure as water gushed through that vent into the engine room.
The sinking was a stark example of the risks for crews who catch and process bottom-dwelling fish off Alaska aboard an aging fleet. A three-year Coast Guard investigation yielded recommendations for how to prevent future disasters. The 192-page report was based, in part, on testimony from the crew, and Lundy said it is important that he correct his account of the Alaska Ranger’s demise.
Back in 2008, Lundy twice testified under oath before Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) officials as they conducted hearings into the sinking and the conduct of the vessel owner, Fishing Company of Alaska, which is now shut down.
Lundy says two Fishing Company of Alaska officials, at different times, told him to keep quiet about the problems he had trying to close the vent, and he did so.
Michael Barcott, a Seattle maritime attorney who represented Fishing Company of Alaska during the investigation, told The Seattle Times that both Lundy and company officials already testified under oath at the hearings. “We do not see any point in reopening this with a battle with Rodney Lundy,” Barcott said.
The Seattle Times contacted one of the former company officials whom Lundy says asked him to limit his testimony. He denied asking Lundy to do that. Another could not be reached for comment.
Federal investigators reached conflicting conclusions about why the Alaska Ranger suddenly sprung a big leak in gnarly — but not particularly unusual — winter seas.
The NTSB concluded the disaster most likely was triggered by the loss of a rudder, which would have left a big hole for water to enter.
The Coast Guard concluded the rudder probably stayed in place and the Alaska Ranger suffered a major breach in the stern portion of the hull.
Both inquiries found that — over time — flooding progressed to the engine room, which caused the Alaska Ranger to sink. They developed several scenarios on how that may have happened.
Even after this disaster, Lundy hoped to continue his career with Fishing Company of Alaska, where he first went to work in 1991. But in 2009, he was let go.
Returning to his home state of Texas, Lundy was wracked with guilt.
He believed that if he had won the argument with Konno — and been able to close both vents — he could have delayed, perhaps prevented, the sinking.
Through his years at sea, he had struggled with alcoholism. Back on land, he turned to the bottle even more in what he called a kind of “passive suicide.” In Texas, in 2013, he was arrested a third time for drunken driving and sentenced to six years probation.
Lundy credits that conviction with saving his life, as it brought alcohol-abuse treatment and help from a therapist, who suggested that the healing process involve telling his full account of the sinking of the Alaska Ranger.
“The truth needed to come out. We impeded a federal investigation,” Lundy said.
An early-morning alarm
Fishing Company of Alaska once was a major seafood-industry player, operating more than a half-dozen vessels.
The Washington-based company was founded in the 1980s by Karena Adler, of Mercer Island, who died in January 2016, and the company sold its assets and ended operations the following year.
Adler worked in close partnership with Anyo Fisheries, a Japanese seafood buyer that employed small numbers of Japanese crew aboard the vessels largely staffed with U.S. crew.
The Japanese crew were supposed to assist in finding the fish and in helping maintain seafood quality control. In interviews with The Seattle Times in the year after the sinking, more than a dozen former U.S. crew said Japanese fishmasters sometimes appeared to flout U.S.maritime laws that require licensed American captains and mates to control the company’s vessels. The Coast Guard investigation concluded those laws were violated, at times, by Konno aboard the Alaska Ranger.
Through the years, the company had other maritime mishaps, including the loss of the Alaska Juris, which sank in 2016 in the Bering Sea — without loss of life — due to flooding.
During December 2016 Coast Guard and NTSB hearings about the Alaska Juris sinking, the captain of that vessel said he sparred with a Japanese fishmaster over storing too many nets and gear on deck.
“I said no more,” testified Paul Jopling, who threatened to quit over that issue.
Jopling’s concerns were similar to those Lundy says he expressed eight years earlier aboard the Alaska Ranger.
By the time of that final voyage, Lundy was a veteran crewman, having worked with Fishing Company of Alaska for 17 years at sea and at shipyards helping to monitor repairs.
But there had been trouble. He had been caught sleeping on watch, according to the Coast Guard investigative report, and had violated company rules by drinking aboard the vessel, something federal investigators found was not unique to Lundy.
Lundy’s drinking had drawn scrutiny, and at one point in 2008 he was required to report to the wheelhouse 15 minutes before his shift for a sobriety check, according to testimony before the Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation.
Lundy also did not hold a license required by the Coast Guard to serve as the night engineer on watch. That was his duty on March 23 as an alarm — around 2:25 a.m. — signaled the initial flooding as the Ranger was some 130 miles west of Dutch Harbor.
Lundy went to a passageway leading to the rudder room at the very stern of the boat, according to his 2008 testimony.
As a wall of water rushed toward him, he slammed shut a watertight door to the rudder room. Then, with a sledgehammer, he banged on a pipe wrench to tighten it even further to try to prevent leakage.
Later, the vessel lost electrical power, which flipped the hydraulic propulsion system into reverse.
The stern was driven down into the sea. Water rushed onto the main deck.
Lundy, in his new account, told The Seattle Times he was up on deck and closed the port-side air vent. But the nets stored on deck blocked him from putting the cover on the starboard vent. Water gushed down the opening, flooding the engine room.
The vessel listed sharply to the starboard side, Lundy said.
In the Coast Guard report, the list is noted as the point when the captain — the late Pete Jacobsen — gave the order to abandon ship. It was just past 4 a.m.
In the water, waiting
The vessel pitch worsened to a 45-degree angle, according to the Coast Guard report. Some crew clung to the rails to avoid sliding off the ice-slicked deck.
Lundy was one of 22 people to reach the life rafts.
Others, in insulated survival suits, bobbed about in the water. Some grabbed each other to form human chains. Some drifted about alone.
The Alaska Ranger sank around 4:30 a.m. — about two hours after the first alarm sounded. The vessel went down stern-first in a spectacle that some survivors in the water were still close enough to witness.
Later that morning, the Ranger’s sister vessel, the Alaska Warrior, picked up the survivors in the life rafts. Coast Guard helicopters rescued those in the water, although four did not survive.
As for Konno, Japanese crew testified that he helped them evacuate. But no one saw him go overboard, so it is possible he stayed on the ship. His body was the only one not recovered.
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A hotel hearing in Alaska
Once ashore, the company put up Lundy and the rest of the crew at a Dutch Harbor hotel.
“He was my roommate — and he kept saying, ‘I killed those guys,’ ” recalls Jim Madruga, another Alaska Ranger assistant engineer. “I don’t know how he thought he did that, and I never asked him. I thought it was just booze talk.”
At that hotel, the Coast Guard convened the initial hearings. An investigator asked Lundy about the vents — and whether they had been secured.
“They were supposed to have been, but … I don’t know if they were or not,” Lundy testified.
Lundy now says that was inaccurate and reflected his instructions from a company official.
Mike Rand, a now-retired Coast Guard officer who led the investigation, said Lundy’s new explanation — that netting prevented him from closing one of the vents — is “certainly something that we would have wanted to know at the time.”
Other experts say shuttering the vent could have been an important action to slow the flooding and prevent the vessel from heeling over so far.
“There’s no question it (closing the vent) would have given more time afloat,” said Bruce Adee, a retired University of Washington mechanical engineer who has investigated numerous vessel sinkings. “Once that vent starts to flood, it is going to be fast, and basically it’s over at that point — and pretty quickly. There is no hope.”
Chris Woodley, a retired Coast Guard officer who focused on fishing-industry safety, said Lundy’s account helps explain why the Alaska Ranger sank so quickly.
He admonished Lundy for apparently withholding the information: “Witnesses who testify in formal hearings take an oath and swear to tell the truth. To do so requires moral certainty and on occasion, bravery.”
Lundy, 59, never went back to sea. He lives in southeast Texas near the Gulf of Mexico with a budget stitched together from disability payments as well as a settlement from the Fishing Company of Alaska, resulting from the sinking.
In the decade since the disaster, Lundy said his thoughts return — again and again — to the Alaska Ranger.
“I know in my heart and soul, I did what I could. The rest was in God’s hands.”