Why did a factory trawler sink on a mild summer day? Coast Guard investigators think a burst pipe and a failed bilge alarm system may have led to the demise of the Alaska Juris. But disasters often involve a series of mishaps, and that is likely what occurred.

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Flashlight in hand, a stunned Chief Engineer Eddie Hernandez peered into the darkness to survey the swamped engine room of the Alaska Juris. The cold seawater was waist-deep, and more was bubbling up from a leak, possibly from a busted pipe on the starboard side of the factory trawler.

“I wasn’t afraid or anything. I just felt helpless,” Hernandez testified this month during two weeks of Coast Guard hearings into the July 26 sinking of the Alaska Juris that forced 46 crew to abandon the Washington-based ship in a remote location in the Bering Sea.

Hernandez was a key witness for Coast Guard officials seeking to unravel the mystery of the Alaska Juris’ demise on a calm, summer day. Officials also are investigating the tangled operations of the vessel’s owner, Fishing Company of Alaska, which teams with a Japanese fish buyer and still operates three factory trawlers whose large crews in remote North Pacific locations net, process and freeze the catch.

This is the second time in less than a decade that Fishing Company of Alaska has been the focus of a major Coast Guard inquiry.

The earlier Coast Guard investigation was spurred by the 2008 sinking of the company’s Alaska Ranger, a disaster that claimed the lives of five of the 47 crew members. The Coast Guard’s final report in that case detailed many of the issues that surfaced again this month during the Alaska Juris hearing. They include gaps in a Coast Guard inspection program, chronic maintenance issues on an aging vessel, and conflicts over safety between a U.S. crew and Japanese workers employed by the fish buyer.

The goal of the Coast Guard’s deep dives into these sinkings is to help prevent future accidents in seafood harvests off Alaska that — despite safety improvements and declining death tolls in recent years — still pose big risks.

The report on the Alaska Juris isn’t expected for months.

The hearings offered a gritty look at conditions aboard the vessel, which had benefitted from millions of dollars in investments in maintenance — yet still appeared so unsafe, one engineer said, that he quit this year after spending just a day at port.

“The biggest thing that was bugging me was that if I take this job, I’m going to have to lie to my wife and kids about the condition of this boat,” said Carl Lee Jones in testimony about problems that included rusting pipes, rundown crew quarters and Japanese crew members who refused to participate in safety drills.

Water rushes in

The Alaska Juris was insured for $4.3 million, far below what it would cost for a replacement ship. Although the Coast Guard felt obligated to look at the deliberate scuttling of the vessel as one possible scenario, this is not a major focus of the investigation.

Instead, Coast Guard officials believe the leak that sunk the Alaska Juris likely resulted from a failure in the piping that brings seawater in for tasks such as engine cooling, according to Cmdr. Michael DeLury, the lead investigator. The leak could have resulted from a burst pipe, or one of the other parts of the system, such as a strainer that filters the incoming water.

But disasters often involve a series of mishaps that cause a situation to spiral out of control, and that is what likely happened aboard the Alaska Juris.

Though there were sometimes conflicting accounts from witnesses, it appears the bilge alarms never went off, and thus failed to alert the crew early on to the flooding — an alert DeLury says could have made “a huge difference.”

The performance of the bilge alarms remains under investigation. The alarms may have been turned off deliberatively to prevent them from sounding false alerts, which would have posed a significant safety risk, according to DeLury.

Another factor that likely led to the sinking was the lack of a viable pumping system.

When Hernandez finally realized the water was rushing in, he chose not to try to start up bilge pumps because, he said, they were hard to operate, worn out and probably wouldn’t do much good.

“In my opinion, with what I was seeing, it was just a futile effort,” Hernandez testified.

Then, just before the crew abandoned ship, there was a brief attempt to deploy another emergency pump. But the crew didn’t set it up right, and it, too, wouldn’t have done much good even if properly positioned, according to Hernandez.

“If we can hang on that long”

During the hearings, Fishing Company of Alaska officials testified the Alaska Juris underwent extensive repairs over the years for work on the hull and to replace equipment, including aging pipes.

The captain, Paul Jopling, testified that he thought the Alaska Juris was on the upswing after a difficult past that included problems with crew members who violated company policies to drink alcohol aboard the vessel.

Jopling also said he got the support he needed from shoreside officials.

“I believe it was a work in progress. She was well on her way to being a better boat,” testified Jopling, captain for the past three years.

He described a vessel that lacked ventilation, had an unruly crew and serious maintenance problems.

“I/we are holding it all together, and in my opinion, hanging on by a shoestring at best,” wrote Hernandez in an email to Fishing Company of Alaska officials on July 18, just eight days before the boat went down. One item he cited for repair during the next port stop — “if we can hang on that long” — was a 30-foot section of rotted-out pipe that carried seawater into the vessel.

Hernandez and Jopling also were at odds on the power of Japanese fishmasters hired by the Japanese company that buys the company’s catch. They are supposed to help the crew find and process fish, and are forbidden under U.S. maritime law from assuming command of the vessel.

Over the years, there have been repeated clashes with licensed U.S. crew, including three complaints filed with the Coast Guard in 2005 alleging assaults by a Japanese fishmaster on a U.S. mate working for Fishing Company of Alaska.

Jopling, in his testimony, acknowledged he had battled with a Japanese fishmaster over safety issues, such as storing too much gear on deck, a concern Jopling had threatened to quit over. But he maintained, “these guys certainly don’t run the boat — I do.”

Hernandez perceived the Japanese fishmaster as the most powerful person aboard the Alaska Juris.

“In my observation, he (the fishmaster) was definitely the guy in charge, telling the captain what course to follow,” said Hernandez, who testified that he had witnessed the Japanese fishmaster at the wheel of the Juris and charting a course.

The Japanese crew members also had their own quarters, with a lock the U.S. crew had no key to open. That was a safety issue that resulted in a citation issued by the Coast Guard during an inspection, according to testimony.

The Japanese crew’s presence aboard Fishing Company of Alaska vessels reflects the behind-the-scenes clout wielded by Anyo Fisheries, the company that buys all the catch, according to Mike Szymanski, who worked for the company for more than 20 years as government-affairs manager.

Szymanski said Anyo Fisheries controlled the flow of cash to Fishing Company of Alaska, including money for major maintenance. So he felt that Anyo bore some responsibility for any maintenance problems in the fleet.

“Anyo had control because it purchased 100 percent of the product,” Szymanski said. “And they want the fishmasters on the boats.”

Coast Guard officials, when their final report is released in the months ahead, are expected to look at the role of Anyo’s Japanese crew aboard the Alaska Juris.

They also will review the Coast Guard program launched in 2006 to improve the safety of vessels, such as the Juris.

The 2008 Coast Guard investigation of the Alaska Ranger included a harsh critique of that safety program, and it spurred changes.

The Alaska Juris investigation also is expected to find shortcomings in the program. However, the captain, Jopling, said the Coast Guard oversight resulted in safety improvements that helped slow the flooding.

“Absolutely, it bought us time,” Jopling said. “There is always room for improvement. But it was a big help for the Juris.”