Survivors say ship sailed through rough, broken ice
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By DAN CATCHPOLE
Associated Press Writer
SEATTLE (AP) — A fishing boat that sunk in the Bering Sea last month had sailed through rough, broken pack ice on recent voyages, concerning crew members and leading to a yelling match involving the ship’s captain, survivors said at a federal hearing.
One survivor testified Wednesday that the crew member responsible for fishing operations — known as the fish master — had ordered the Alaska Ranger to speed up in rough ice during a recent voyage.
That fish master, Satoshi Konno of Japan, sometimes overruled the ship’s captain, two survivors told federal investigators.
Five people died when the Seattle-based ship went down in rough seas about 120 miles west of Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands on March 23. Konno is presumed to be among the dead, although his body was not recovered.
The vessel was on its way to mackerel grounds when it began taking on water through the rudder room. Forty-two crewmen were rescued by the Coast Guard and the Alaska Ranger’s sister ship, the Alaska Warrior.
"Honestly, the fish master really runs the boat," said crew member David Hull, 28, of Long Beach, Calif. Despite a zero-tolerance drug and alcohol policy on the ship, the fish master and other crew members drank, he told Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board investigators.
Another crew member, Ryan Shuck, 31, of Spokane, Wash., testified that he witnessed the ship’s fish master and a previous captain arguing about sailing the ship through ice.
"The captain was asleep, and we were getting ready to go in" to port, he said. "Konno decided he wanted to go faster, so he sped the boat up. They were yelling at each other about how fast we were going through the ice."
The previous captain is scheduled to testify on Friday.
The fish master represents the Japanese fish buyer, and does not work directly for the Seattle-based Fishing Co. of Alaska, which owned the vessel, according to John Neeleman, a lawyer representing the company.
On cross-examination, Neeleman accused Hull of trying to extort money from the company.
Hull acknowledged rejecting a settlement offer of $35,000 during a recent meeting with an insurance adjuster for the Fishing Co. of Alaska.
Neeleman alleged Hull offered to destroy videotapes and photos of the ship operating in icy seas in exchange for $100,000.
Hull said he made a counter offer for $100,000 but denied offering to destroy evidence.
Water was seen in or near the rudder room several days before the sinking, said Shuck and another crewman, Jeremy Freitag, 22.
The ship operated in broken pack ice on four trips in January and February, the three survivors said.
The ice vibrated against the ship, Hull said.
"Those vibrations were very loud and shook the boat," he said. "Because other guys were concerned, who had more experience and had done more seasons through ice, that made me concerned."
The inquiry board is interested in the ship’s "operations in the ice," said Capt. Mike Rand, the lead Coast Guard investigator.
The hearing is likely to continue for another week. Previous sessions were held in Dutch Harbor and Anchorage, Alaska.