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Doomed Alaska fishing boat sent e-mail

Four crew members of a fishing boat were plucked alive from a life raft in stormy seas, hours after their vessel was reported in distress, while five crew members died, and two remained missing.
/ Source: The Associated Press

An e-mail sent by a doomed fishing boat to a nearby vessel said it was taking on water in the rear, where the steering was housed, the Coast Guard said Thursday as it searched for two crew members whose fates remained unknown.

It's still not clear what happened aboard the Katmai, which sank early Wednesday in the icy waters off Alaska's Aleutian Islands with a crew of 11 aboard. Four men survived in a life raft, and the bodies of five have been recovered.

"What can you say?" said Jeff DeBell, chief financial officer of Katmai Fisheries, which owned the boat. "We are devastated by what has happened. We are elated there have been survivors. We are just terribly saddened by the ones that are dead and are praying that those that are still in the water are alive."

The Seattle-based company identified the survivors as Capt. Henry Blake and crew members Guy Schroeder, Adam Foster and Harold Appling.

All the crew members were able to get into survival suits, according to members of another fishing vessel in the area that received the e-mail, said Coast Guard Petty Officer Levi Read.

A survival suit can extend the life of people in cold waters, depending on their physical condition, how panicked they are or whether they are in a group or a life raft. Without a suit, death comes quickly.

"If you don't have a survival suit, it can be minutes," Read said.

Search resumes
A search resumed at daybreak for the other two members of the 93-foot Katmai, which sank about 1,300 miles southwest of Anchorage as it was headed to port. An electronic distress signal was sent to the Coast Guard about 1 a.m. Wednesday.

The four crew members who survived were found in good condition Wednesday afternoon, after spending about 15 hours floating in the ocean. They were in survival suits and in a life raft.

A Good Samaritan fishing vessel went to the area Wednesday evening to help in the search and found three of the dead, Read said. The dead were found floating in survival suits, but they were not in life rafts.

The Coast Guard recovered one other body from the water, and another Good Samaritan vessel found the other.

The Katmai had been headed toward Dutch Harbor on Unalaska Island, 800 miles southwest of Anchorage. It was the company's only ship, DeBell said.

Katmai Fisheries has been in business since 1993, he said. Company officials will travel to Anchorage to meet with the survivors, who were expected to reach the Aleutian island of Adak later Thursday before traveling on.

The crew members were from Alaska, Washington, Oregon and Montana, he said.

'A lot of heart'
The water was 43 degrees when rescuers hauled the survivors out of the raft, Read said. He couldn't speculate on how long they were in the raft because it was not known exactly when they abandoned their boat. Still, he said, several factors helped them survive. "That takes a lot of fortitude and a lot of heart," Read said. Their survival suits, their physical condition, and an effort to keep one another semi-warm and awake all could have helped them endure, he said.

The four survivors were discovered in the raft near the Amchitka Pass, which links the Bering Sea to the Pacific Ocean about 1,400 miles southwest of Anchorage.

The survivors were able to tell rescuers that all 11 crew members had been able to get into their survival suits before the Katmai sank, Read said.

Since no oil sheen typically seen from sunken vessels had been spotted, the Coast Guard had earlier been reluctant to say with certainty that the vessel had sunk.

"They said the boat did go down," Read confirmed.

The survivors stayed aboard a Coast Guard helicopter, helping with the search, until it returned to nearby Adak Island to refuel, Read said. They got off on Adak, where they were reported in good condition.

Not clear what happened
It wasn't clear what happened to the boat.

The Coast Guard received an electronic signal at 1 a.m. from the Katmai. A search helicopter and C-130 airplane were sent from Kodiak, a journey of about 4 1/2 hours. The plane crew spotted two strobe lights in the water and dropped two life rafts. But after sunup, the searchers had seen no sign of the Katmai or its crew, Read said.

One strobe was attached to an empty survival suit and the other was attached to a floating emergency beacon that can be triggered automatically by contact with water. Vessels are required to carry those devices to signal emergencies and aid searches.

The Coast Guard did not receive a mayday call, but given the boat's remote location, it may not have been heard.

Debris found in the search area included survival suits, fishing gear, a buoy and a life ring, Read said.

The Coast Guard reported 10- to 15-foot seas in the area, with winds from the north at 34 mph. The area had a mix of rain and snow.

The Katmai was carrying a load of cod and was heading toward Dutch Harbor on Unalaska Island, Read said. Dutch Harbor is 800 miles southwest of Anchorage and about 610 miles southwest of Kodiak.