Arctic Rose

Lost at Sea

First of three parts: All That Remains; Fishing boat took its secrets and 15 men to their graves

Newsday

Sunday, June 3, 2001

By Hugo Kugiya, Staff Correspondent


OLYMPIA, WASH. — She saw him first, choosing him out of a pack of five boys playing pool at a billiard club called the Eight Ball. He was with his friends, and she was with hers. She didn’t have paper so he wrote his phone number on her hand. She called the next day.

They held on to each other like lucky charms and set the course of their days around each other. Six nights a week, they played pool at the Eight Ball, where they had met on Oct. 20. She was 18; he was 19.

He opened doors, pulled out chairs, lit her cigarettes, and called her Princess. In the two months and three weeks they spent together, they were apart no more than two days in a row. In that time, Jeff Meincke and Jessica Hermsen had fallen in love. Although neither had said so exactly, they both knew it.

Every night after playing pool, they went to Jessica’s parents’ house to watch movies. As a compromise to their tastes, they watched only comedies and within a month, their selection had been reduced to Disney cartoons. She heated ham and cheese Hot Pockets in the microwave. They ate them on the couch with either Mountain Dew or Dr. Pepper. And at 2:30 a.m., he left for his job unloading boxes at a United Parcel Service plant in Tumwater. He slept during the day while Jessica went to high school and waited tables at the Brewery City Pizza Co. Afterward, Jeff would pick her up at work and the routine would start over again. This is what growing old together must be like, Jessica thought, and there was nothing about the routine she disliked.

She didn’t understand when he told her he wanted to spend the winter fishing off Alaska, where he worked last summer harvesting salmon caviar on a barge. She convinced herself she could talk him out of it in the two weeks before he left.

What if I got sick? Would you stay?” she asked him. “What if I broke my arm? Then would you come home?”

That’s so stupid,” he said. “I’d send you a card. It’s just four months. You’re going to be fine. I’m going to be fine…Honey, don’t worry about me, it’s all going to be OK. I promise. I’ll be home before you know it.”

Nothing about the boat or the fishing trip seemed ominous or final. And besides, Jessica was his amulet, Jeff hers, and they would keep each other safe.

They said goodbye seven times, twice in person, the rest on the phone. The second time was the hardest, sitting in the shelter of his Jeep in the middle of a cold January night in the driveway of her house. The Jeep, the thing that always delivered him to her, would soon betray her, taking him away to the boat she had now surrendered to.

She stopped him from telling her, for the first time, that he loved her.

No. Don’t tell me that,” she said. “You’re leaving on this boat. If you tell me that, I want to hear it every day and I want to know it’s how you truly feel.”

So Jeff figured out a way to tell her without saying the words and from that day forward, this is how they traded affections:

I miss you and you know the way I feel.”

I miss you too and I feel exactly the same way.”

Initially she took his decision to work in Alaska so early in their relationship as a sign of waning interest. But he took every measure to assure her before he left, and while he was gone, with letters and phone calls.

Somewhere out at sea, Jeff decided he wanted to marry Jessica and devised a plan to propose when he got back. He never told her. When his sister inadvertently told Jessica months later, it only broke her heart that much more.

He wrote faithfully from the boat, mailing a batch of 12 to 20 pages every time the boat returned to port to fuel up or unload various flatfish. He wrote in February:

The weather has been …[terrible]. Last night we were in 40 foot swells with 70 knot winds. Pretty nasty. As soon as we did our second haul back, bringing in the nets and gear, the owner split for an inlet and dropped anchor.  I had to help pull a crab pot out of the net…We had to put on life jackets just to go out on deck. Don’t worry, I’m being careful. The last thing I want to do is die before I get to see you again…

I miss you more with every day I can’t touch you or kiss you. It’ll work out don’t worry because I still want you more than ever. Well goodbye for now my little princess. Love Jeff your lonely fisherman.

Jessica received the last batch of letters April 4. By then Jeff was dead.

I forgot I had those letters coming,” Jessica said. “My dad called me at work. He said ‘Jeff’s letters came today.’ I lost it and I got sent home from work again. I didn’t go back again the whole week.

I didn’t want to open those letters. I didn’t want to know what was going on on that boat. I waited until night, until I was by myself so I could cry by myself because I knew that I would. I didn’t want anybody around, not even my parents.”

Jeff was a deckhand on the 92-​​foot trawler Arctic Rose, which, without any sign of trouble, sank April 2 at the midway of dusk and dawn. It took its entire crew of 15 to its death in one of the most remote precincts of the Bering Sea, where the boat was about as close to Russia as Alaska.

I’ve seen too many movies,” David Meincke, Jeff’s father, said. “What bothers me and bothers his mother a lot is how he died. I can see it in my mind. I’m trying to block that out. I hear when it happens you’re just shocked that it’s actually happening and that everything turns to slow motion.

More than likely they were all asleep. There must have been a bunch of them in one room, all jolted awake. It had to be chaos and panic with no way out. Thinking about that tears me up.”

By all indications, the Arctic Rose was properly maintained by a conscientious owner who had skippered the boat himself for most of the winter.  It had passed a Coast Guard safety inspection Feb. 25 at sea.

The Coast Guard has convened a Marine Board of Investigation, which it reserves for only the biggest disasters at sea, to determine the cause of the sinking of the Arctic Rose. The four-​​member board, which includes three Coast Guard officers and a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, will begin hearing evidence June 12 in Seattle. Investigators are interested in any modifications made to the boat and in locating past crew members. They are considering using a sonar to locate the sunken boat and sending an unmanned submersible to take pictures or a video of the wreck about 400 feet below.

Since we don’t have a vessel or survivors, we will try to recreate the vessel as best we can,” said board member, Cmdr. John Bingaman. “We’re interested in talking to any people who have ever been associated with the vessel.

It’s very probable we will not ever know what happened on board, but we’re doing our best to determine what was the likely cause of the accident.”

A slick of oil, survival gear from the boat, and one body, that of the skipper, Davey Rundall, was all the evidence the sea gave up. The death toll is the highest for an American fishing vessel working on those waters.

A Japanese vessel, the Akebono Maru, capsized 50 miles north of the Aleutian Islands in 1982, killing 32 in the worst recorded loss of life in Alaskan waters. One year later, the sister vessels Americus and Altair, both sank in the Bering the same day, killing a total 14. The sinkings were especially devastating because all the fishermen were from the same town of Anacortes, Wash., on the northern tip of Whidbey Island in Puget Sound.

During the past 10 years, an average of 17 fishermen have died every year fishing in Alaska. However, the number of deaths had been dropping. Last year, only seven fishermen died. In any case, such a high number of deaths on a single boat is rare even in what is considered the most dangerous avocation in America. A fishermen is about 10 times more likely to die on the job than a policeman or fireman, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Eight of the crew of the Arctic Rose came from or had family ties to the Seattle area, where most of the Alaskan fishing industry is headquartered. The boats work primarily out of Dutch Harbor, Alaska, in the Aleutian Islands. But the industry’s infrastructure –the banks, the insurance brokers, the naval architects, the boat owners, the shipyards, the suppliers –is located in Seattle, as are the industry’s most important resource, fishermen.

Rundall, the skipper, grew up in West Seattle, a hilly, windswept community of beautiful vistas at its waterside edges, but very ordinary looking in the gully neighborhoods near its center, like Delridge where Rundall is from. He caught his first fish at age 5, a salmon, from the Duwamish River, which passes many of the city’s industrial lots. Once a peaceful slough and home to shellfish, marsh birds and a passageway for spawning salmon, it has become the final destination of storm drains and sewer overflow.

Yet, the city’s proximity to nature remains its defining quality, a metropolis of creeping, flowering vines, ringed by jagged volcanoes, ancient forests of giant cedars and firs and, always, the water. A great number of Seattle’s boys, for this reason, grow up and work in shipyards, mills, and fishing boats, more than end up as software engineers, Internet entrepreneurs or coffee vendors.

Mike Olney, 46, the boat’s engineer and younger brother of its owner, Dave Olney, was a machinist at the Todd Pacific Shipyard before layoffs turned him to fishing. The shipyard took up all of 26-​​acre Harbor Island in the middle of Seattle’s Elliott Bay, not far from where Rundall caught his kindergarten salmon. The kind of work done at Todd is of a mammoth scale, like repairing aircraft carriers or building the state’s giant automobile ferries.

Much of the money made fishing Alaska ends up back in Seattle somehow. The boat’s cook, Ken Kivlin, and deckhand Eddie Haynes, consummate wanderers who have lived all over the country, were looking to settle in the area, where Kivlin’s grown son and Haynes’ mother lived. Kivlin, 55, wanted to open a restaurant and brewery in the city, and buy a lot across the bay where he could plant a double-​​wide trailer; Haynes, 39, was going to use fishing money to learn how to fix computers at a vocational school in Seattle and to build an apartment in the basement of his mother’s house. The average crew member makes $30,000 for the winter season.

Meincke, Arctic Rose foremen Aaron Broderick and Jimmie Conrad, and assistant engineer G.W. Kandris, were all connected by overlapping circles of girlfriends and acquaintances. All young men, most lived south of Seattle, near Tacoma and Olympia. Three days before the fishing trip, Meincke rented a room at the Ameritel Inn in nearby Lacey and threw a small party, which Conrad and Broderick attended. They swam at the pool, jumped on the beds, had a pillow fight, soaked in a hot tub, watched pay-​​per-​​view movies and stayed up most of the night.

The first mate, Kerry Egan, was from northern Minnesota. The deck boss, Angel Mendez, was from coastal Texas, having emigrated from Veracruz, Mexico, 20 years earlier to fish the Gulf of Mexico.

Shawn Bouchard, 25, and Jim Mills, 23, who worked on the Arctic Rose’s processing line, were best friends, having grown up together in Harlowton, Mont. Committed Christians, they both outlasted serious drug addictions and viewed the fishing trip as God’s work. They intentionally sought jobs that might put them in a position to meet men of desperate circumstances and limited means.

That might fairly describe the other men from Mexico, coincidentally from the same hometown of Coatepec, Veracruz, as Mendez. Alejandro Ortiz Espino, Austreberto Cortez Opoll and Justino Opoll Romero were part of a chain of people from Coatepec who were working illegally in Seattle. They shared an apartment south of the city with Hector Ortiz Espino, Alejandro’s older brother. The brothers paid agents called coyotes to smuggle them across the border. Austreberto and Justino, nephew and uncle, sneaked across the border at Tijuana. Before finding work painting the Arctic Rose, they cleaned Safeco Field after baseball games. They used fake names when they signed contracts to work on the Arctic Rose. But it is unlikely anyone was fooled, as they spoke very little English and surely could not have passed for men named Robert Foreman, David Whitton and Michael Neureiter, the names they used in their contracts. But the Arctic Rose was not the only boat in Alaska employing undocumented immigrants.

Although most of the men had never spent a minute together before the trip, they were probably all similarly tuned for the unorthodox life of fishing for months at a time in some of the most remote places on earth.

The Bering Sea, as inhospitable as it is for humans with its constant storms and freezing temperatures, is considered the richest fishing ground in the world. Some biologists estimate 20 percent of the ocean’s edible protein lives in the Bering, where half the seafood caught by American vessels is harvested. The waters of Alaska are among the most heavily managed in the world and therefore among the least overfished. In Alaska, almost all of the Coast Guard’s manpower is devoted to the enforcement of fishing regulations and support of vessels.

By revenue, fishing is the No. 2 industry in Alaska, behind oil. The state, twice as large as Texas, is about as populous as Staten Island. About half the population of the state lives in Anchorage, a small city by Lower 48 standards, leaving the rest of the state for wildlife and only the most robust of humans. Like the crew of the Arctic Rose, rural Alaskans tend to be, by necessity, cheerful, indifferent and fearless.

2−21−01

Hi Honey,

Not much going on these past couple days, just the usual routine. I guess it’s getting easier in some aspects of the whole work thing. It’s still really long exhausting hours. My body is keeping up okay. I wake up in the mornings with cramps in my shoulders down to my fingers, but they usually work out once the labor starts…We got hit by a good sized storm, windier than … and some good sized waves. I got hit pretty hard bringing the net. My boots filled with water, through my rain gear. But we tucked tail and ran as soon as the net came up. Now we’re anchored in a harbor close to some remote …island. Don’t worry about the weather. If it gets bad, we have to wear life jackets. I know that’s not much, but I’m not really worried about it. I’ll come home safely. Well gotta go. Need my beauty sleep. As always I miss you lots. Nighty Night. Love, Jeff.

The sinking of the Arctic Rose is especially befuddling because no one received a call for assistance or distress from the boat before it sank. The boat had faced fierce weather many times before on the same trip.

Although a mighty storm front was moving into the area at the time, the seas were still manageable, and even improving according to those aboard the fishing vessel Alaskan Rose, which was only 10 miles from the Arctic Rose at the time. Weather readings from satellites and a moored, weather-​​data buoy in the Bering Sea did not indicate life threatening conditions at the time. But conditions can vary widely from position to position, making it difficult to say for sure what the Arctic Rose faced that night.

The National Weather Service operates a network of data buoys in the world’s oceans, all of them located relatively close to shore. It monitors one in the Bering, with a 12-​​meter steel hull shaped like a discus. The largest data buoy used by the weather service, it measures barometric pressure, wind direction, speed and gusts, air and water temperature, and wave energy, which provides forecasters with a general idea of wave activity if not specific wave heights. Nonetheless, the Bering Sea data buoy is located hundreds of miles from where the Arctic Rose was fishing.

Storm squalls in the Bering can be very isolated,” said Curtis Carey with the National Weather Service. “It really depends on the location of that ship.”

At 9:58 p.m. the night of the sinking, the Arctic Rose’s first mate, Kerry Egan, sent an e-​​mail from the boat’s satellite data link to his older brother and sister-​​in-​​law in Minnesota:

Hi Trish. How are things? We are 425 miles out and on the fish pretty good for a change. We will offload at St. Paul Island so I may not be able to get a hold of you guys…Ask Doug to fill out my tax returns and send it in with a check. Everything here is bruise gray and swelling, typical Bering Sea. Talk to you when I can. Thanks. Kerry. P.S. ETA BG’s 5/​14.

BG’s is a bar owned by Egan’s best friend Greg Peterson in Virginia, Minn., 65 miles north of Duluth, the place where Egan’s family would hold his wake a week later.

At the time of his death, Kerry Egan, 45, a short, wiry man with long, curly hair, needed only more time in the wheelhouse to obtain his captain’s license. Last year, he had attended a school in Florida run by the Coast Guard to receive training for radar, navigation, first aid and boat safety, among other things.

He had a daughter Jenna, at the University of Minnesota, and a son, Jesse, about to graduate from high school in Phoenix, and he hoped he could help pay for college with the extra money he would make as a captain. He came to fishing relatively late at age 33, a few years after a divorce. As a younger man he laid phone cables in the ground and helped Doug with his business, installing water conditioners.

In 1989, while scanning job listings in the Minneapolis Star-​​Tribune for work laying cables, he accidentally came across an ad seeking deckhands for a fishing boat in Alaska. Pleased with the work and fascinated by the natural surroundings, he returned each year, working his way up the ranks of several boats.

An avid photographer, he used at least five rolls of film on every trip, never tiring of the scenery even if his family did.

Every roll was pretty much the same as the last one,” Doug Egan said. “Bears on shore, porpoises, mountains, icebergs.”

Kerry Egan was realistic about the danger of his work, guessing if he fished long enough, he would eventually die at sea. But he was comfortable with the odds.

He didn’t plan on not coming back,” Doug said. “He knew a lot of guys who lived and retired on the job and he hoped to be one of them. But every year he also knew guys who didn’t come back.” Kerry Egan joined the crew of the Arctic Rose in March, after a stint as skipper of another fishing boat.

The crews of the Arctic Rose and the Alaskan Rose were playing the same hunch April 1. Owned by the same company, Arctic Sole Seafoods of Seattle, they are considered sister ships even though the Alaskan Rose, at 124 feet, is a bigger vessel. Both are trawlers, more specifically, catcher-​​processors, which drag the bottom for various species of sole with cone-​​shaped nets and have processing equipment and freezers below deck.

Arctic Sole Seafood’s owner, Dave Olney, bought the Alaskan Rose in 1994, purchasing his smaller boat in 1999. As the owner of a small fishery, Olney often skippered his boats.

The night of April 1, the boats communicated by VHF radio at about 10:30, shortly after Egan sent his e-​​mail, reporting nothing out of the ordinary.

John Nelson, first mate of the Alaskan Rose, commanded the bridge the night of the sinking. He stayed in the wheelhouse all night. If the Arctic Rose’s crew had tried to call, he is certain he would have heard them. The boats were out of sight and out of radar range of each other. But radio communication is clear and reliable between boats that close together. The Arctic Rose had a VHF radio as well as a single sideband radio, either of which would have worked.

What happened during the next five hours is not known, except that the Arctic Rose had been fishing in about 400 feet of water near the Zhemchug Canyon, a 9,000-foot, undersea canyon near the edge of the broad continental shelf responsible for the Bering’s abundant sea life.

Almost half of the Bering’s 2.3 million square kilometers of ocean is over the continental shelf. Strong tides and winds churn the seas above the shelf, mixing deep and shallow waters. Sea life is driven primarily by plants at the bottom of the food chain which can survive only as deep as sunlight can penetrate, about 500 to 600 feet. Crucial to the process of photosynthesis, however, are deep water elements like phosphorous and nitrogen which are most plentiful at lower depths.

For that reason, sea life is most abundant where upwelling of deep waters brings these elements closer to the surface. This happens in relatively few places in the world’s oceans but with particular efficiency in the Bering Sea.

But even in the Bering, a boat cannot expect to drop its net anywhere and catch fish, at least not in the volumes required to survive financially in an increasingly competitive industry. Captains rely on their favorite fishing spots and discreetly guard them. The last week of fishing for the Arctic Rose had not been productive. On March 24, Meincke wrote:

Hi Honey…The fish isn’t here and the weather is …[lousy]. We’re in the Bering Sea again. Last trip we were in the Gulf of Alaska. I think we’re going North some more…Coldest it’s been all season. We had to break ice yesterday.  Fun, not really…Cold…with a bat hitting the ice off everything on deck, getting hit by waves. It helped get rid of a little frustration, but that all came back when we stopped fishing for the day. There’s nothing to keep my mind occupied so all I can do is think about you and us together, the past and what might happen in the future. I don’t know what’s ahead. Sometimes I wish I did…

Rundall and his crew hoped their luck would change at a particular spot, more than 200 miles northwest of the Pribilof Islands, where they would hunt for rock sole and flathead sole.

But to get there, the crew had to endure early spring storms that are at best inconvenient and boring and at worst life-​​threatening. Letters Meincke wrote on March 25 and 26 showed that weather was the principle issue in the last days of the boat. He also admitted to Jessica that he had a close call while working on the deck:

Dear Jessica,

We’ve stopped fishing because of the weather. I had to break ice when I woke up today. That sucked…I guess we’re headed north to target another kind of fish, yellowfin. Yellowfin sucks to process and isn’t worth much but it’s the only thing out there right now…One more trip after this one and I’ll be home. Just over a month, that’s not very long…

Dear Princess,

Haven’t said that for a while…It’s a never ending roller coaster, up and down, back and forth. This storm just won’t quit. It’s been three or four days and all we have is half a freezer. This trip is sucking my will to live. I’ve had way too much down [time]. All we do is watch movies and wait till the morning to break ice. I’ve got the fun job of breaking the ice on the wheel house. There’s about three inches of ice and no one else will go up there. In this weather, you just slide around the roof. I almost fell off the boat but I grabbed a light before I went all the way over. Don’t worry we weren’t [going] that fast so they could have picked [me] up quickly. And the weather isn’t that bad. It’s just bad enough where we can’t set our net. Well anyways, there’s absolutely nothing going on, on this Savage Rose. We’re going to paint our motto on the side soon, “if it makes sense we don’t do it.” Ha ha.

The next day, March 27, the weather abated, allowing the crew, finally, to fish again, but their haul was spotty. On March 28, Meincke was able to write another letter:

Dear Jessica,

Day two of fishing. Actual fishing. Yesterday we didn’t get …[anything] and today we got twice that. So …we got …[nothing] again, but we are fishing. That’s the main thing…We don’t do night towing anymore so I no longer get the pleasure of working night shift. Oh well…

Everyone was going stir crazy with all this …[lousy] weather. It’s rough when there’s nothing to do. All you can do is watch movies we’ve already seen 17 times, sleep, eat, and read and write letters. It gives you too much time to think in an industry where you get paid to work long hours and not think, just do…

Frustration among the crew, which had been building, was beginning to crest. Earlier that month, a deckhand named Nathan Miller, a friend of Bouchard and Mills, had quit after an argument with Rundall.

Such blowups are not uncommon on fishing crews. It is a rare captain in the fleet who is not thought of as a jerk or tyrant by a preponderance of his crew. He is the authority figure in a society of men who often retreat to that society specifically to get away from authority figures.

On a fishing boat, love is fish. When there are fish, there is love. When the fishing is bad, relationships break down. A captain’s judgment is the first thing questioned since he decides where and how to fish. He is like a football coach who must decide whether to run, pass or punt. In fishing, as in sport, everyone loves a winner. Evidence of discord can be found in a letter Meincke wrote on Feb. 27:

…Last night we had a bag full of sea sponges which filled our truck up, that’s what we put fish in. The night crew had to push, kick, shovel, shove, and all of the above to get the …[stuff] off the back of the boat. We even used the crane like a back hoe to push …[the sponges] around. It took 31/​2 hours. That was last night. Tonight we got it worse. Our last haul back was small with lots of money fish but our net got caught around the outside of the reel and cracked the housing. We were outside in the snow, wind, waves and cold for 5 long hours trying to fix the damn thing. Our captain …[screwed] up and made some bad decisions…It sucked, a lot! So it’s been a peachy evening.

Miller, from Michigan, met Mills and Bouchard at church in Montana, where Miller worked last summer fighting forest fires. They had no idea then that they would end up working on the same boat. Months later, Bouchard and Mills drove Bouchard’s Honda CRX to Seattle Fisherman’s Terminal looking for work aboard a boat and, to their great surprise and elation, saw Miller on the dock.  The Arctic Rose, already out to sea before Bouchard and Mills crossed the Montana border, had returned because of engine trouble. At the time, the three boys thought this was an amazing stroke of luck as it allowed Bouchard and Mills to join the crew.

So when Miller left the boat, he tried to talk his friends into leaving with him. Bouchard called his mother Joan Branger in Harlowton. She also encouraged him to quit.

No, Mom, I signed a contract and I want to do it right this time,” he told her.

Her blessing had not come easy when her son informed her he wanted to spend the winter fishing. But while making the bed one day, she said, she heard God’s voice as clear as her own.

I’m going to make a man of him,” said the voice she heard.

So she gave her blessing, and it seemed, after all, that God was making a man out of her son, the once troubled young man whose life touched bottom that day two years ago when a deputy knocked on Branger’s door. Her son had been arrested. Addicted to methamphetamines, he had broken into a veterinarian’s office to steal drugs.

But now, her son was working the high seas, befriending hard, swearing men, trying to bring them to God even as they teased the two born-​​again Christian boys, and sometimes challenged them to lose their tempers.

This was not just a fishing trip to them,” said John Bouchard, Shawn’s father. “This was their mission.”

Rundall was concerned only in finding fish, salvaging a season that had been frustrating for many boats in the fleet. The past season was average at best. Some captains blame warm weather, which kept the ice pack far to the north. Normally, every winter, a lid of ice descends the Bering as far south as the Pribilofs. Upwelling is exaggerated at the edge of the ice pack, making it a popular feeding spot for fish and sea mammals. Near the ice pack, fish tend to school, which is heaven for fishermen with giant nets.

I never saw the ice pack once all year long,” said Nelson the first mate from the Alaskan Rose. “We had no northerly weather during the winter. Coming into spring, that’s what drives fish down to us.”

The Arctic Rose is the smallest of two dozen boats in the Bering known as the head-​​and-​​gut fleet, which also includes the Alaskan Rose. The biggest boats in the fleet exceed 200 feet.

All boats in the fleet trawl for flatfish with nets that stir up mud at the sea bottom, agitating fish into swimming into nets which can be as long as 400 feet. A full net can hold 50 tons of fish at a time. Once brought up, it is dumped into a container below deck, where it is sorted. Fish the fleet is not allowed to keep, such as halibut, are immediately released; The rest are sent to the processing line.

By hand and by machine, the fish are beheaded and gutted aboard the ship (hence the name), then frozen to minus-​​24 degrees in shallow, metal pans which hold 16 kilograms of fish each. The fish are then put in paper bags and placed in a freezer held in the front of the boat. The bigger boats can hold up to 400 tons of frozen fish in their freezers, which are as big as truck containers.

Processing onboard allows the boat to catch more fish and charge more for them at the dock. Since the kind of fish they catch is not particularly valuable, maximizing volume is important.

Primary season for the fleet typically runs from mid-​​January to late April or May, depending on when the fleet reaches its quota of bycatch, the fish they’re not intending to catch. The kings of the Bering are the 300-​​foot factory trawlers that fish for pollock, most of which ends up as fish sticks, fast-​​food sandwiches, or surimi which is used to make fake crab or fish cakes.  Pollock, once deemed fit for consumption only by animals, is also a low-​​cost fish, so thousands of tons must be caught to make the multi-​​million dollar factory trawlers profitable. This is true industrial fishing.

Smaller boats fish for the glamour fish, salmon, halibut, sablefish and king crab, the most expensive seafood in the Bering. Not coincidentally, crab fishing is also the most deadly, accounting for the majority of fishing-​​related deaths.

Trawlers are considered relatively safe, the bigger the safer. Although the smallest in its fleet, the Arctic Rose was hardly the smallest boat in the Bering.

Jeff’s last letter to Jessica was written March 29, one day before the Arctic Rose docked for the final time, and less than four days before it sank.

At the time, Jessica and Jeff’s parents were convinced that his infatuation with Alaska was over. He seemed different now. He had a girlfriend. He wanted to be in college again. And moreover, fishing in Alaska wasn’t the Jack London novel he had dreamed it to be.

He was trying to find himself,” his father, David Meincke, said. “I think he had done that.”

The last time Jeff spoke to his mother, Kathy, was March 30, from one of two pay phones in the lobby of the Alaska Commercial Co. grocery store, on the island of St. Paul, a stump of rock in the middle of the ocean, as lonely a pit stop as there is for boats fishing the Bering. During fierce storms, boats anchor on the lee side of the island for shelter.

St. Paul’s mostly Aleut population of 800 is not much different than it was 100 years ago. Until 1985, the federally controlled fur seal industry drove the island. Now, most people work in the crab processing plant or fish for halibut in the summer. The Coast Guard maintains a radar tower on St. Paul with a staff of 20. For the crew of the Arctic Rose, St. Paul was the last glimpse of civilization.

The morning of March 30, at about 8:30 a.m., the Arctic Rose tied up at the dock in St. Paul Harbor to fill its fuel tanks. It was the only boat in that morning, said Anthony Kochutin, the harbormaster on duty that day.

Many of the crew made the short, uphill walk to the grocery store.

Meincke called Jessica and then his mother, Kathy. He asked his mother about his cat, Spyro, and whether she had followed through on her promise to feed his pet tarantula. He asked about his one-​​year-​​old niece and whether she had started his Jeep. He asked if his application material had arrived from Washington State University, where he wanted to study to become a veterinarian.  And then he hinted at his plan to propose to Jessica, something he had not told his parents either.

Be nice to this one, Mom, I kind of like her,” he said in a way that implied he had something on his mind.

From the same store, Meincke, tired and eager to return home, mailed what would be his last words:

Dear Jessica,

Hope everything’s okay in Olympia. Fishing isn’t that great right now. Just a bunch of …[junk] from the bottom of the ocean. It sucks not having good quality work…We will get a fat bonus for sticking around for one more trip.  For some reason I was wondering what my horoscope was today. Hopefully a good one…Right now it’s [very] cold and where we’re going is even colder…I want to take a shower and get a little sleep before we hit St. Paul [Island].  Hopefully, more than likely, I’ll get to talk to you. I miss you and always thinking of you. From the middle of nowhere. Love, Jeff.

Lost at Sea

Second of three parts: Last Moments at Sea; Skipper’s cautious ways fail to stop Bering from dominating Arctic Rose

Newsday

Monday, June 4, 2001

By Hugo Kugiya, Staff Correspondent


SEATTLE — Unable to breathe or move, locked in the clench of unrelenting waves, Davey Rundall thought he was going to die. He could not feel the bottom, and he could not see, the water around him dark because he was in an underwater cave.

As a fisherman, drowning was the biggest risk in Rundall’s life, but he did not expect it to happen in Hawaii. It was just after Halloween. He was on a family picnic, the kind the Rundalls often took when their father came home from the Bering Sea. He was body surfing near a formation of rocks, when he was sucked under the water and trapped in the cave. Just as suddenly, waves pulled him out of the cave and the ocean turned indifferent and allowed him to reach shore safely.

That, he thought, was his one near-​​death experience, and he was thankful for it because it meant he would be safe from that day forward. The sea, it turned out, did not give him a break that day. It gave him a warning.

He thought that was his one close call and he survived it,” said his mother, Lou Anne Rundall, sitting in the backyard of her home in Seattle a few weeks after burying her son. “It appears now that God gave him that little window. At least he had that nice two months with his family.”

Davey Rundall’s body was recovered from the Bering Sea April 2, the day the Arctic Rose sank, killing all 15 aboard, making it the deadliest fishing accident in the Bering since 1983. He was the boat’s skipper, and his was the only body recovered. No calls for help were received before the sinking. The Coast Guard, which is investigating the accident, will convene a hearing June 12 in Seattle. Two months after his near-​​drowning in Hawaii, Rundall, 34, flew to Seattle to begin preparing the Arctic Rose for three months of fishing. He stayed with his parents, Lou Anne and David W. Rundall, who still live in the house Davey grew up in, just across the alley from the house they lived in when Davey was born. Moving was easy; they carried drawers from the old house across the alley and dumped their contents into drawers in the new house.

The day Davey Rundall was to leave, his parents visited him at Fisherman’s Terminal where the Arctic Rose was docked for painting and routine maintenance.  Located next to locks leading to Puget Sound, and then out to the ocean, Fisherman’s Terminal is the traditional home of the Northwest fishing industry, started in large part by the Norwegian immigrants who settled the nearby neighborhood of Ballard. Fisherman’s Terminal is now the headquarters for most of the fisheries that harvest the Bering Sea.

The Rundalls had come to take their son to lunch. But unable to spare the time, Davey suggested instead that they accompany him on a final errand, to purchase a piece of equipment at Seattle Marine and Fishing Supply Co., an emergency position indicating radio beacon, or EPIRB. Months later, it would serve as the Arctic Rose’s last cry for help.

Those who knew Rundall all say he was diligent when it came to the safety of the crew. Sixteen years ago, as the youngest deckhand aboard the factory trawler Ocean Bounty, he always wore his hard hat and safety line, even when it was not necessary.

The Ocean Bounty was his first job after high school. He told his parents he was either going to fish or to join the Marines. They felt lucky when he chose fishing.

Rundall met his wife, Kari, on the Ocean Bounty. She processed fish while her mother cooked in the ship’s giant galley. Davey and Kari’s romance was the gossip of the ship.

Rundall earned his captain’s certification by the time he was 28, a relatively young age. Anyone in the business with brains and ambition wants to skipper his or her own boat someday. Skippers make the most money (up to $200,000 in a good season) and tend to have the most conventional lives.  Rundall is married with three young boys, two of them in private school. He owns a home in Hilo, Hawaii, where the family lives. That he is happily married sets him apart from most of the men he works with, many of whom spend their salaries on divorce lawyers and child support. Fishing is ideally considered a single man’s profession.

Like all good skippers, shipmates said Rundall ran safety drills every time the ship left port and whenever someone new joined the crew. He rehearsed general alarms weekly, if for no other reason than to remind his men what it sounded like.

The boat had all of its required lifesaving equipment on board and, as rescuers would find out later, it was all in working order.

The boat’s EPIRB was manufactured by ACR Electronics, a company in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., which makes most of the EPIRBs now required aboard all commercial fishing vessels. Most cost about $1,000. Rundall bought a model 2774, Category I EPIRB, about the best ACR makes. As large as a thermos, weighing 4 1/​2 pounds and sheathed in bright yellow, high-​​impact plastic, the device was mounted on a bracket outside of the boat’s wheelhouse. When it reached a depth of 13 feet, the bracket automatically ejected the beacon, which floated to the surface and began transmitting a radio signal at a frequency of 406 megahertz.

Embedded in the signal is a six-​​digit code, unique to the Arctic Rose.

On the morning of April 2, at 3:30 a.m. the last call of the Arctic Rose shot into the polar sky. Within seconds the signal was received by one of a series of weather satellites 528 miles above the earth. These satellites, fixed in a polar (north-​​south) orbit, circle the earth every 100 minutes.

The signal was relayed to the Mission Control Center in Suitland, Md., where its origin was determined and sent to the nearest Coast Guard Rescue Coordination Center, in this case in Juneau. There for the first time, a human being read the signal. About five minutes had elapsed.

Those minutes had to be filled with terror for the crew of the Arctic Rose.  Whatever happened, happened very suddenly and very quickly.

Anyone who fishes the Bering has considered death. The crew was at sea when the trawler Amber Dawn sank March 5 just north of Atka Island, near the tip of the Aleutian chain. The Amber Dawn was traveling to fishing grounds in bad weather when it began listing badly. The Coast Guard suspects a rear hatch might have been left open because the boat sank stern first. Three men were saved but two were never found. Word of death spreads quickly among fishermen.

Ken Kivlin, the cook of the Arctic Rose, was particularly spooked, his son John said, enough so that he promised his son he would not work on any more fishing boats.

Kivlin, 55, had faced danger before. A Navy medic in the Vietnam War, he saved a comrade even after being wounded by shrapnel from a mine, John Kivlin said. A single father who raised John by himself, Ken Kivlin learned to cook late in life, attending schools in Ireland and Portland, Ore., before getting a job at a fishing lodge on Kodiak Island.

He took the job aboard the Arctic Rose on a lark, John said, because he was told he could make up to $40,000 in one season if the fishing was good. John and others tried to talk him out of going, but Ken Kivlin was famously stubborn. He promised John that after the trip he would live with John in Port Orchard so he could look after John’s wife Michelle, who was having a difficult pregnancy.

He thought it would be something different,” John said. “He wanted to give it a try.”

On the night the Arctic Rose sank, Coast Guard Chief Quartermaster Paul Webb was the control duty officer in charge at Juneau’s Rescue Coordination Center. He was near the end of his 24-​​hour shift, and about a month away from retiring, when the noisy, 10-​​year-​​old, dot matrix, Citizen printer suddenly clattered to life at 3:35 a.m. on the sixth floor of Juneau’s Federal Building.

Juneau is in southeast Alaska, near the border with British Columbia, about 1,000 miles east of the Bering Sea.

The rescue center is dominated by the main watch desk, big enough for three people. Large charts and maps of Alaskan waters line the walls. Along the walls are more work stations and computers. There are two separate rooms, one a large conference room and a smaller one with a cot for napping during the long shifts. Webb slept from 6:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. with “one eye open,” a skill he learned from standing watch on ships for 20 years. Three officers, who work staggered shifts, are on duty at any given time, and at least two are awake at all times.

There is a television in the main room. When it is slow, the officers can watch CNN. The night had been particularly quiet. Not a single call. On a typical day the center might record four incidents of distress, which are usually Mayday calls on the radio, or flare sightings. EPIRB signals are infrequent.

On average, Juneau receives 3 to 4 EPIRB signals per week, 98 percent of them false alarms. EPIRBs are often activated by accident or sometimes fall into the water. Duty officers are trained to treat each alarm like the real thing, but they have come to expect that most are not. When an EPIRB signal is not a false alarm, and when it is not preceded by a call for assistance, it means something sudden and catastrophic has occurred.

We always want them to react as if there’s really a house on fire,” said Capt. Vince O’Shea, a supervisor at the Coast Guard’s headquarters in Juneau.  “But if you go 20 or 30 false alarms, you’re tempted to think ‘Hey, let’s not kill ourselves to respond to this.’ But when minutes count, we don’t want them to have that attitude.”

Webb was finishing routine paperwork when he was summoned by the printer. The first transmission gave him only registration information, the name of the boat, its length, its radio call sign (similar to a CB radio handle), the name of its owner and pertinent phone numbers. This is the stage in which most false alarms are ferreted out. The other duty officer phoned the owner of Arctic Rose, David Olney, who was asleep in Seattle. Olney confirmed that both his boats were out fishing in the Bering. Meanwhile, Webb was alerting a plane crew in Kodiak Island in the Gulf of Alaska, about 700 miles west of Juneau. The air base in Kodiak as well as the one in Sitka, near Juneau, has nine helicopters and six search planes.

At times we feel we need more [air bases ],” said O’Shea. “But as big as Alaska is, we don’t have the volume of calls.

But the distances we have to cover are mind boggling. In the mainland, we’re talking about the equivalent of covering 23 states. If where we are in eastern Alaska was in Charleston [S.C.], then the end of the Aleutian Islands would be in Los Angeles.”

Seven minutes later, the second transmission arrived in Juneau, giving Webb the beacon’s rough position in longitude and latitude. Both Webb and Olney attempted to send satellite text messages to the Arctic Rose and the Alaskan Rose; Neither was successful. The isolation and weather of the Bering Sea makes communication by satellite links unreliable. Both boats have satellite telephones as well, but they do not work well in the Bering, and past St. Paul Island, they don’t work at all.

Meanwhile, the emergency beacon continued to transmit its location, giving more precise information with each sweep of a satellite. The type of EPIRB aboard the Arctic Rose will continue to transmit until it is manually turned off or exceeds its operating life of 48 hours.

By 5:10 a.m., a C-​​130 Hercules search plane with a crew of six was in the air. The Coast Guard vessel Boutwell, a Hamilton class, high endurance cutter, was dispatched from Dutch Harbor, although it was two days south of the search area. The Coast Guard keeps at least one cutter stationed in the Bering at all times but it can be slow to arrive because of the vast distances it must cover.  The Boutwell had to travel a distance equal to that between New York City and Tennessee. The Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star was closer to the search area, so it was also sent into action.

At the time, the 399-​​foot Polar Star, with a crew of 141 plus a team of 20 scientists who would also aid in the search, was breaking ice near St. Lawrence Island, in the north Bering Sea, near the Arctic Circle, where it was serving as a research platform for a team of scientists studying polynyas, or irregular openings in the ice shelf. It normally spends winters breaking a supply channel through the ice to McMurdo Station in Antarctica. As an icebreaker, it is not usually summoned to rescue missions. It is nonetheless equipped with rescue equipment and two HH-​​65A Dolphin helicopters, the familiar rescue copter seen on television shows like “Baywatch.” At a top speed of 10 knots, the Polar Star was at least 24 hours from the search area, more than 200 miles to the south.

About two hours into its flight, the crew of the C-​​130, finally made contact with the Alaskan Rose on its radio. Using VHF channel 16, rescuers told first mate John Nelson the Arctic Rose’s emergency beacon had gone off. The Alaskan Rose, and its crew of 27, 11 miles northeast of the beacon, was not fishing at the time. It was still dark, so the boat turned on its forward, sodium-​​vapor lights, similar to streetlights, as it quickly made its way toward the boat.

All the while, Nelson, who had by now awakened skipper Norm Anderson with the news, attempted to contact the Arctic Rose on the radio. He also checked his satellite link for e-​​mail messages. Nothing.

Nelson neared the search area as dawn began to break on an overcast sky. He saw the C-​​130 overhead. It arrived within three hours of leaving Kodiak, 750 miles to the southeast, beating the Alaskan Rose by only a few minutes. A signal flare dropped from the plane lit up the horizon with surprising brightness.

About the first thing Nelson saw was Rundall floating in the water, unconscious, wearing a reddish orange survival suit. The two men knew each other well, had fished together aboard the same boats. They were both family men. Like Rundall, Nelson, 40, who lives in North Bend, Wash., is married and has three children.

Nelson knew several of the men aboard the Arctic Rose, all of them good men, he said. As he prepared to rescue Rundall, he suppressed these personal thoughts.

Nelson, a trained firefighter, put on a survival suit and descended a ladder thrown over the side of his boat. Tied to a safety line, he swam to Rundall’s lifeless body and pulled him aboard.

The past year, Rundall had found it especially difficult to be away from his family for months at a time, his parents said. They suspected this season might be his last. A few years ago he tried working for a tug boat crew in Hawaii.

But he didn’t have the patience to work his way up the ladder yet again and he didn’t care for the schedule, which also kept him away from his family, although he did see his boys more frequently. He quit and returned to fishing.  He still enjoyed the hunt, but less so now that his sons, Davyn, 14, Willy, 12, and Max, 4, were getting older.

Rundall’s neoprene dry suit was fully donned, the hood over his head, although not completely forward. Still, the hood was tight enough around his face that it restricted blood flow slightly. Nelson noticed the suit’s air bladder-​​it is designed to float as well as keep its wearer warm-​​was deflated.  At that time of the year, the water temperature in the Bering Sea is about 35 degrees Fahrenheit.

Rundall was cold, not breathing and had no pulse. Nelson opened Rundall’s suit on the deck of the boat and began resuscitation. Deckhands helped cut away the survival suit which was full of water. He moved Rundall’s body into the wheelhouse and continued CPR for more than 30 minutes before noticing that rigormortis was setting into Rundall’s arms and his lips had become cyanotic, or blue from lack of oxygen. It was about this time that Nelson gave up.

He surmised that because Rundall’s suit was flooded that he put it on after he had fallen into the sea, virtually negating any advantage the suit would normally give him to survive. A properly-​​trained fisherman is expected to be able to put one on in less than one minute.

I feel sure in my mind,” Nelson said, “that Dave did everything he could to survive. He was the person with the most experience. He was a tough, young guy, who had been on the sea a long time. He has three boys and I know that drove him to survive.

The amount of water in that suit and as cold as he was, that tells me he must have put it on in the water. That’s very hard to do but Dave was capable of that.”

The plane crew spotted an oil slick and what looked like scattered fishing gear. Someone aboard the Alaskan Rose found and scooped up the floating EPIRB, which was then replaced by a data marker buoy dropped from the plane. The search is planned according to the drift of the marker buoy.

The early hours of the search saw the plane directing the boat crew toward floating debris.

Later in the day, six more survival suits and two life vests, the kind worn by deckhands, were found. None of the survival suits displayed signs of having been worn or even touched by humans.

Five miles away, the plane spotted the Arctic Rose’s 20-​​person life raft, which was found inflated but empty. Another member of the Alaskan Rose crew climbed in, finding only a canister of survival equipment. The roof of the raft had not been raised. Also mandatory equipment aboard commercial fishing vessels, these life rafts inflate automatically in the same manner an EPIRB activates itself. Again, nothing indicated that anyone had ever reached the life raft.

Crew of the Alaskan Rose also saw that first day what they thought was a second body beneath the surface of the water, a dark shape, a shirt or a torso.  But whatever it was disappeared into the waves before the crew could get to it. To this day, no one aboard can be certain it was another body.

Everything searchers found, they found within a few hours of arriving. Planes, at a rate of three per day, continued a tag-​​team search of the area, flying grid patterns at altitudes of 500 to 1,000 feet. By the next day the oncoming storm was strong enough to seriously hamper the search. The Polar Star arrived but was unable to launch its helicopters because the ship was rolling so much. Its broad, rounded bottom and spoon-​​shaped bow makes it efficient at breaking ice but also makes it less stable in rough water. Gusts peaked at 25 knots over 10-​​foot seas and it would get worse.

Sea spray froze virtually on contact, coating the deck and rigging of the Polar Star with four inches of ice. This amount of ice is a concern even for a ship as big as the Polar Star. It was built to be on top of ice, not under four inches of it. No one was permitted on deck so all available eyes looked out the windows of the 84-​​foot-​​wide bridge, 60 feet above the water line, for perhaps a bobbing head in an ink-​​colored ocean.

After two days of searching, the weather became unsafe for the 124-​​foot Alaskan Rose. So it departed with Rundall’s body aboard. The Boutwell arrived on the third day. A slimmer, more stable ship, even it was unable to launch its helicopter until the fourth day, when the seas finally calmed a bit and the crew of the Polar Star took to removing its ice with baseball bats and ax handles.

But at this point, rescuers were not expecting to find survivors. Even in a survival suit, someone is not expected to last in Arctic waters more than 36 hours, in calm seas. Without one-​​the empty suits found floating in the water were not a good sign-​​someone would be lucky to last 30 minutes. Water conducts heat away from the body up to 25 times faster than air of the same temperature.  As hypothermia sets in, normal body functions like breathing, heartbeat and metabolism, slow down. Thinking and speech become impaired. Reflexes are slowed and muscles become stiff and unusable. Eventually, irreversible and dangerous heart rhythms develop. By then, drowning is inevitable.

After five days of searching, the mission was called off. The brewing storm hit the Polar Star with full force as it left the search area.

It was sad to have to give them up to the sea,” said Ensign Chris Burrus, a member of the Polar Star crew. “We are all fellow mariners and we all feel it.”

The icebreaker pointed headfirst into 75-​​knot winds and 50-​​foot seas. One wave hit the bridge so hard, it knocked out an inch-​​thick window. Another knocked out the windows of a crane box, about 45 feet up. Yet another tore the jack staff off the bow of the ship, which rolled as much as 50 degrees, making it easier to walk on the walls than the floor. A headline event near the mainland, it was only a routine Bering Sea storm.

This time of year, lots of major storms roll through there,” Burrus said. “It’s a conveyor belt of storms.”

The same storm had also made the Alaskan Rose’s journey difficult. The crew had to abandon plans to take Rundall’s body to St. Paul because the rough waters made it unsafe to enter St. Paul Harbor. Instead, the Alaskan Rose turned south to Dutch Harbor, 250 miles away. With the storm still relatively young and at its tail, the Alaskan Rose had little trouble reaching Dutch.

The crew arrived April 5 in Captain’s Bay, docking a few hundred feet from where the Arctic Rose had docked only weeks before. After Rundall’s body was given to a marshal, the crew of the Alaskan Rose was taken by bus to United Methodist Church of Unalaska for a short service. A ceremony was held at nearby Memorial Park, where wreaths were laid at the foot of the monument to dead seamen.

After taking two days off, the crew of the Alaskan Rose went back to sea, returning to the spot where the Arctic Rose sank. They rang a bell for each of the 15 dead men, many of whom they never knew. Then they steamed farther north to resume fishing. While in Dutch Harbor, all the men were told they could stop fishing if they wanted and go home. To a man, all refused.

Lost at Sea

Last of three parts: No Solace, No Answer In Bering; Families, crews cope with fishing as way of life, death

Newsday

Tuesday, June 5, 2001

By Hugo Kugiya, Staff Correspondent

DUTCH HARBOR, ALASKA — The stone dust of these Aleutian Islands is released every spring from beneath a steely crust of ice, and within days the mud it makes with the drench of squalls taints everything man-​​made. The pale gray mud travels on boot heels, pant cuffs and the bodies of pickup trucks and eventually gets inside buildings, on seat cushions and desk tops.

Spring is the season of gray, the color of the mud and the color of the horizon, blurred by the low clouds in permanent residence, so thick that planes arriving from Anchorage often turn around and fly back rather than land. The place is famous for its perpetual winds, whose power is exceeded only by its unpredictability. The two wind socks at the end of the airport runway have been known to point in opposite directions.

This was the mysterious, pallid landscape seen by the 15 weary but enlivened mariners of the Arctic Rose on March 23, for they were departing Dutch Harbor again for what was to be their last trip of the season, a heartening attempt to build something upon what had been a mediocre if not disappointing month of fishing. They left in search of yellowfin sole, difficult to process and not worth very much but about all that seemed to be out there.

On March 13, deckhand Jeff Meincke, 19, wrote to his girlfriend in Olympia, Wash.:

Jessica,

What’s up? We are half full again. This trip is taking a while. But we’re slowly filling up … I’m not making as much as I wanted to, but that’s the chance you take I guess. I got to do major reconstructive surgery on the net today, almost as much as when we had to replace the whole end of it. It’s pretty rough out here. The fish keeps coming in spurts so who knows when we’ll be done. Either when we’re full, the boat gear gets too [messed] up or we start running out of fuel. Don’t know which one it will be … I’d like to feel normal again, clean clothes, shower everyday, vehicles, people, different people …

Six days later, the crew had made little progress. On March 19, Meincke wrote:

Dear Jessica,

This has been the longest trip of the season. We’re almost 3/​4 full. It just keeps going and going. Our captain refuses to go back until we are full or out of fuel. This trip sucks … We basically slept for a week during this fiasco … Good news about this trip is we started night towing again … Sorry about the handwriting, a little tired … I’ve pulled two 20+ hour shifts in the last week and half…The first one was okay because we caught a load of fish. The other one sucked because our net was [damaged] and the deck crew had to stay up and fix it before the morning when we set again … Well anyways I miss you and I’ll be talking to you soon. Bye honey. Love, Jeff.

Two weeks later, on April 2, the Arctic Rose sank in the Bering Sea about 425 miles north of Dutch Harbor. All 15 of the crew died. Only the body of captain Davey Rundall was found. Because no form of communication was received from the boat before it sank, because no one survived, and because the weather was manageable at the time, Coast Guard investigators are puzzled by what is one of the deadliest accidents in the history of Bering Sea fishing. The Coast Guard will begin hearing evidence from experts and former crew June 12 in Seattle.

The cause, everyone agrees, was sudden and catastrophic. With just a little bit of time, a few minutes, the men on the Arctic Rose could have put on their survival suits and waited in the safety of its covered life raft, all of which were found floating on the water intact and unused. Help arrived within five hours.

It is a truth and torment of dying at sea, that so often there is no body, no proof of death, just wreaths and stone markers with names etched on them. At Dutch Harbor’s Memorial Park, a monument and a hilly graveyard face Illulluk Bay. It is this village’s tender gesture to men who have died in these waters.  Some markers are more than 100 years old, mottled, symbolic graves of 19th-​​century seamen from Russia, Ireland, Brooklyn and Worcester, Mass.

They still come from far away. The few restaurants and grocery stores of Dutch Harbor serve and stock a variety of authentic foods to serve the Koreans, Vietnamese, Filipinos, Norwegians, Mexicans, Danes and Japanese who work or pass through here. The Arctic Rose employed a Minnesotan, a Texan and three novices from Coatepec, Mexico, a town of 75,000 in the state of Veracruz, known for its coffee plantations.

Death, here, is kind of a companion, I guess because of the remoteness and the weather,” said Dave Stanton, a former fisherman who now works as a supply agent in Dutch Harbor.

His job is to receive and store supplies for fishing boats, everything from propellers to coffee filters. Among his clients was the Arctic Rose. He and Rundall were neighbors in Hilo, Hawaii, where Stanton and his wife Connie, who charts the weather at Dutch Harbor’s airport, own a home. Extended visits to the tropics and satellite television have helped them tolerate the past 15 winters in Dutch Harbor.

It takes a tough person to live here,” Stanton said. “It takes a different kind of person because you live about at the limit of everything.”

Recently paved, the main road here is barely two miles long and runs from the airport to the public utilities building. Several gravel roads loop off of it; others meander off into the mountains, quickly becoming undrivable. The only stoplight in the town turns red once a day when the daily jet nearly skims the road as it lands on the runway which looks impossibly short from the air.

The man-​​made portion of Dutch Harbor clings to the narrow shore, much of it steep and rocky and therefore unusable. It is terrain more suited to birds and sea lions. Flat land is scarce. Just about all of it is used.

Structures are built purely for function and when they rot or rust they are just left where they stand. Dockside cranes and massive tanks of diesel fuel are the tallest structures. Most public buildings, even the restaurants, in Dutch Harbor look vaguely like car body shops. Building exteriors are almost exclusively metal.

Bald eagles as big as Irish setters are as common a sight as pigeons are in New York City. In the treeless Aleutians, eagles roost on abandoned trucks or on the crab pots, stacked 10– to 20-​​feet high dockside and roadside all over town during the off-​​season.

As recently as 1970, the population stood at 178. By 1980, it rose to 1,322 thanks to the birth of the king crab fishery; By 1990, it rose to 3,089, the boom caused by the development of the pollock fishery.

The population at the end of the century was 4,283, much of it a transient one, tied to the fishing seasons. Slightly more than half of the residents hold a commercial fishing license. Men, as they tend to do in the rest of Alaska, outnumber women 2-​​to-​​1.

Isolated as a space station, void of green in all but two months of the year, Dutch Harbor must have been an intimidating sight for the mainlanders aboard a fishing boat for the first time.

Surely, the crew members from Coatepec had never seen anything like this. Alejandro Ortiz Espino, 20, painted houses back home, where the best-​​paid workers pick coffee for about $30 a week. In one season aboard the Arctic Rose, he stood to earn the equivalent of 25 years worth of a coffee picker’s wages.

That’s why he paid an agent called a coyote about $2,000 to smuggle him into the United States. Justino Opoll Romero, 39, packed tomatoes and sold chickens, earning about $15 a week. He also once worked as a presidential guard in Mexico City. He and his nephew Austreberto Alejandro Cortez Opoll, 31, a construction worker in Coatepec, sneaked across the border at Tijuana, meeting up with Ortiz in Seattle, where they swept the Mariners’ baseball stadium and helped paint the Arctic Rose before it left. All were offered jobs as processors, who behead, gut and pack fish into freezers below deck.

They spoke little about their work or Alaska when they phoned relatives back home, probably, they said, because they didn’t want them to worry.

He talked about being a little seasick and sometimes afraid,” said Ortiz’s father Gabriel Ortiz, diabetic and almost blind, by phone from his home in Coatepec, “but he was happy to be earning money.”

It is common for undocumented Mexicans to make their way to Alaska. Hundreds are detained by the Immigration and Naturalization Service every year.  And many more keep arriving. Anecdotally, locals say the INS only gently enforces its laws in Dutch Harbor.

While Mexicans do everything to reach Alaska, American fishermen, it seems, all want to get to Mexico when fishing season ends. They talk of cheap land and cheaper beer and buying homes by the beach where they want to retire after “the next trip.”

The Alaskan fisherman is a loner, a wanderer, but mostly he is an optimist when it comes to how much money he will make and whether or not he, or she, will die at sea.

Lightning doesn’t strike twice,” said Bunny Walthuis, 19, of Boise, Idaho, who joined the crew of the trawler Unimak the day she found out the Arctic Rose sank. Both boats are based in Dutch Harbor, fish for sole and are part of the same fleet.

Her shipmate Sean Fowler, 31, has fished 11 years on all kinds of boats for fish and crabs. He has worked every kind of fishing job in Alaska and each year considers whether or not to quit.

When the fishing is good, processors aboard the 180-​​foot Unimak can make up to $40,000 a season, the deck foreman twice that. Deckhands make up to $60,000 as well as the cooks. The captain of a successful boat can make between $150,000 and $200,000 a year, the first mate about $100,000 to $150,000.

Fishing has bought Fowler jet skis, boats, cars and ended a 10-​​year relationship. He started a new one on his way to Dutch Harbor, and it is already serious. She mails letters and photos to him in Alaska. Dating him, he supposed, is like dating an inmate. Sometimes, it enhances the romance. Fowler, who lives in Redding, Calif., made $90,000 after fishing for nine months last year, more money than his brother, he said, who wears a tie and works for Motorola.

Most people who fish are escapists,” said Paul Ison, 48, captain of the Unimak. “We don’t think about what’s going on in the real world. I’ve done this over 30 years. It’s hard to think of doing anything else. And by now, I’m probably not qualified to do anything else.

It’s one of the few jobs where you get out of it exactly what you put into it. The gratification is instant. When you see that big floating bag of fish blow out of the water like a submarine, it’s the biggest thrill. I live for that rush. It’s like a drug.”

He has paid for his addiction, he said, with two divorces, so that his six-​​figure salary mostly goes to alimony. He has a 12-​​year-​​old daughter who lives in Oregon who wishes he was home all the time.

You pay for it, if you have kids, on a personal level,” Ison said.

As long as he has fished, the sea still amazes him, the breaching whales, a sky so thick with terns and albatross feeding on the fish waste expelled by his boat that day turns to night. And then there is the elusive, perfect haul:

I hit this one spot, and I hit it perfect,” Ison recalled of a trip years ago. “I hauled up a net full of snapper, every one of them 3 feet long. These are long-​​lived fish. And fish that big are probably 100 years old. I just looked at those fish. It makes you go wow. It really makes you think.”

Fishermen are humbly comfortable about the risk of dying. Fishing, they know, is dangerous enough that they all can tell of a friend or acquaintance who died at sea. And most can recall at least one incident in which they had faced the possibility of death.

Fowler was on the deck of a trawler whose net, full of fish, swung over the side nearly capsizing the boat before the captain steered it back to level.  Fowler was on the boat’s rail about to jump off. But as he and other fishermen all say, for death or a sinking to occur, many things, not just one, have to go wrong at once.

Statistics show that fishing is in fact safe enough that although death is common one can reasonably expect to survive: According to a 1998 report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a fisherman has a 99.86 percent chance of completing a year of fishing without fatal injury. The chances of surviving a 45-​​year career of fishing is 93.89 percent.

While the Coast Guard reports that the numbers of fishing-​​related deaths in Alaskan waters has decreased, it does not necessarily mean fishing has become safer.

In 1995, fishermen died at a rate of 104 per 100,000, the highest of all professions. The rate reached an all-​​time high of 178 per 100,000 in 1996. In 1999, the most recent year for which statistics are available, the rate fell to 162.5 deaths, for a yearly average of 140 since 1992. The past 10 years are the most regulated in the history of U.S. fishing, yet it remains the most deadly job in America.

The leading cause of death on the seas is vessel sinkings, followed by wave action and diving underwater to untangle nets or lines. Between 1992 and 1996, Alaska accounted for 112 fatalities, or 29 percent of all fishing-​​related deaths in the United States, almost four times the number of deaths in Massachusetts and Texas, which tied for second.

In the past 20 years, per capita fish consumption in the United States has increased 20 percent. The United States still imports more fish than it exports, but its exports have tripled in weight and doubled in dollar value in the past 10 years, while imports have remained stable. The Bering Sea fisheries are largely responsible for that increase.

Strangely, fishing employment in the United States has actually decreased from an estimated 59,000 in 1992 to 47,000 in 1996 even as demand has clearly grown. This is due to the declining supply of fish. The boats still in business thus have to travel farther and stay out longer to catch the same amount of fish.

That is why quotas are so important. Not only do they conserve fish, but mitigate the pressure to fish under unsafe circumstances. Limits on fish caught are not effective without a limit on the number of licenses issued. Until 1995, licenses were unlimited. So many boats fished the waters that seasons became ridiculously short. Halibut season lasted two days.

Now there are a fixed number of licenses available. The only way to get one is to essentially buy someone else’s. The principle is well intended to give all fishermen ownership of a fixed share of their crops, which encourages them to conserve the resource because if fish populations rise, their shares grow.

Quotas for sole are rarely reached because the fleet is much more likely to catch and release its season-​​ending quota of halibut (called bycatch) before any single boat like the Arctic Rose catches its limit of sole. So crews regularly press themselves to catch as much sole as they can before the halibut they throw away ends their season.

Vessel safety also has only recently become regulated. Boats were not required to keep lifesaving equipment aboard until 1991.

In 1985, a 75-​​year-​​old purse seiner called the Western Sea departed Kodiak Island with a six-​​man crew to fish for salmon. Like the Arctic Rose, it sank with no warning. Back then emergency beacons were not required equipment, so no one even realized the vessel was missing until the body of one of the crew, Peter Barry, was found by fishermen. Barry happened to be the son of Robert Barry, a U.S. ambassador who was then the head of the U.S. delegation to the East-​​West conference on disarmament in Europe.

His influence helped move Congress to introduce three bills in 1986, which among other things, made lifesaving equipment mandatory aboard commercial fishing vessels. The Commercial Fishing Industry Vessel Safety Act was finally signed into law in 1988, the year the Arctic Rose was built, requiring life rafts, survival suits, beacons and firefighting equipment aboard all vessels.  It went into effect three years later.

A Coast Guard report has recently questioned the value of the 1988 act. Prompted by a spate of sinkings within a three-​​week period in early 1999, in which 11 died, the Coast Guard assembled a task force to determine whether fishing had actually become safer. In his report, called “Living to Fish Dying to Fish,” Capt. James Spitzer wrote the “level of fishing vessel safety standards is analogous to requiring parachutes for an airplane crew, but only marketing voluntary measures to encourage a mechanically sound aircraft and a competent pilot and crew.” The 1988 act, Spitzer wrote, “focuses on surviving a casualty rather than preventing one.”

The fishing industry in general vigorously resists regulation. Fishermen are cowboys, or as Capt. Ison said, “the last of the hunter gatherers.”

Frank Lloyd was born in Dutch Harbor, the youngest of four brothers who all fished. None perished on the sea, although one died as a result of a drug addiction. Lloyd, 35, would still be fishing if not for a motorcycle ride he took four years ago in eastern Oregon, along the banks of the Columbia River.  He was struck by a flatbed truck and when he regained consciousness he saw that his left arm had been amputated. He now works in Dutch Harbor with former fisherman Dave Stanton. Over the years, Lloyd had a recurring nightmare:

The boat was going down, and I was swimming inside the boat. I can’t breathe, but I can see a light above me. I wake up holding my breath. That’s usually why I wake up, because I’m gasping and it wakes me up. After I stopped fishing, the dreams stopped.”

The Arctic Rose was the first of the Bering’s head-​​and-​​gut fleet to sink. The fleet of 24 vessels, named so because processors behead and gut its catch of flatfish onboard, has a good safety record, the Coast Guard said. The fleet ranges in size from the 92-​​foot Arctic Rose to more than 200-​​foot boats. They are complex feats of engineering as they must support crews as large as 50 for weeks at a time. They carry fuel tanks which hold more than 100,000 gallons of diesel fuel, tanks of freon as big as minivans for the ship’s freezers, 1,000-horsepower generators, a hydraulic system to operate cranes and reels for nets, chlorination systems, pumps, plumbing, wiring, all of which are constantly tossed on the high seas.

The Arctic Rose was built to catch shrimp in the Gulf of Mexico, a far calmer body of water. The Coast Guard is investigating the possibility that the boat was working in an environment it was not designed for. But the Arctic Rose had been fishing the Bering for many years and had survived many severe storms, some of them on its last voyage.

Fishermen have all kinds of theories, from plausible to wild: The boat was struck by lightning, rammed by a freighter, sucked under by a submarine tangled in its net, or sunk by a sudden explosion below deck. Most likely, the Arctic Rose was not fishing at 3:30 a.m. Rundall was probably asleep, as the first mate traditionally commands the bridge at night. They were also clear of shipping routes.

One possibility is that the boat was struck by a rogue wave, which have been known to capsize even large ships in otherwise calm weather. A rogue is a one-​​in-​​a-​​million wave reaching a height of 100 to 200 feet. Rogues form during storms when the crests of several different trains of waves, each with its unique speed and path, converge at exactly the same time forming one giant wave equal to the sum of the heights of the individual waves. Since the trains are moving at different speeds, a rogue quickly disassembles itself breaking up into smaller waves again. Or it destroys itself by cresting.

A storm was on its way when the Arctic Rose sank. It was certainly cold where they were. Icing had become routine in the crew’s last days. Meincke wrote of it in two letters, written on March 24 and 25:

… We’re in the Bering Sea again … We’re going north some more … Coldest it’s been all season. We had to break ice yesterday. Fun, not really … Cold, with a bat, hitting the ice off everything on deck, getting hit by waves. It helped get rid of a little frustration, but that all came back when we stopped fishing for the day…

I don’t know what’s ahead. Sometimes I wish I did. You’ll be happy to know Jimmie [Conrad] and I are moving into a place in Tumwater when we get back.  It’s going to be cool having a place. I’ve never had my own place. My dorm room doesn’t count … You will be able to stay over whenever you want. That will be nice. I miss you honey. Love, Jeff.

Dear Jessica, we’ve stopped fishing because of the weather. I had to break ice when I woke up today … I guess we’re headed north … I’m sorry I haven’t sent any pictures but you’ll get to see them all when I get home. You have to understand this really is the middle of nowhere. Dutch wouldn’t exist without fishing. There isn’t really anything that looks like woman out here. Not that it would matter because you are the only one for me … I want to take you out and make you feel special and let you know that someone does care and that’s me. Love, Jeff. Freezing in the Bering Sea.

The Arctic Rose was built in 1988 in Biloxi, Miss., by a now-​​defunct shipbuilder named H&P Inc., which likely opened for business with little more than a crane, an arc welder and an empty lot by the beach.

The boat’s first owner, John Van Nguyen, secured a $350,000 mortgage to purchase the shrimper, then called the Sea Power. It was built of plate steel and equipped with a 675-​​horsepower engine (a new, slightly more powerful engine was put into the Arctic Rose). Within three years, Nguyen had defaulted on his mortgage, leaving at least $35,000 in liens on the boat.

A U.S. District Court in Massachusetts ordered the boat sold in 1991. Its next owner, North American Fish Co., purchased the boat for $890,000. North American Fish was owned by a Eureka, Calif., doctor, Kusum Stokes, and his wife. The boat made a living under the new name Tenacity, this time fishing off the West Coast and in the Bering. By 1998, the owners had fallen into unrecoverable debt. A federal court in Washington state ordered the boat sold again that year. It was sold to a creditor for $125,000 in September 1998. In February 1999, the creditor sold the boat to David Olney of Arctic Sole Seafoods Inc. for $440,000. And on Feb. 25, the boat was renamed the Arctic Rose.

Olney made several improvements to the boat, enough that fisherman Fowler did not even recognize it this winter in Dutch Harbor as it off-​​loaded fish next to the Unimak. Fowler turned down a chance to work on the boat when it was the Tenacity because he felt the boat was too top-​​heavy and narrow.

Olney hired a reputable naval architecture firm, Jensen Maritime Consultants, to redesign the boat. The Seattle firm, which declined to discuss the work it did on the Arctic Rose, has designed or altered hundreds of boats from ferries, tugs, trawlers to yachts.

It appeared Olney did not cut any corners, and hired qualified men in Rundall and first mate Kerry Egan, to run the boat. The boat passed stability tests and safety inspections. The ultimate show of confidence, Arctic Sole Seafoods’ attorney John Casperson said, is that both Olney and his brother Mike, one of the dead, also worked on the boat.

It speaks for itself,” Casperson said.

Already, relatives of Ken Kivlin, G.W. Kandris, Eddie Haynes, and Shawn Bouchard, have filed wrongful death lawsuits against Arctic Sole Seafoods. In order to recover damages, their lawyers would have to prove Olney operated the boat in a negligent fashion. Otherwise, under the Death on the High Seas Act, relatives of the crew are entitled to only pecuniary losses, which include funeral costs and whatever wages their loved ones would have earned had they not died. The act was designed to protect fishery owners. Without it, the industry could be sued out of business and insurance would be impossible to obtain.

Jeff Meincke’s parents have hired an attorney and plan to file a lawsuit. Even David Olney’s sister-​​in-​​law Sue Olney (Mike’s widow) has hired a lawyer.  She has not decided what to do.

Sue Olney, who also lost a son by a previous marriage in a car accident 11 years ago, said Mike fished only because his brother did. He was not in love with the sea. He would sooner be a stockbroker if he knew how.

He trusted Dave,” said Sue, who had two sons with Mike. “I worried when he fished with other skippers but when he was with Dave I felt more comfortable and so did he.”

Both David and Sue Olney were among the relatives who attended the annual ceremony to honor fishermen lost at sea. On May 6, the names of the Arctic Rose crew were added to a bronze plaque mounted on a granite slab at Fisherman’s Terminal in Seattle, the traditional headquarters of the Bering fleet. Their names are the first to be placed on the new slab. The first slab, which faces the new one, is full of names dating back to 1900. At the current pace, the new slab will fill up in about 40 years.

Within sight was the west wall of the Terminal where the Arctic Rose was moored four months earlier. Rose Workland, who lives in Seattle, remembered the night she dropped off her son Eddie Haynes, 39, a deckhand aboard the Arctic Rose. She was made uneasy by the point-​​blank sight of the rusty boat which she had never seen until that night.

You don’t have to go out on this one,” she said. “Are you sure you want to go?”

With a name like Rose, how can I go wrong, Mom?” Haynes said, repeating the response from her son.

Among those who saw the Arctic Rose at the dock that day was Jeremy Busby, a friend of crew members Jeff Meincke and Jimmie Conrad. Hoping to find work aboard the boat, Busby changed his mind after being filled with dread by a premonition.

I said, ‘Guys, I don’t have a good feeling about this boat. I think we should just chill.’ I’m angry at myself that I didn’t have enough influence to keep them from going on the boat.”

Fishermen are not easily intimidated. Eddie Haynes was a welder in the Navy, aboard a frigate that sailed the world. All his life he lived with either his mother, father in Spokane, friends or girlfriends, never keeping a permanent home. He immediately got along with strangers. He was not perfect. He had two pre-​​teen daughters he barely knew who lived with mothers he no longer talked to. But he could make anything with his hands and was an obvious asset when he showed up at the docks looking for work in January.

G.W. Kandris, 27, was hired as a deckhand but was promoted mid-​​trip to assistant engineer. He fixed car starters and alternators at the Start Mart near Tacoma. Raised by a single mother who got pregnant in high school, he did not know his father but got a tattoo on the inside of his forearm in honor of him, a cartoon ghost who wore a tie, glasses and a twirling hat. Kandris too had a son he did not know very well and had recently become a father to another boy, a 2-​​year-​​old he was trying to build a relationship with. He was one of nine fathers aboard the Arctic Rose.

During the trip, he proposed to his girlfriend Tanya Raymond from a pay phone in Dutch Harbor.

Before he took a job as a processor on the Arctic Rose, Jim Mills operated a ski lift in California, helped built a Bible camp high in Montana’s Glacier National Park and worked in a platinum mine as a pipe fitter.

His father died of leukemia when Jim was 10, an event his brother Chuck thinks broke down the family, but bonded the brothers. Jim drifted into adulthood with no particular plans, Chuck said. After a camping trip in Montana, Jim dropped too much acid and after three days had still not come out of his trance, Chuck said.

Then we prayed over him,” said Chuck, who lives in Salt Lake City. “It was instant and very powerful, and real, like something you’d watch on TV that would make your skin crawl. It was impossible for anyone to deny it was the power of Christ.”

Chuck said his brother was a new person after that day, devoted to his church and bearing witness for Jesus to others who didn’t believe.

Shawn Bouchard’s mother, Joan Branger, imagines he and Jim were picked up by Russian sailors and are unable to reach her.

If I could never see Shawn again but he was happy, it would be OK,” she said. “How stupid am I? But you wouldn’t believe what goes through your mind.”

The day the boat was reported missing, Jimmie Conrad’s girlfriend imagined he and Jeff Meincke were riding waves with snowboards they had taken on the trip.

Yolanda Opoll, the sister of Justino Opoll Romero and mother of Austreberto Cortez Opoll who were both processors aboard the Arctic Rose, said, “I’d like them to launch another search, because sometimes I think they could be on an island.”

Still, she recited the rosary for nine days over an altar of flowers and photographs.

The last letter she received from Cortez was signed “Adios Jefa.” Jefa is a way of saying “Mama.”

I had this premonition,” Opoll said by phone from Coatepec, “because he used ‘Adios.’”

Adios is a more final way of saying goodbye. It means farewell.