1 dead, 3 rescued after Seattle-based fishing boat sinks in Alaskan waters

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by KING 5 News and Associated Press

NWCN.com

Posted on April 21, 2010 at 4:22 AM

Updated Wednesday, Apr 21 at 10:25 PM

KODIAK, Alaska — One fisherman is dead and three others are in the hospital after a Seattle-based 75-foot fishing boat sank in the Gulf of Alaska Tuesday night.

The crew of the Northern Belle sent a mayday call around 5:30 p.m. that the boat was sinking about 50 miles south of Montague Island near the mouth of Prince William Sound. After spending 3 hours in the frigid waters, three men and a woman were spotted floating in the water by the U.S. Coast Guard and pulled to safety.

Capt. Robert Royer of Seattle died. He apparently hit his head and was sucked under the boat before help arrived. It's not clear if he died from the injury or hypothermia, said Dr. Phil Hess at Cordova Community Medical Center in Cordova, Alaska.

Three other crew members survived: Robert Jack remains in the hospital, Nicole Esau and Todd Knivila have been released.

"I have been fishing for 22 years, I have never experienced this in my entire life," said survivor Robert Jack, fisherman. "It's something that's impossible to relay how terrifying it was."

Jack, of Seattle, was one of the four crew members on board the Northern Belle. He spoke with KING 5 News from Anchorage Providence's emergency room, where he was taken after the crew was rescued. He recounted the events before the ship sank.

"We just finished dinner and I went up to the wheelhouse to drive while the captain went to his room," said Jack. "All of a sudden, the boat took a very large surge to the starboard side and panic started to happen. The captain ran to the engine room, asked me to steer. I couldn't recover the ballast on the boat. It was extremely listing - it got worse and worse."

Jack called the crew to the wheel room where they quickly got into their survival suits.

"At this time, less than 3 minutes had passed, the boat was almost a vertical starboard down-port up, straight up and down," said Jack.

Jack said they weren't able to launch the life rafts properly because of the position of the ship. At that point, Jack and the captain decided to jump into the water after they had their survival suits on.

"I jumped in first and I cut part of my survival suit on a piece of metal going out, and I was brought under during a surge," recalled Jack. "I brought myself back and I looked and the captain was jumping in the water too."

Jack said the strong surges of water prevented him from seeing the captain or the rest of the crew for the next hour.

"I knew there were two other crew members unaccounted for, so I pulled myself onto a bundle of wood that was part of the freight, so I could partially remove myself out of the water because I could feel I was starting to go into hypothermia," said Jack. "I took my light, turned it on, and blew my whistle as loud as I could until I got their attention."

Jack managed to pull one other crew member onto the freight. Jack told KING 5 the captain of the ship drowned after he was caught by a piece of freight and suffered head trauma.

Jack said the crew was floating in the frigid water for over 3 hours before Coast Guard helicopters spotted them. A Coast Guard plane dropped a life raft to the crew members before a helicopter from Air Station Kodiak arrived and pulled them from the water.

"They pulled two of the people they felt were more critical first in the basket," said Jack. "I was the third to be pulled up... At this time the waves were getting much worse. If it would have any later, I don't think the recover would have been possible," said Jack.

Also on board was Nicole Esau of Ketchikan, Alaska. The identity of the fourth person was not immediately known.

The three who survived suffered hypothermia but were in stable condition because they wore protective gear, Hess said.

"It's cold. They were wearing survival suits, which gave the other three the chance they had and they're doing well," he said.

Jack's daughter, Danielle, says she warned her father before he left.

"I just kinda said 'I have a really, really bad feeling. Like, I haven't had the feeling about one of your trips before,'" said Danielle.

Royer Remembered

Family and friends described Captain Royer, 55, as a quiet, no-nonsense man whose life revolved around his work.

"Every day he was down at the boat, the boats kept him busy," said fellow fisherman and friend David Sheldon. "He had a very mechanical mind, he was a very good engineer, a fix it type of a guy, knew how to fix a lot of things."

His sister Melanie Grange, who lives in California, said Royer had left for Seattle when he was 16 to become a fisherman.

"I never thought I'd lose him this way, I never thought the water would take him," she said. "We always knew that was a possibility but we thought that he was going to be OK."

Royer did have one other passion: his cocker spaniel, Baxter.

"Baxter was his life, he took that dog everywhere," said Sheldon. "Everywhere he went, that dog went with him."

Including on the boat, Sheldon said. He dropped the two off at the docks on April 10 when the Northern Belle took off for Alaska for the summer.

The next time Sheldon heard his friend's voice was from a mayday call airing on the news.

"To hear Rob's words on the radio was tough, scary," he said. "He had panic in his voice, which he never panicked... ever."

Grange said her brother was a self-made man who, after almost 40 years, had just bought his fourth boat, the Eastern Hunter.

"He definitely loved his work and he loved Seattle, Washington, Alaska," she said.

Those who knew Royer said he took good care of his vessels, and better care of his friends and crew - even at the cost of his own life.

"The last report I heard he was tucking that dog into his survival suit, and... that would be Rob," Sheldon said. "He loved that dog. He loved the dog a lot."

One survivor said, because neither the life raft nor Emergency Position Indicating Radiobeacon (EPIRB) deployed, those who survived only did so because of the captain.

"I know that Robert Royer did everything he could to make that ship safe and to save us," said Robert Jack. "There's only two ways we could have got saved, the EPIRB or a mayday call."

"Our captain made it in there and sacrificed himself, I believe, to make that mayday call for his crew."

Investigation Continues

KING 5 News has learned there were concerns about the stability of the boat before it set sail from Seattle's Harbor Island.

The Coast Guard hasn't officially said what caused the boat to list, but it was heavily loaded with building materials it was delivering to Dillingham, Alaska.

"They had loaded quite a bit of stuff to take up there for some other company and they were worried it was loaded too heavy, that they were riding pretty low in the water," said Judy Jack, Robert's ex-wife.

Records show the fishing boat is owned by Triton Inc. 

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