Authors: Kalee Thompson
Tags: #Travel, #Special Interest, #Adventure
The Untold Story Behind the Greatest Rescue in Coast Guard History
This book is dedicated to all the fishermen who never came home.
And to the families who still miss them every day.
The Alaska Ranger
“Go to the Suits!”
Alone in the Waves
Swimmer in the Water
Sick at Sea
Out of the Cold
Death at the Extremes
The Final Search
Map by Steve Walkowiak
ayday. Mayday. Mayday. This is the
The words cut through the constant buzz of static that filled the bare, windowless cubicle on Kodiak Island where David Seidl was the watchstander on duty. He pressed his thumb into a black button on his microphone.
“Station calling, this is the United States Coast Guard, Kodiak, Alaska, Communications Station, over.”
Seconds later, a response broke into the fuzz: “Yeah, United States Coast Guard, this is the
. Our position is 5, 3, 5, 3.4—53, 53.4 north, 1, 6, 9, 5, 8.4—1, 6, 9, 5, 8.4 west. We are flooding, taking on water in our rudder room. We are flooding by the stern.”
Seidl had been trained to look at the clock the moment a distress call came in. It was 10:46 Zulu. Just before 3:00
. Alaska Standard Time. He knew the checklist of critical information: Name and description of vessel, location, nature of the emergency, and POB—the number of people on board.
this is COMMSTA Kodiak.” Seidl spoke
evenly into the microphone. “Roger, good copy on position. Understand you are flooding, taking on water from the stern. Request to know number of persons on board, over.”
More static, and the gravity of the situation became clear: “Number of persons is, uh, forty-seven people on board, okay?”
T HAD BEEN LIGHT OUTSIDE TEN HOURS
before when Seidl left his apartment to drive to work. He was twenty-six years old with closely cropped brown hair and wire-rimmed glasses, and he had been a watchstander at the communications station for just over a year. Seidl worked three or four twelve-hour shifts each week, periodically switching from days to nights. It was Saturday, March 22, 2008, and his shift ran from 5:30
. to 5:30
. The next day was Easter, but Seidl didn’t have any particular plans. Sleep, then report to work again the next evening.
The Kodiak job was Seidl’s first Coast Guard assignment. He’d become interested in the Coast Guard when the service became part of the Department of Homeland Security, after 9/11. Seidl had studied intel in college and thought that the Coast Guard would be a good place to use his degree. Veteran operations specialists had told him Alaska was a sweet assignment—always busy, lots of big cases. But once he got there, he figured they must have been talking about Juneau. Those guys obviously hadn’t been in Kodiak. The area was known for world-class hunting and fishing, but those things weren’t a draw for Seidl. He took a part-time job washing cars at Avis. It killed the time.
It was 34°F and breezy as Seidl passed Kodiak’s twenty-five-bed hospital, the island’s single high school, and the Gas N Go—one of just four public fuel stations in town. He slowed his Jeep through the “Y,” Kodiak’s busiest intersection, where the island’s first traffic light was under construction. David could
see the Kodiak fishing fleet down in the harbor, mostly small catcher boats that supply the fish processing plants in town. Kodiak is the third most profitable fishing port in the country, and the industry defines the place.
So does the Coast Guard. More than a thousand active duty men and women work at Air Station Kodiak. Add civilian employees and family members and the Coast Guard community numbers close to three thousand. While most single men and women serve only two years at the remote air station (the sprawling facility is a hand-me-down from the Navy, which ran a base on the island during World War II), married personnel are more likely to call Kodiak home for three, four, even five years. The odd Coastie falls in love with the place and finds ways to lengthen the assignment. Sometimes that means passing up promotions or quitting the service altogether.
About half of the Kodiak Coasties live on base, most in single-family homes in cookie-cutter neighborhoods that look just the same as many suburban communities in the Lower 48. The white, beige, and gray houses line up on curving streets with names like Albatross and Pigeon Point. Some of the largest sit at the end of culs-de-sac, with pickup trucks or minivans parked out front. Anchoring the winding lanes are playgrounds with jungle gyms and plastic slides and the iconic Alaskan swing: a bulbous orange fishing buoy hanging from a frayed line.
Bachelors and the most junior enlisted men and women live in barracks on the far side of the runway, closer to the base’s movie theater, pizza pub, and bowling alley, Tsunami Lanes—named for the tidal wave that flattened Kodiak in 1964. The rebuilt town is far from charming, with its weathered, wooden structures and their shedding paint and faded signs, all huddled around the crowded boat harbor.
A stink grows as the road rises away from the bay. The can
neries that line the waterfront lane known as Shelikof Street process dozens of types of fish. But the staple catch is walleye pollack, a shimmery silver fish that resembles an oversized sardine. In an hour’s time, thousands of pollack can be sucked by vacuum hose from the belly of a small catcher boat, fed onto a conveyer belt and through a maze of stainless steel processing equipment, where they’re skinned, boned, and pulped into a thick, dry dough that resembles a huge batch of mashed potatoes. Sugar and preservatives are added before the mash is shaped into blocks and frozen in trays. Later, the frozen pulp will be molded into fish sticks, fast-food fish sandwiches, imitation crab, and all the other products known to the American public simply as “fish.” Few town residents ever see the inside of the fish plants. Instead, all they see is the row of corrugated metal buildings along the waterfront, the obese bald eagles that linger near the fish scraps in the canneries’ Dumpsters, and the multinational workforce that keeps the plants running—Filipinos, Mexicans, Samoans, and native Alutiiqs from the tiny, isolated villages on the far side of Kodiak Island.
Seidl pulled into the paved lot just below Communications Station Kodiak (or COMMSTA, pronounced “com stay”). The station is one of just three remaining high-frequency (HF) communication sites run by the Coast Guard that remains manned full-time. The single-story, white building is surrounded by nearly thirty communication towers—a candy-cane-striped array that allows the station to pick up high- and medium-frequency radio communications from all over the world.
At work, some of the guys joked that only Ted Stevens (“Uncle Ted” as Alaskans call the six-term senator) kept the fifty-some COMMSTA workers employed. After all, the additional Coasties sent to run the station brought money and jobs into the local economy. But it was obvious to almost everyone
that it was only a matter of time before this station, too, would be automated.
Until then, the watchstanders in Kodiak share a series of twenty-four-hour duties. Four times a day they transmit faxes from the National Weather Service to ships at sea, and every two hours they broadcast navigation warnings. COMMSTA keeps radio contact, or guard, with the Coast Guard aircraft based out of Kodiak. Every fifteen minutes, the station checks in with any helicopter in flight, and every thirty minutes it makes contact with any airborne Hercules C-130, the Coast Guard’s primary fixed-wing aircraft. Finally, each watchstander spends four hours of each twelve-hour shift in the “distress room,” a small carpeted office whose single desk is stacked with radios.
Seidl began his four-hour distress room shift at 1:30
. on Sunday, March 23. In the thirteen months he had been standing duty in Kodiak, he had never heard any true emergency call coming through the speakers. The HF radio just emitted that constant, gnawing hum of static. The ships in Alaska seemed to know what they were doing. If they had a problem, they could often fix it themselves or call a nearby ship for help with a VHF radio or satellite phone. Usually the small boats were the ones that got in trouble—bad weather or whatever. Another boat could often deliver a pump or give them a tow. The troubled vessel might let the Coast Guard know what was going on, or maybe not.
There were several radios on the bank of electronics in front of Seidl, each set to a different frequency. One was tuned to 2182, the international hail and distress channel. Another was set to 4125, the international frequency for mariners. His job was to sit in the room and listen for a break in the static. He was used to nothing happening. For a year he’d sat in there and nothing had happened.
To kill time, he had devised a workout routine. Push-ups, sit-ups, and squats. For an hour, he cycled through the exercises, growing damp in his T-shirt and shorts. He’d only been finished for a couple minutes when he head the first “Mayday” cut through the static, over 2182.
,” Seidl replied to the report of the crew’s size. “Understand forty-seven persons on board. Request vessel description, over.”
“We are a factory trawler,” the ship’s officer answered. “We’re one hundred eighty-four feet in length, black hull, white trim, okay?”
this is COMMSTA Kodiak. Roger. Understand factory trawler, one, eight, four feet in length, black hull and white trim. Stand by one, over.”
Ten seconds later, Seidl hailed the ship again, and repeated its reported latitude and longitude, a position north of Alaska’s Aleutian Island Chain, 140 miles from the nearest port, in the middle of the Bering Sea.
this is COMMSTA. Confirm position, 5, 3, 5, 3.4 north, 1, 6, 9, 5, 8.4 west. Over.”
“That’s a roger, 53, 53.4 north, 1, 6, 9, 5, 8.4 west, okay?”
this is COMMSTA. Request to know if you are able to keep up with the flooding at this time, over?” Seidl asked at 2:49
“Uh, negative,” the voice came back. “Negative…. The fire pumps cannot keep up.”
The ship was more than eight hundred miles away.
rom the window of the tiny turboprop, Julio Morales stared down on jagged, snow-sheathed summits. He’d never seen such huge mountains, never been in such a small airplane. He’d been handed a pair of Styrofoam earplugs when he boarded the flight at the Anchorage airport and was told to keep his seat belt on. And then they’d taken off, up and out over Cook Inlet, the long bay that leads from Alaska’s largest city toward the open ocean. They were headed west, over the towering volcanic peaks of the Alaskan Peninsula, and along the Aleutian Island Chain to the fishing port of Dutch Harbor. It was about as far west as you could go, farther west than Julio had ever been.
Julio was forty years old, but he looked much younger, with big, wet brown eyes and smooth, round cheeks. He had a couple
of cousins who’d worked in Dutch Harbor, one at a fish processing plant, and the other on a boat. He liked their stories of Alaska. Just the idea of the place appealed to him—so big, so empty.
As the plane descended, Julio couldn’t see anything: no city, no airport, no lights. Outside the window was just a wall of white. And then, all of a sudden, they were on the runway, a clipped stretch of asphalt laid across a narrow spit of land dividing two large bays. Julio climbed down a metal stepladder straight into the cold, late-winter afternoon. He picked up his green oversized army duffel inside the one-room airport and found the waiting van. It had been sent by his new employer, the Fishing Company of Alaska (FCA), to deliver him a mile down the road to the Grand Aleutian hotel.
If it were located anywhere else in the country, the Grand Aleutian’s direct competition would be a typical Holiday Inn. The comforters are polyester, the bathroom floors are linoleum, and the tubs are small and scuffed. Even many of the nonsmoking rooms smell like stale cigarettes. The hotel is the nicest in Dutch Harbor. But it’s also the only hotel in Dutch Harbor—with the exception of bunkhouses for processing-plant workers and government fishery employees. The three-story, 110-room, crescent-shaped hotel hugs Margaret Bay, a tiny inlet that attracts geese and ducks and the odd sea lion. In the summertime, when Dutch Harbor turns lush and green, a handful of extreme birders will book at the Grand Aleutian, where rooms start at $160 a night. There are the odd adventure travelers, planning long treks across the treeless islands, or kayaking expeditions in some of the roughest, coldest waters on the planet. There’s some historical tourism from World War II veterans who were stationed in Dutch Harbor during the Pacific campaign, and, in
recent years, visits from die-hard fans of the Discovery Channel show
which follows the crews of crab boats that work out of the port.
For the most part, though, Dutch Harbor is far off the wild-life-and-glaciers tourist circuit that draws more than a million visitors to Alaska each summer. Most of the guests at the Grand Aleutian are in town for business. They’re men who own boats, who buy fish, or fix ships. And they’re fishery workers waiting to get on a boat or waiting for a flight home—sometimes for days and days and days. The hulking hotel is run by UniSea, Inc., a Japanese-owned seafood company that operates the largest of five fish-processing plants in town. Officially, the entire populated area is part of the city of Unalaska. Many locals use that more accurate name, especially the native Aleuts who have inhabited the islands for thousands of years. To outsiders and most fishermen, the whole place is just “Dutch.”
Despite a full-time population of just 4,300 people, Dutch Harbor/Unalaska is the top fishing port in the United States in terms of volume of catch. The town has held the title for twenty years running. In 2008, the two-hundred-odd fishing boats that sail out of Dutch hauled in 612.7 million pounds of fish—more than 13 percent of the total U.S. catch, and worth $195 million dollars.
Most of the full-timers live across the bridge from the airport and the Grand Aleutian hotel. “The Bridge to the Other Side,” it’s called. Several square blocks of wooden homes line the black-sand waterfront looking out into Iliuliuk Bay. Though many of the houses are brightly painted—blue, pink, and green—many are deep in disrepair, with rotting wood and broken windows and yards strewn with old fishing gear. A modern library, medical clinic, and high school seem at odds with the dilapidated
houses that surround them. The town buildings were improved in the 1980s and 1990s, when the community was flush with fish money. Now Unalaska has an Olympic-size pool in its aquatic center and an indoor track and racquetball courts at the town recreation facility.
Julio didn’t go to the gym or the pool. But he did explore around the UniSea plant, just down the road from the hotel. It was Rosel Garcia’s idea to get outside. Julio didn’t want to miss a call from the company. They’d been told they would be called when their boat arrived, and that they should wait at the hotel until then. Julio wasn’t sure they should leave the building. But they’d been in town for a couple of days already, and they wanted to see more of the island. Julio had noticed Rosel in the airport in Anchorage, a black guy speaking Spanish on his cell phone. Julio could tell from his accent that Rosel was from Central America—Honduras, it turned out. They were booked on the same flight to Dutch Harbor, both to work for the FCA. When they got to the hotel, they found out they’d be sharing a room.
Julio was impressed by the Grand Aleutian. The lobby was striking, with a towering stone fireplace. From his room, he could see big ships sailing in and out of the bay. There were two restaurants and a bar with its own menu. The men were allowed to order anything they wanted and charge it to the company. Julio was amazed at how well they were being treated. He ordered steak and lobster. The only things that were off-limits were booze and porn. There’d been some problems in the past, they were told. If you want to drink, do it with your own money.
It was cold and snowing. Neither of them had winter boots, but Julio and Rosel left the hotel and wandered down to the wa
terfront. There were some boats tied up, including the
. They walked by a handful of storefronts. There was a barber shop, a liquor store, a tanning salon, and a bar—the UniSea. They continued a long way along a road that traced the bay. More than once, Julio fell; it was hard to balance on the crusted ice built up along the road’s shoulder. But it felt good just to breathe in the cold, crisp air. It was a nice change from the overbearing heat in southern California.
Julio had been working hard for years but couldn’t seem to save much money. He didn’t own a home. He had no wife, no kids, no obligations. He was ready for a big change—an adventure. For three years, his cousin Marco had been flying up to Dutch Harbor for months at a time, coming home flush with cash. He’d said he might be able to get Julio a job, and maybe their cousin Byron, too.
Byron and Julio grew up together in Guatemala. Julio was three years old when his mother left for the United States. She got a job in a restaurant in Queens, New York. He was raised mostly by his grandmother. She was often caring for ten kids and struggling to make enough food to keep them all fed. Julio slept in the same bed with his younger cousin Byron, and the two boys grew to be like brothers. Byron looked up to Julio. When Julio became an altar boy, Byron wanted to be one as well. Byron was confirmed in the Catholic church shortly after Julio. When Julio was sixteen, he left home. Alone, he traveled the more than two thousand miles to the United States border. He took buses and sneaked onto trains. When he reached Tijuana, he called his mother, who had moved from New York to Los Angeles. She would pay for a coyote to bring Julio across.
He was the youngest in a group of sixteen. They crossed the mountains at night, hiking for hours by moonlight. There was
one guy who was just a couple years older and had been back and forth before. Julio asked him about California: What was the food like? Had he been to Disneyland? He’d been there, he told Julio. It was great, even better than you could imagine. There was a van waiting for them on the other side. When they climbed out the next day, they were near downtown Los Angeles.
Julio enrolled in high school in Long Beach, but there was a lot of gang activity at the school and a lot of killings. He dropped out. He worked in the kitchen at a hospital, and then at a Ralph’s supermarket. In 1995 he got a job at a mom-and-pop marine supply company that serviced boats at Marina del Rey, an upscale boat harbor just a couple miles north of Los Angeles International Airport. He had originally been hired for a construction job: The store was moving spaces and they needed some demolition work done. Julio’s work ethic impressed the store’s owners. They’d once hired their marine electricians straight out of the local high school, but that school had eliminated most of its shop classes. Julio became an apprentice. He learned marine plumbing and electrical work. There were a lot of wealthy people around, couples with fifty- or sixty-foot yachts who wanted custom work done. Julio worked on Florence Henderson’s boat. He worked on John Travolta’s boat. More and more of the shop’s clients were Mexicans, and it was helpful for the owner to have a Spanish-speaking employee. After a few years, a lot of people came into the store and asked for Julio. For eleven years he’d lived and worked in Venice Beach. Byron was nearby. He had come north in 1987, three years after Julio. He was married, with two little girls. The cousins spent holidays together. Byron had learned to cook from their grandmother. He’d put on an apron and impress the family with his ceviche and carne asada. Sometimes, he and Julio talked about Alaska.
Julio had been thinking about it for a while. He’d done some
online research and filled out a few applications for fishing jobs. Then, in the fall of 2007, his cousin Marco called. The Fishing Company of Alaska was hiring; Julio should contact their offices in Seattle, he said. The person who answered the phone at FCA wasn’t interested in Julio’s marine electrical experience. They’d be hiring new factory workers soon, though. Julio could come in for an interview and orientation. Then they would call him when they needed him.
Julio and Byron traveled to Seattle for the interview, then moved in with an uncle south of the city. Julio was following Marco, and Byron was following Julio. That was the way the family saw it, anyway. At Christmastime, with still no word from the company, Byron flew back to California. Julio stayed in Washington, waiting for the call. It came at the end of February. He was given a confirmation number for a flight the next day from Seattle to Anchorage and on to Dutch Harbor.
IN THE MORNING
when the phone rang in Julio’s room at the Grand Aleutian. They should pack their bags and come downstairs, the woman from the FCA said. Their ride would be there soon. Julio was the first one to the lobby. Soon he was piling into a van with half a dozen other new workers. It was just a ten-minute drive—across the Bridge to the Other Side, and right on Captains Bay Road. Then, the van stopped. The boat was tied up on the pier. It was much bigger than Julio had imagined. This is going to be fun, he thought, as he lugged his duffel out of the van and walked down the dock toward the waiting ship.
At 184 feet, the
was almost twice as big as many of the vessels featured on
. The hull was black, the wheelhouse a white, rectangular compartment perched
on the front third of the ship and surrounded by a narrow upper deck with white metal rails. Julio saw his cousin Marco. They hugged, and Marco carried Julio’s bag as they climbed the metal gangway onto the ship’s deck and then down a flight of steep stairs and through the galley to the room they would share with six other men. There were four bunk beds, most of them strewn with crumpled sleeping bags, pillows, and clothing. Julio threw his bag on an empty mattress.
wasn’t the largest boat in the FCA’s fleet. The company had the 200-foot
and the 230-foot
They owned seven boats in all. Two of the ships were long-liners, vessels that release massive fishing lines strewn with thousands of hooks into the ocean. The lines are left to soak and are pulled up hours later, the fish gaffed off one at a time as the lines are reeled back in. The other five FCA ships, including the
were bottom trawlers that target groundfish schooling near the ocean floor. The trawlers roll a huge, weighted net off the stern of the boat. The net is funnel-shaped, with a narrow rear pouch known as the “cod-end.” The mouth of the net is held open by two refrigerator-size metal doors that are pushed apart by the force of the water as the net is dragged behind the ship, often for a dozen miles at a time.
Rollers on the underside of the net help prevent it from becoming caught up on rocks, coral, and other snags on the ocean floor. In a several-hour-long drag, 150 tons of fish can be scooped up in the net, which is hauled back on board with massive winches. The full cod-end looks like a giant sausage dragged up on the stern. The net is zipped open and the fish spill out on deck. They are shoveled through a hatch into an eighty-ton holding tank. Then they’re sorted. Prohibited species like crab, salmon, and halibut, and bycatch like jellyfish, starfish,
and other invertebrates, are thrown overboard. The “keepable” catch is headed, gutted, and stacked in gigantic freezers in the bow of the boat.
Marco brought Julio down to the factory, one deck below their bunk room. Julio glanced over the stainless steel tables and the silent saws. Marco showed him the enormous freezers. It seemed like they took up half the ship. The
was a head-and-gut boat, the factory an assembly line for turning a freshly caught fish into a store-ready slab of flesh. A boat like the
could decapitate and disembowel tens of thousands of pounds of fish each trip.
The vessel was one of about sixty such ships sailing out of Dutch Harbor. Most of these so-called H&G boats range from 100 to 225 feet, smaller than the Bering Sea’s massive factory processors (the largest of which is more than 400 feet long and has a 100-person crew) but much bigger than most of the family-run boats that dominate TV images of Alaskan fishing life. Many of the smaller catcher boats that dock at Dutch and at the smaller Alaskan fishing ports of Kodiak, Seward, Sitka, Homer, Cordova, and Ketchikan, are just 30 or 40 feet long, with crews of two or four people. They’ll fish for a day or two and then return either to port or to a floating processor to unload their catch while it’s still fresh. The H&G boats, on the other hand, can hold enough fish to travel far from shore for weeks at a time. Most have multiple freezer holds built right into the hull of the ship. The
had four freezers. On an exceptionally good trip, it might take just a few days to fill them. More commonly, the ship might be out for two, three, even six weeks at a time.