Marine Board Hears Alaska Ranger Testimony in Anchorage

ANCHORAGE, Alaska – The Marine Board of Investigation into the sinking of Alaska Ranger reconvened April 5 in Anchorage at the Hilton Hotel downtown.

The board interviewed six witnesses from the Coast Guard beginning with Lt. Brian McLaughlin, one of the MH-60 Jayhawk pilots.

McLaughlin said his aircraft launched from St. Paul Island. The Coast Guard forward deploys a helicopter to St. Paul from Kodiak in the spring during the busy fishing season to cut down the response time to at-sea emergencies. McLaughlin was in the left seat – meaning he was not flying. He was responsible for the navigation and radio communications.

In preparation for putting the rescue swimmer in the water they called the Alaska Ranger to see if there were any nets or gear in the water that the swimmer could become entangled in. There was no response.

McLaughlin said the Alaska Warrior assisted them with communications. The helicopter was operating so low in the sky they could not speak to the Coast Guard in Kodiak by radio.

“As we got closer we began seeing more and more strobe lights,” said McLaughlin. “As the number of strobe lights increased we flew to the first one.”

“The men were very alert, they were waving at us and you could almost see smiles on their faces,” he said.

An Alaska Ranger crewman contacted the helicopter from a raft with a handheld radio and said they had 10 -12 crew in the raft. The helicopter crew told them they intended to take the people in the water first due to exposure and that the helicopter would return for them.

McLaughlin saw approximately 20 strobe lights in the water over a one nautical mile area. They dropped a portable pump to free up room in the helicopter for survivors.

Weather on scene was dark, 20 – 25 foot seas, -11 degrees and they were fighting snow squalls. Depending on the severity of the squall their visibility ranged from nothing to one mile.

The helicopter crew rescued two survivors from the water using a sling. Then they moved to another group of six and let the swimmer detach from the hoist cable and swim freely. They used a basket to hoist the crew one by one. At that point there were eight on board.

The crew moved to two more groups. The crew counted heads and thought they had 13 on board.  Due to the small space it was difficult to get an accurate count; unfortunately there were only 12.

Initially they tried to lower the survivors to the Alaska Warrior. The Alaska Warrior was much closer than the Munro. If they could lower all the crew to the deck of the Alaska Warrior it would cut down the time it would take to return to scene and continue rescuing survivors.

The pilots made three approaches to the Alaska Warrior, two to the fish deck and one to the bow. McLaughlin said the ship was pitching and rolling violently. The rigging and masts on the ship were in the way. The crew was concerned about the basket becoming entangled with the Alaska Warrior, injuring someone or even striking the Alaska Warrior with the helicopter. They determined lowering crew to the Alaska Warrior would not be safe and headed to the Munro.

They successfully lowered all the survivors to the deck of the Munro and then began the process of in-flight refueling. They did not take on as much fuel as they wanted because they had to clear the flight path for the HH-65 Dolphin helicopter that was in bound to the Munro with five survivors onboard and only 16 – 18 minutes until they ran out of fuel.

When the MH-60 returned it recovered three survivors and the HH-65 swimmer, who had remained to assist the survivors while the HH-65 returned to the Munro to offload survivors and re-fuel.

They saw another man in the water. He was on his back but making no gestures. When recovered he was nonresponsive. The man’s suit was full of water. The weight of the water in the man’s suit made it very difficult to get the man in the basket and it took the swimmer, the flight mechanic and the help of a survivor to get the man out of the basket and mostly into the helicopter. The rescue swimmer had to cut slits in the legs of the suit and drain the water before they could bring him all the way into the helicopter.

They took those survivors to the Munro. They had both swimmers onboard.  They dropped their swimmer so the HH-65 could use him as it was heading back to the scene.

The second witness was Lt. Timothy Schmitz. He was the aircraft commander on the HH-65 Dolphin helicopter attached to the cutter Munro. Schmitz has 16 1/2 years as a pilot, 10 spent in the Army.

Schmitz said that when they were initially briefed they were out of range for the Dolphin helicopter.  As the Munro made best speed to the location, the helicopter crew monitored the situation to determine when to launch.

“Once we heard uncontrolled flooding it changed the dynamic of the case,” said Schmitz. The Munro was still farther from the scene than Schmitz was comfortable with. The ship was also pitching and rolling and the winds were high – out of recommended limits for launching the helicopter from the cutter.

Schmitz said that with the uncontrolled flooding and multiple people in the water they decided they needed to launch. “When the possibility to save life is there, abuse of the aircraft is acceptable,” said Schmitz.

When the helicopter arrived on scene Schmitz said there were more people in the water than could fit in the helicopter. He chose to start with the people farthest from the helicopter and the Alaska Warrior. They rescued several survivors. Then Schmitz saw a group of four survivors hooked together waving. They were in good condition so they moved to two isolated crewmen nearby.

One crewman was waving and the other was not. The helicopter crew put the swimmer down with the basket. With much difficulty the swimmer put the first survivor in the basket and the flight mechanic began to hoist the basket.

The flight mechanic has communication with the pilots the whole time. Schmitz heard the flight mechanic say that during the hoist the survivor was hanging out of the basket. The basket reached the helicopter and Schmitz heard the flight mechanic say, “the survivor is gone.”

Schmitz could see the crewman face down in the water about 20 yards away. He used the helicopter’s searchlight to try to get the swimmer’s attention and panned the light toward the man face down in the water. Schmitz said that with the swell of the sea he didn’t think the swimmer could see the man in the water.

The swimmer had already put the next survivor in the basket; that survivor was hoisted and the aircraft returned to the four crewmen sighted earlier. They took the first man of that group and left the swimmer with the helicopter crew’s raft for the other three. They were fuel-critical and had to return to the Munro. It is not typical for the helicopter to leave the crew’s raft. “It made common sense to me,” said Schmitz.

After returning to the ship, landing, offloading the survivors and briefing Capt. Craig Lloyd, commanding officer of the Munro, that they had lost a survivor from the basket they launched again and headed back to the scene.

The board next interviewed Petty Officer 2nd Class Alfred Musgrave, flight mechanic on the HH-65 Dolphin. He has been an aviation maintenance technician for six years and is flight mechanic qualified.

Musgrave said as a flight mechanic he is responsible for hoisting the rescue swimmer and any survivors to and from the helicopter. During the hoists he gives constant direction to the pilots about where he needs the helicopter to be to get the survivors and the rescue swimmer safely to and from the aircraft.

Musgrave said the first three survivor hoists went fairly smoothly. The next two survivors were located in the water among debris, buoys and lines.

“One was obviously in a lot better condition than the other,” said Musgrave.

He also said it was a very difficult hoist. He stated that the swimmer had a very hard time getting the survivor into the basket. During the struggle Musgrave said that he lost visual contact with them several times.

He said the man would be in the basket and then change position or it would appear that a wave would wash over them and wash him out of the basket. Musgrave saw him in what appeared to be a good position and began the hoist. As the man and the basket came out of the water he said the man was sitting on the edge of the basket with his legs hanging out and his torso though the triangle formed by the bars that meet above the basket to form the bail that meets the cable. Musgrave said he appeared stable so he continued the hoist. It had taken between 10 and 15 minutes to get him this far and Musgrave knew they were burning fuel.

As the basket continued its ascent to the helicopter the man’s position changed. When the basket was level with the helicopter the man was facing Musgrave. Musgrave reached out and grabbed the legs of the man’s survival suit. He said they were full of water. He could not feel the man’s legs through the suit and they were so heavy with the water inside he couldn’t pull the basket or the man inside.

He turned into the helicopter to get a knife to cut the suit and drain the water. As he did so he saw the man slip further so that only his elbows held him. Musgrave grabbed a hold of him for three or four seconds before losing his grip, and the survivor fell about 45 feet to the water.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Abram Heller was the fourth interviewee. He was the rescue swimmer on the HH-65 Dolphin helicopter. Heller said he has been a swimmer for more than two years.

The first three hoists went fairly smoothly, Heller said. Then they moved to the two crewmen in the debris. When he reached the two men one was responsive and one was not moving or speaking. Heller said the responsive survivor told him to take the other man first. He agreed.

The previously unresponsive survivor would not let go of the other man. “You gotta let go, you gotta let go,” said the man. Heller got him free from some lines and debris and he swam out to a clear area with the man.

Heller said the man was very difficult to get into the basket. The survivor struggled and changed positions several times. The swimmer said he struggled with the man for about 10 minutes. He was not in the optimal position for hoisting when the flight mechanic began the hoist. Heller said he saw the man change position about halfway up to the helicopter, but he remained in the basket.

Heller returned to the other survivor. He said he did not see the man fall from the basket. The crew hoisted the survivor and the swimmer and flew to a group of four more survivors.  Here Heller was lowered to the water and rescued another survivor. The helicopter dropped a raft to Heller and he began working to get the other three survivors
in the raft as the HH-65 left for the Munro.

Approximately one hour later the MH-60 returned.  Heller got each of them into the basket. He said the third was a little difficult. The survivor struggled a bit. The MH-60 crew recovered Heller, picked up one additional survivor, searched a while longer, and then returned to the Munro.

The board asked Heller for some of the signs of hypothermia. Heller said he saw a lot of the survivors act irrational or disoriented.

Following the aircrew interviews the board spoke to Lt. Cmdr. Michael Delury of Coast Guard Sector Anchorage. He is a qualified marine inspector and Chief of Inspections. The questioning surrounded the implementation of the Alternative Safety Compliance Agreement (ACSA) agreement.

Delury testified that Coast Guard Districts 13 and 17, Sector Seattle, and Sector Anchorage developed the program. It was implemented in 2006.

ACSA relates to applying existing vessel safety standards to a class of fish processing vessels. This is a partnership between the U.S. Coast Guard and the fishing industry. Currently, the program involves one regional and fishery specific program developed and implemented in the North Pacific.

Numerous “Head and Gut” (H&G) vessels examined during 2003 and 2004 revealed that the causal factors, which contributed to the Arctic Rose and Galaxy vessel losses, were also present throughout that fleet. Major problems with stability, watertight integrity, maintenance, fire loading with inadequate response capabilities, and lack of emergency training were identified. The majority of the H&G fleet, which had been historically regulated as fishing vessels, was actually engaged in fish processing activities.

ASCA was developed to exempt these vessels from classification and load line requirements and implement standards providing an equivalent level of safety. This allows the vessels to continue to produce fishery products historically important to the fleet.

Numerous hazardous conditions have been identified and corrected through this program, which ultimately would have led to more catastrophic failures and possible loss of vessel or life.

Delury said each vessel was handled separately and met various milestones at different times. Sixty-three vessels were identified for inclusion in the program. A compliance date of Jan. 1, 2008, was set for these vessels to be in full compliance with the program’s requirements.

Delury testified about the contents of the checklist, specific letters and communications between the involved Coast Guard parties and the vessels enrolled in ACSA, and various deadlines that had been set for the program.

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