Survivors of sunken trawler tell of scrambling into frigid seas

Posted: Thursday, March 08, 2001

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) -- Three survivors of a trawler sinking in the Bering Sea returned here to talk with Coast Guard investigators and reporters about how the Amber Dawn went down in a hurricane-force storm.

Two others on the 110-foot vessel are presumed dead. The Coast Guard suspended its search for the missing men Wednesday off Atka Island in the mid-Aleutians. Both are from Washington state.

Apprentice deckhand Ralph Clarmount of Grayling, deckhand Chester Panasewicz of Anchorage and engineer Gary McCormick of Kodiak were pulled from the 39-degree waters within minutes by the crew of the Katie Ann. The processor had been working with the trawler in pursuit of Pacific cod.

The Coast Guard has launched an investigation into what caused Monday's sinking, but doesn't yet have any answers.

Lt. James Robertson of the Marine Safety Office in Anchorage said he plans to interview survivors, owner and builder Burton Parker, engineers and the crew from the Katie Ann.

''It may end up that we never really absolutely know,'' added Cmdr. Mark Hamilton of the Marine Safety Office.

The three survivors battled tears at a news conference Wednesday as they related their last moments aboard the stricken trawler.

Clarmount said he scrambled atop the wheelhouse to help his boss release the vessel's life raft.

The wind ripped at them; 35-foot seas washed the deck. Struggling to maintain footing on the rocking, tilting surface, Clarmount and deck boss Roman Telak could not free the raft. So Telak ordered Clarmount down to the starboard rail.

Within seconds, the Amber Dawn began its final roll to port. As Clarmount and Panasewicz leapt into breaking seas in survival suits, Clarmount caught a glimpse of his supervisor -- he had not given up.

''Roman was still up there trying to untie it,'' Clarmount said Wednesday. ''I can hear him holler at me -- 'Jump! Jump! Jump!' -- at the end.''

Telak and Capt. Doug Rowe have been missing since the trawler went down in 5,600 feet of water.

The Amber Dawn and the 267-foot processor had been heading north to cod fishing grounds from Nazan Bay at Atka, some 1,100 miles southwest of Anchorage, when the boat began to exhibit a strange list just before midnight on Sunday, the survivors said.

The five-member crew roused and gathered in the wheelhouse, and McCormick tried to figure out what was wrong.

No water had entered the engine room or other open compartments. Ballast alarms went on and off. Several times, he said, he thought they had fixed the problem. But about 1:30 a.m, he said, ''she just let go.''

''As soon as the captain said she was going to go, everybody started putting their (survival suits) on,'' Clarmount said. ''After that, it got a little hectic.''

The Katie Ann was steaming toward them through mountainous seas. Clarmount said they would rise to the top of 30- to 40-foot swells, glimpse the boat a few hundred yards off, then lose sight as they dropped back into the trough.

In his final seconds aboard, McCormick bolted up the stairs from the engine room to the wheelhouse. He grabbed his survival suit, but was washed overboard into the frigid water before he could put it on.

''I swam around for about 10 minutes,'' he said. ''A mattress came out, and I clung to that. I was pretty extremely hypothermic when they pulled me out. ... It was important they got us on the first pass.''

None of the survivors saw their missing crew mates in the water. The Katie Ann searched all night. A Coast Guard airplane was overhead by dawn.

''It was pretty hectic right there at the end,'' McCormick said. ''Can't be exactly sure where they were. I know they both had survival suits on.''

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