Coast Guard hearing to begin April 14 in Alaska, wind up in Seattle

Posted: Friday, April 06, 2001

SEATTLE (AP) -- The Coast Guard panel looking into the sinking of the fishing vessel Arctic Rose and the deaths of its 15 crew members will begin hearings April 24 in Anchorage and then wrap up the proceedings in Seattle, probably in early May, officials said Friday.

The accident Monday ''was the worst fishing-vessel accident in recent history,'' Capt. James Spitzer, head of the service's Marine Safety Office in Portland, Ore., told a waterfront news conference here.

Commercial fishing is one of the most hazardous occupations, Spitzer said, with 160 deaths per 100,000 people in 1995.

''Even firefighters and police officers don't come close to commercial fishing,'' he said, noting the casualty rate for fishermen in the mid-90s was 16 times that of the protective service industry.

Three-member marine boards of investigation are empaneled only for the most severe casualties, Spitzer said.

A National Transportation Safety Board investigator, Robert Ford, will participate along with Coast Guard Cmdr. John Bingaman of Juneau, Capt. Ronald Morris of New Orleans and Lt. James Roberts of Anchorage,

The Arctic Rose went down suddenly at 3:30 a.m. Monday in the Bering Sea about 775 miles southwest of Anchorage. Only one body was recovered. The first and only sign of trouble was a signal from the vessel's automatic emergency locator beacon.

The Coast Guard suspended its search for the missing crewmen after three days.

The goal of the inquiry is knowledge that could help prevent such accidents in future, Spitzer said: ''That's the bottom line.''

The 92-foot vessel went down in 400 feet of water, Spitzer said. ''The chances of recovery are slim to none.''

The Coast Guard panel will interview the boat's owner, previous owners, those who have worked on the boat previously, naval architects and others.

''The board will be looking at all the angles,'' Spitzer said. ''I would expect this investigation to take some time.''

Witnesses will be subpoenaed, sworn in and interviewed in a formal, courtroom-like venue, Spitzer said. Parties of interest -- insurance companies, representatives of the lost crewmen and others -- will be allowed to question them as well.

''There might be litigation down the road,'' he noted.

Spitzer oversaw a task-force investigation into the industry in 1999 -- after 11 fishermen died in four sinkings in the Northeast -- and determined that fishing vessels face the ''highest-risk environment'' with the lowest regulatory standards on the water.

Many of the task-force recommendations were never implemented, he said.

Efforts to improve safety are complicated in the industry by the fishermen themselves -- ''fiercely independent individuals ... who don't look kindly on attempts to regulate them.'' Plus finances can hinder safety efforts by small operators, he said.

The Seattle-based Fishing Vessel Owners Association has been a leader in promoting safety for the industry and other mariners, Spitzer said.

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