Investigators near site of Arctic Rose

Posted: Wednesday, July 18, 2001

ABOARD THE OCEAN EXPLORER (AP) -- Approaching the scene of the nation's worst commercial fishing disaster in 50 years, three Coast Guard investigators planned to each drop a wreath into the Bering Sea where 15 fishers perished when the Arctic Rose sank April 2.

The ceremony will likely take place Wednesday, after the wreck is located with sonar but before the descent of a robot camera, said Capt. Ronald Morris of the Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation.

The investigators left Unalaska Sunday night on a chartered commercial fishing vessel and headed north into the Bering Sea. They expected to arrive at the Arctic Rose's approximate resting place around 10 p.m. Tuesday. The spot is 200 miles northwest of St. Paul Island.

''This is going to help us tremendously,'' said Morris. He said he was amazed to be at sea only days after a board hearing concluded in Anchorage. ''It floors me this is coming together the way it is.''

The Coast Guard approved spending $200,000 for the search. The 155-foot Ocean Explorer was already rigged for underwater surveys because it had just finished a 30-day research project on the effects of trawling on the Bering Sea floor.

The same sonar crew remains on board, saving time and money, said Morris, who extended the vessel's $6,300 daily contract with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration that included everything by fuel.

''It was a turnkey operation,'' and the only additional equipment needed was the remote controlled submarine that will film the wreckage, assuming it can be found.

''The ROV (remote operated vessel) is a new twist, but it's pretty simple,'' Morris said.

The Ocean Explorer, a pollock and cod trawler owned by Trident Seafoods, is carrying 19 people, including three members of the investigative board, to the scene of the worst disaster involving a U.S. fishing vessel since the Goodrun sank off the coast of New England in 1951. That disaster also killed 15 fishermen.

''We're doing a very good thing here,'' said Steve Toomey as he tested the unmanned submarine Sunday night in Unalaska, lowering it into Dutch Harbor and activating the propellers and video camera spotlight.

Toomey, a Bering Sea commercial fisherman, is also a member of the remote vessel crew with the shipwreck hunting company Maritime Consultants of Puyallup, Wash.

''It might give some answers as to what happened, give a little closure to the families,'' said Toomey. ''Maybe we can do something to prevent it from happening again.''

The 92-foot Arctic Rose should be easily located on a featureless plain 450 feet deep, said sonar technician Richard Dentzman of Charleston, S.C. He's representing Triton Elics International, developer of the sonar software he's operating with three technicians from the Naval Underseas Warfare Center in Keyport, Wash.

The first sonar sweep will search a two-mile-long, 1000-foot-wide area between the spot where an emergency locater signal was first detected and the area where an oil slick was spotted, Dentzman said. The site is about 775 miles southwest of Anchorage.

''It was only five hours after the (locater) was detected that the oil sheen was spotted. I think we have pretty solid positions,'' Dentzman said. ''The bottom is pretty unremarkable, pretty desolate, so anything of that size should be standing out pretty prominent out there.'' The sea is about 450 feet deep in that area.

If the Arctic Rose is not quickly located, technicians are prepared to work 12-hour shifts looking for it with a sidescan sonar device towed 60 feet above the sea floor, Dentzman said.

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