Burden of Proof

For guys who party too hard on land, Alaskan fishing boats can provide a useful refuge. But not always.

It was around 3 a.m. last Easter morning when Joey Galbreath stood on the lip of the fishing vessel Alaska Ranger, looking down at the Bering Sea. He knew he had to jump. He just wasn't quite ready to leap into what seemed a certain death.The Ranger had unloaded its catch of yellowfin sole in Dutch Harbor the day before, and started steaming west along the Aleutian Islands to fish for mackerel off the far tip of the island chain, just beyond the international date line. Now, most of the 47-member crew was enjoying some much-needed rest. At sea they'd worked long days gutting and processing the catch in the bowels of the boat, and the time spent heading in and out of port was a chance to catch up on sleep.Just after 2 a.m. alarms blared, but didn't get much reaction. Alarm tests are regular occurrences on these boats, known as factory trawlers. But when more blasts followed, a bleary-eyed crew made its way to the galley to find the phones ringing off the hook as supervisors tried to find out what was going on.Galbreath was in sweats, a T-shirt, and bare feet. Someone, he wasn't sure who, announced they were taking on water in the rudder room, fast. Within an hour the order came: Abandon ship.A mayday call went out to the Coast Guard: "Mayday, mayday...this is the Alaska Ranger...We are flooding, taking on water in our rudder room...Number of persons is 47 people on board."Galbreath and his shipmates ran for the deck, where a crew member was handing out the red neoprene full-body survival outfits known as Gumby suits—Coast Guard–mandated gear designed to keep a body reasonably warm in frigid Arctic water for up to six hours.Coast Guard rules also require enough life rafts to accommodate everyone on board—the Ranger had three. But when the order to abandon ship came and the first raft was launched, it shot out too fast. The lines connecting the rafts to the boat are designed to break, so a sinking vessel doesn't drag the raft under. But as 20-foot swells pitched the Ranger, the line broke too early, before crew members had time to get in, and the raft drifted away.The second and third boats were released with more give, and a few men managed to shimmy to them along the still-connected ropes. A couple more men went down ladders over the side of the Ranger and started swimming for the rafts. But the people still aboard were running out of time as the ship continued flooding.Then the boat listed sharply to starboard. It was about to go down. The crew still on deck could only throw themselves on the mercy of the ocean and hope the Coast Guard arrived soon.That is how Galbreath found himself standing on the edge of the ship, staring into the inky blackness. He could barely move. In the rush to get everyone into Gumby suits, he had been tossed a jumbo, despite being just 5 feet 7 inches tall. Now the legs were bunching up, making it difficult to walk. His hands fell well short of the gloves.He doesn't know why, but "Perfect Strangers" by Deep Purple was running through his mind:A thousand oceans I have flown,And cold spirits of ice."Along with 'Oh shit, I'm going to be dead,'" he says.Then he jumped.Galbreath, 37, hadn't planned to make a life at sea. After struggling for years with drugs and alcohol, he ended up on the boats the same way many before him did, looking for some direction—a little metaphorical solid ground.In the 1980s, the business of converting fish into transport-ready seafood began to shift away from onshore plants and out to the fishing boats themselves. The industry was taken over by giant ships known as factory trawlers, equipped with onboard processing equipment. The ships, including the Ranger, can be nearly as long as a football field, and most are based in Seattle. They drag nets through ocean waters scooping up a huge catch, which is then gutted, packed, and frozen by the crew.Unlike the union anglers and career fishers who typically work on smaller vessels, trawler crews generally don't need much in the way of fishing or sailing skills. It can be an ideal job for people like Galbreath, who come to Seattle for work, fly to Alaska on the company's dime if they get hired, and move into the belly of the ships, where the vices that made living on land and holding down a job a struggle are kept at bay by the long hours and strictly regimented days.Except when things go bad, of course. Five people were killed when the Ranger went down, including the captain, the chief engineer, the fish master, the mate, and one crew member.Even though Galbreath and 41 others survived, many are still recovering from the trauma of the event and the injuries suffered during their escape. And half of them have filed lawsuits against Fishing Company of Alaska, the Ranger's Seattle-based owner, seeking lost wages and compensation for injuries both physical and mental. The complaints filed so far contain nonspecific allegations of negligence by Fishing Company, a relatively small player in the industry that counted seven boats in its fleet before the Ranger sank.George Knowles, a specialist in maritime injury and a former crab fisher himself, is representing eight of the sailors. He says the details of the allegations will come out later, but likely will focus on whether pushing the ship too quickly through the icy waters damaged the rudder, and whether drinking, or negligence, by the senior officers hampered their ability to get everyone safely off the boat. In testimony before U.S. Coast Guard investigators looking into the sinking, one crew member said senior officers, including those responsible for the evacuation, were drinking on board. Three more crew members have said as much in interviews with Seattle Weekly.Fishing Company attorney Michael Barcott says his client disputes those allegations. The contracts forbid bringing drugs or alcohol on board and demand that the crew stay sober on the vessel. Anyone caught breaking the rules faces immediate termination. Barcott argues that the crew members filing suits have a vested interest in alleging anything that will suggest negligence on the part of the company. "They have their own agendas for saying what they say."Galbreath denies ever drinking on the vessel, but says he did plenty of boozing on shore before he started working on the ships and during the stretches between fishing seasons. He grew up in Portland, where he bounced among jobs. Most of his income from occasional construction gigs went to booze and drugs, he says. In 1992 he was arrested for driving under the influence. A drug-possession charge and conviction followed in 1994, along with a series of drug-related probation violations, according to the Portland District Court Clerk's Office. Galbreath laughs hearing his record read back to him over coffee at a Sheri's diner on North Division Street in Spokane, where he lives now. "That sounds about right," he says, a little sheepishly.Galbreath left Portland in 2001, arriving in Seattle on Fat Tuesday. People were rioting in Pioneer Square. The next day the Nisqually earthquake hit. Perhaps he should have recognized the signs.It wasn't long after he got to Puget Sound that he met a guy from Texas who'd hitchhiked up to work the boats. The Texan told Galbreath of the riches he'd heard could be made gutting fish on the trawlers. So that year, the two men went to sea as processors on the 295-foot SeaFreeze Alaska, owned by the Seattle-based United States Seafoods. So much for the fantasy: The Texan quit within a week, Galbreath says. (Quitting at sea means sitting in a tiny bunk as dead weight until you can be dumped at the next port.)"There's a lot of elements that don't match up with the money that you make," says Galbreath. Specifically, he says, the long, hazardous days can make walking off the boat with $30,000 after less than a year's labor hardly seem worth it. Fishing crews generally work around the clock—12 hours on, six off. They're lucky to get four hours of sleep in the small shared rooms. Their pay is based on how fast they can fill the boat's hold with frozen blocks of fish and offload it into a port, so there's incentive for everyone to maintain the most relentless schedule possible.Galbreath says he lasted the duration of a contract, but as soon as he got off the SeaFreeze he decided he'd had enough of fishing. Back on land, the work was inconsistent. "A little of this, a little of that, a lot of concrete construction," he says. And there was his penchant for draining his bank account on substances.Yet soon the money was gone, and in his memory his time at sea had taken on the patina of adventure. He got in touch with the Fishing Company, and in 2006 went out for the first time on the Alaska Ranger.Ryan Shuck, 31, joined Galbreath on the Ranger the following year. After high school in Libby, Mont., Shuck had worked as a logger until cutbacks in the local industry cost him his job. He moved to Great Falls with his girlfriend, but most of the work he found paid around minimum wage. "We just couldn't live on it," he says.In January 2006, Shuck heard about people making good money in Alaskan canneries. He bought a plane ticket to Kodiak and got his first taste of the fishing industry. But again work started to dry up; he was running out of money and heard there was more to be made on the boats. Fishing Company was hiring, so "I basically bounced a check to get to Seattle," he says.Shuck was hired onto the Ranger in May 2007. His job was to tally up the different species of fish as they were hauled on board. He recounted them constantly through the processing and storing, ensuring the totals matched when they offloaded in port. Getting caught inflating the numbers carries heavy fines for the company and would cost the counter his job. But falling short costs everyone money.With his housing and food provided and nowhere to spend cash at sea, Shuck says, he got to shore after his first trip out with a hefty bank balance. The plan, he says, was to spend a few years working 10 months for Fishing Company, then return and collect unemployment for two months before heading out again.But like Galbreath, Shuck had his own demons waiting for him on land, making it hard to keep all that cash he banked on the boat. "I used to have a pretty heavy drinking problem," he says. "I spent a lot of my money on that kind of stuff, entertaining my friends, having barbecues and keggers, and you know, [a] 'Look at me, I'm a big fisherman'–type thing, and then I'd be broke and then I'd have to go back up to hustle and get a bunch more money saved up again."When the Ranger pitched onto its side in the early Easter morning hours, Shuck was near the life rafts. He made for the rope ladder hanging down the side. As he was climbing to the raft, the ladder swung out and slammed him into the boat. He dropped into the ocean. He managed to grab the rope attaching the raft to the Ranger, but when the boat's propeller suddenly kicked into reverse, the force pulled Shuck under the raft and water started rushing through the face mask of his survival suit. He let go. He tried swimming for one of the rafts as it floated away from the Ranger. But "I just didn't have enough power to beat the ocean," he says. Shuck floated into the Bering Sea alone and waited for rescue he wasn't sure would come.Galbreath and Shuck are fairly typical of the contract workers who come to Seattle willing to work, but who are unable to hold down a more standard 9-to-5 job due to a penchant for booze and drugs, says Eric Hollis, operations manager for Fishing Company of Alaska from 1994 to 2006. His duties included overseeing the recruiting and hiring of crews.Issues with drugs or alcohol aren't a problem as long as crew members pull their weight when they're on the water, Hollis says. "I noticed over the years, people that had maybe a substance-abuse problem would actually do very well out on the ship," he says. Although, Hollis adds, when the trawlers dock in places like Dutch Harbor to offload a catch, "there's all kinds of places [for the crew] to get into mischief, and they do."But while a boat is a safe haven in some respects, it's definitely not in others. A 2006 Coast Guard study found that, over a decade, an average of 58 people died each year in commercial fishing—more than half due to boats sinking, capsizing, or catching fire. The rest died from falling overboard or other accidents.Most of the boats that go down are smaller fishing vessels, says Jennifer Lincoln, an occupational safety and health specialist with the Centers for Disease Control. The Ranger is the first factory trawler to sink since she started tracking commercial-fishing deaths in 1990.Increased efforts to keep the boats and their crews safe, including requiring the survival suits, have had a noticeable impact, Lincoln says. The Ranger sinking could have been much worse, she points out. "Although a tragedy—where five people died—42 people lived. I mean, that's an amazing story."The Coast Guard, along with the National Transportation Safety Board, has been holding hearings to try to determine the cause of the sinking. Captain Michael Rand says the agencies can't justify the expense of sending a camera down to look at the ship, more than 1,000 fathoms below the surface (a little over a mile in onshore parlance), especially since "in this case we have a lot of good information from the crew members and others." The agencies have yet to release a final report on the sinking, but summaries of the testimony at the hearings have been made available after each session.Second Assistant Engineer Rodney Lundy testified on March 29 that he was checking chlorine levels at around 2 a.m. when he heard the high-water alarm. He ran to the rudder room to find water quickly seeping through the floorboards. He told the agencies he didn't have time to look for the source of the leak. "I didn't want to drown. First thing in my mind was: Close that door."Lundy alerted the bridge, and within minutes the crew had been roused and power cut to the parts of the ship that were flooding.As the crew donned survival suits and wrestled with life rafts on the icy deck, the power on the entire boat went out and the ship tipped about 45 degrees toward the starboard edge—the right side.Galbreath had popped up in the Bering Sea to find two other crew members floating nearby. The three men linked arms, talking each other through the ordeal, Galbreath remembers. Water was getting in through his face mask and his body temperature was dropping.After the mayday call went out, the Ranger's sister ship, the Alaska Warrior, changed course to start a rescue effort. The Coast Guard cutter Munro, 127 miles away, also headed for the scene, according to a Coast Guard timeline.At 4:04 a.m., the Guard launched a rescue helicopter from an island back near the Alaskan mainland. It arrived on the scene just after 5 a.m.—three hours after the Ranger's alarms first went off.Pilot Lt. Brian McLaughlin testified that as his chopper approached the place where the ship went down, a blinking light appeared in the swirling water below. "As we got closer, we began seeing more and more strobe lights," he told investigators. About 20 lights flashed over one nautical-mile area (about 1.15 miles). The helicopter crew threw a portable pump off the chopper to free up room, sent in a swimmer with a basket, and started hauling people out of the ocean.Galbreath has no memory of being rescued. He managed to stay lucid until the Coast Guard lights showed up, he says. Then he passed out. Enough water had filled the suit that its feet had to be cut off to get him into the basket and hoisted to the helicopter. Apparently, Galbreath says with an embarrassed laugh, rescuers had a hard time getting him to let go of the basket once he was on board. The rescued crew members were taken to the Munro.Galbreath says rescuers later told him that when he got on board his body temperature was 88 degrees. It took 45 minutes to bring it up one degree. But he recovered and was flown back to Seattle.Exactly how "dry" the Arctic Ranger really was before it started to take on water is a subject of considerable debate.Crew member Julio Morales testified at a hearing that when he was floating in the sea with chief engineer Daniel Cook, he could smell alcohol on Cook's breath. (Cook did not survive the accident and so isn't around to address the charge.) Another time, Morales told investigators, fish master Satoshi Konno, whose job was to determine the best place to drop nets—and who was never found after the Ranger went down—smelled of liquor when he was watching Morales sort fish.Morales isn't alone in his allegations. Three other crew members interviewed by Seattle Weekly—Shuck, Eric Haynes, and Jeremy Frietag—say drinking occurred on the boat. None of the three say they saw Cook drinking, but all say booze on board was tolerated as long as it didn't interfere with the catch. Frietag, a steward responsible for cleaning some of the officers' staterooms, says he picked up several bottles of liquor from the quarters.Shuck says the long days of hauling and processing the catch made drinking nearly impossible. But both crew and officers would keep the onshore party going while they were steaming back out from Dutch Harbor. "I've seen almost everybody drink on board," he says. "I've drank on board."If there was drinking aboard, especially by officers, Fishing Company's potential liability could increase considerably. For now, everyone is rushing to assert the largest potential claims possible. That's because under the 1851 Federal Limitation of Liability Act, a shipping owner who loses a vessel can file a motion in federal court to limit all potential damages to the value of the vessel. Everyone seeking damages has an interest in making their claims known to the court deciding the limits, according to Kevin Sullivan, one of the plaintiff's attorneys in the case. So far, 21 personal-injury suits and two wrongful-death suits have been filed. Fishing Company sought protection under the Act on June 24. Sullivan says it's rarely successful.Following the accident, Galbreath shacked up with friends in Everett, where, he says, he kept the memory of the disaster at bay with a steady stream of drugs and alcohol. It worked until mid-April, when he and some friends were in downtown Seattle drinking. Galbreath doesn't know exactly what set him off, but suddenly he was on his knees outside Westlake Center, drunk and sobbing. Unable to stop, he made for the nearest payphone and dialed 911. He spent a night in the Harborview psychiatric ward, then checked himself into Fairfax, a Kirkland psychiatric hospital, for two weeks.Shuck came over from Spokane to pick him up. Galbreath then lived with Shuck in Spokane for a few weeks before moving into the apartment of a woman he met in a bar. He's since been looking for a job, but says he suffers nerve damage in his hands, along with post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental-health problems that have led to a cornucopia of medications, including mood stabilizers such as lithium and Lamictal, and Prozasin to prevent nightmares.He's currently receiving $600 a month from Fishing Company's insurers to cover medical and living expenses. In May he got in touch with City Gate, a religious nonprofit that maintains subsidized housing in downtown Spokane. Galbreath says he was approved for a room at $200 per month. "It's a dinky little room, but it's yours."His plan for the next step changes every few days. He took a digital-music editing class at the Art Institute of Seattle between stints at sea and really enjoyed it, so maybe he'll get back into that. Or start some kind of business. Or become a nurse. Or write a book about his experience on the Ranger. One thing Galbreath does know—he can't cope with the idea of going back to sea.Shuck is in similar straits. He has six doctors treating everything from a problem with his foot to psychological trauma from the sinking. Under maritime law, a boat's owner is responsible for covering medical costs resulting from accidents, according to Knowles.Though making plans is on hold while their suits wind through the courts, the one thing Galbreath and Shuck both say they want is to stay clean. Neither has any intention of going back to the forced semi-sobriety of a life at sea, so they're trying to make it on land. Both have joined 12-step programs, attend the meetings, and talk openly about their struggle. Galbreath's only trip anywhere near a ship since being plucked from the ocean was to Fishermen's Terminal to lay five roses at a makeshift memorial for "Captain Pete" and the others who lost their lives that Easter morning.Galbreath tears up when talking about the accident—not when he recalls fearing for his own life, but when he thinks about those who died. "I didn't do nothin'," he says.lonstot@seattleweekly.com

 
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