Northern Belle Fatality Marks First Alaska Fishing Death by Sunken Ship in More Than a Year

U.S. Coast Guard
Two crew members from the Northern Belle awaiting rescue.
At 5:30 p.m. the Coast Guard received a call from the Gulf of Alaska: "Mayday, mayday, mayday, this is the Northern Belle," says a frantic man's voice, giving the boat's coordinates.

The Coast Guard responds, asking the person calling from the Belle if he needs assistance.

"We are going down!" the caller shouts.

The responder asks how many people are on board.

"We have four persons on board, we're [garbled] really fast here, we're going down!"

The responder asks for a description of the boat and receives only static.

One of the people on board, Robert Jack, told the Seattle Times that the four crew members had donned what's known as survival suits and slid into the frigid water. In the process, the captain hit his head and drowned. The Coast Guard has not officially determined cause of death.

The majority of fatalities in the Alaska fishing industry are caused by sinking ships, rather than falling overboard or other injuries, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. A chart showing the number of deaths between 2000 and 2008 spikes in 2001, when the Arctic Rose sank, and 2008, when the Alaska Ranger and the Katmai both went down.

Thanks to survival suits like the kind worn by the crew members of the Northern Belle, the rescue rate for people who have to abandon ship is nearly 94 percent by NIOSH's last count (which was a decade ago). But good numbers doesn't make sliding into frigid sea near Alaska safe, says Jerry Dzugan, Executive Director of the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association.

"The vessel is your island, it's your sanctuary, it's your home, it's all those things," he says. "And when you leave that capsule, the risks increase exponentially."

If you're planning to make your fortune fishing in Alaska, ala Deadliest Catch, Dzugan recommends getting your own survival suit so you know it will fit and then learning how to get into it within a minute.

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