Investigators blame captain for sinking that claimed 7 lives

Investigators blame captain for sinking that claimed 7 lives »Play Video
This image taken from video shot by the U.S. Coast Guard shows survivors of the sunken fishing vessel Katmai being hoisted from a life raft into a Coast Guard helicopter.
SEATTLE -- Investigators say poor judgment led to the sinking of a Seattle fishing vessel and the deaths of seven fishermen in the Bering Sea.

Only four men survived when the Katmai went down in October 2008. The Coast Guard on Friday released their official investigation report, and they're pointing the finger squarely at the ship's captain.

"The captain knew the storm was coming. He thought he could beat it," said Coast Guard Commander Rob McLellan.

Investigators say two days prior to the Katmai sinking, captain Henry "Joe" Blake knew hurricane winds were forecast.

Bigger vessels were waiting out the storm, yet the 93-foot Katmai charged ahead. But the high seas and high winds were too much.

"The Captain's decision to proceed to Dutch Harbor instead of waiting for the incoming storm to pass contributed directly to the sinking of the vessel," McLellan said.

Blake and three others survived, and spent 16 hours in the frigid ocean off the Aleutian Islands before being rescued.

In testimony in 2008, Blake described the terrifying night in the life raft.

With every gust of wind or wave, "it started to tear a little bit more," Blake said. "And then a big one came," he testified. "And it rolled the raft several times.

"When we saw the helicopter come out, out of nowhere, it was the best feeling I've ever felt in my life," he said.

Carlos Zabala, 30, of Helena, Mont., Robert Davis, 49, of Deming, Wash., Joshua Leonguerrero, 19, Spanaway, Wash.; Cedric Smith, 38, Portland, Ore.; Glenn Harper, 35, Portland; Jake Gilman, 22, of Camas, Wash., and Fuli Lemusu, 44, Salem, Ore., died when the Katmai sank.

Jake Gilman's mom said she's still trying to deal with the loss.

"I've had a knot in my stomach so long, it's just still there, it's just the same knot every day," Shara Martindale said.

She didn't hesitate to agree with the Coast Guard and place blame on Captain Blake.

"If they had not driven into a hurricane they would not be dead."

Attorney Greg Knowles represents two other fisherman, one survived the other did not.

"You can understand how it can happen, you've been out for 30 days, and everybody's tired wants to see their families, they want to get home," he said. "You think you can make, but this occasion they didn't."

And it wasn't just taking on hurricane-force winds.

The report says the boat also sank because the hull was carrying 120,000 pounds of Cod. The boat's stability report said it could hold 60,000 pounds, but gave no maximum cargo weight limit.

"Therefore the captain could assume he could fill that hull full," McLellan said.

The steering controls were also flooded when water poured through a watertight door that had been left open.

Martindale didn't know until she lost her son that some Coast Guard Safety recommendations are voluntary for small vessels like the Katmai.

"It's frustrating to see recommendations not implemented, especially when people do keep dying," she said.

Lawmakers are being asked to make inspections of these small vessels mandatory. Right now if such inspections happen, it is usually voluntary or for insurance purposes.

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Read the complete Coast Guard report