LT. Timothy Schmitz, commander of the rescue helicopter from the Coast Guard cutter Monroe, left, talks with Capt. Mike Rand, chief investigator for the U.S. Coast Guard, during a break in testimony in Anchorage, Alaska Saturday, April 5, 2008, during a federal investigation into the sinking of the Seattle-based Alaska Ranger. Five people died and 42 crewmen were rescued when the fishing boat sank off of Alaska's Aleutians. (AP Photo/Al Grillo)
ANCHORAGE, Alaska - A crewman who died at the site of a sinking fishing boat in the Bering Sea fell from a rescue basket being pulled into a helicopter, a rescuer has testified.
Coast Guard Petty Officer Alfred Musgrave told a Marine panel Saturday that he tried to pull Byron Carrillo out of the dangling basket into the helicopter.
He says that Carrillo was hypothermic and that his survival suit was heavy because it had filled with water. Carrillo slipped from Musgrave's grasp and fell about 40 feet into the sea.
Five people died in the sinking March 23. Forty-two crewmen of the Alaska Ranger were rescued.
Before Musgrave's testimony, little was known about the final moments of Carrillo's life after the Alaska Ranger went down on Easter Sunday about 120 miles west of Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands.
The latest details had come on March 28, when James Madruga, the ship's 1st Assistant Engineer, told the board that he and Carrillo spent nearly five hours together, floating among nets and other debris from the ship, before the Coast Guard arrived. Madruga said he saw Carrillo going up in the basket and was mystified to find no sign of him upon reaching the helicopter.
Musgrave, who was working alone, knew that rescuing Carrillo might be difficult. He recalled watching from above as the Coast Guard crew's swimmer struggled for 15 minutes, an unusually long time, to maneuver the panicked and hypothermic Carrillo into the basket.
"He would be in the basket, and then a wave would wash over and he'd be back out," Musgrave told the board, which is investigating the cause of the sinking and the deaths of five crew members.
With Carrillo finally near eye-level, Musgrave reached out, just as he had with the other survivors, to pull the 36-year-old from Los Angeles into the heated chopper. But Carrillo's survival suit was swollen with seawater and he seemed unable to budge from his awkward position on the rim of the basket.
Carrillo's long, curly hair hid most of his face, but Musgrave could still see his eyes.
"He looked terrified, and rightly so," Musgrave said.
Musgrave said he turned to look for a tool to slash open the suit and drain the water. And then, Carrillo slipped.
The veteran Coast Guardsman grabbed the bulging legs of Carrillo's suit. His grip held for just a few seconds.
Musgrave and the pilot, Lt. Timothy Schmitz, could see Carrillo floating face-down in the water, the bright light from his survival suit bobbing in the darkness 40 feet below.
After a five-minute discussion, the men decided to move on. By that point, they said, the only swimmer on board, Abram Heller, was helping Madruga and the helicopter was running dangerously low on fuel.
The crew went on to pick up one more survivor before heading back to the Coast Guard cutter Munro for refueling.
In all, 42 crew members were plucked from the water by the Coast Guard and the Ranger's sister ship, the Alaska Warrior, which recovered Carrillo's body. Japan resident Satoshi Konno, the ship's fish master, has never been found and is presumed dead.
The hearings, run jointly by the Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board, will continue in Seattle in mid-April, said Coast Guard spokeswoman Sara Francis. Many of the crew members and the boat's owner, the Fishing Company of Alaska, are based in Washington state.
Two lawyers for the company, David Freeman and John Neeleman, both of Seattle, participated in the hearing on Saturday. They had no comment, but repeatedly asked witnesses whether the survival suits supplied on board seemed adequate.