Wash. trawler sank so fast no time for distress call

Posted March 12, 2012, at 9:23 p.m.

Jason Bjaranson knew the perils of the life he had chosen as a commercial fisherman in the Pacific Ocean. He practiced the life-or-death task of getting into his survival suit so he could do it in 13 seconds. He was starting to think he should buy some life insurance, and even find a safer job on shore. But he had bills to pay, and a family to feed.

None of that made any difference when the Lady Cecelia went down in the night this past weekend, probably in a matter of seconds, 17 miles off the rugged coast of Washington. When the Coast Guard reached the scene hours later, there was nothing but an oil slick, an empty life raft and some crab pots to mark where the 70-foot trawler disappeared, leaving the skipper and three crewmen missing and their families mourning another loss at sea.

There had not even been time for them to get off a distress call. That job was done by the Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon, or EPIRB, a device mounted on the roof of the boat’s cabin that sends out a signal if it comes into contact with water. The ping hit the Coast Guard station at Warrenton, Ore., at 3:37 a.m. on Saturday and a Coast Guard helicopter found the slick and the life raft in less than two hours. There were no survivors.

“My brother was very fleet of foot,” Adam Bjaranson, a TV host for the Portland Trail Blazers NBA team, told The Associated Press. “If he couldn’t get in his survival suit in 13 seconds that leads me to believe something happened very fast.”

Just what happened remains a mystery, but Bjaranson said he has heard speculation from Coast Guard personnel that the Lady Cecelia could have been hit by a rogue wave, while other fisherman have said it might have been struck by a passing cargo ship.

A rogue wave “is possible,” said Coast Guard spokesman Petty Officer Shawn Eggert, “depending on if it hit them at the right angle and the weight of the boat was distributed just so.”

The life raft could have deployed itself.

The sinking is under investigation by the Coast Guard. Missing are skipper Dave Nichols of Warrenton, Ore.; deckhand Jason Bjaranson, 39, of Warrenton, Ore., deckhand Luke Jensen of Ilwaco, Wash., and NOAA Fisheries Service observer Chris Langel of Kaukauna, Wis.

What the family believes may have been the last contact with the crew of the Lady Cecelia came when Nichols called another boat fishing nearby to say he would deliver 70,000 pounds of fish in the morning to the fish processing plant in Warrenton.

Work as a commercial fisherman is considered one of the most dangerous jobs. From 2000-2010., 545 commercial fishermen died while fishing in U.S. waters, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Jason Bjaranson lived with his girlfriend, Amy Mallory. The two of them have a 2-year-old son, Talon. Mallory tends bar at a local restaurant.

She said Bjaranson had fished for years with Nichols, but didn’t feel good about going on the Lady Cecelia.

“He had hesitations about the safety of the boat,” Mallory said.

But Bjaranson was also worried about losing their house if he didn’t work.

She said he told her: “I’ll be OK, babe. I think I’ll get off the boat and find another job. Because I don’t feel right about it anymore.”’

At 6 a.m. Saturday, she was awakened by a phone call from another fisherman who told her; “Amy, Jay’s boat went down. You need to call the Coast Guard right now.”

Mallory said Nichols had been scrambling to fill out his crew after a regular deckhand was a no-show. He was sitting at the bar where she worked, drinking soda and eating chicken wings, calling around to find another deckhand. Someone told him about Jensen, who had fished in Bristol Bay, Alaska, and was eager to work. Nichols picked him up in Ilwaco, Wash. Mallory picked the two of them up and delivered them to the boat basin along with Bjaranson at about 1 a.m. Thursday.

“I want to get to the bottom of it,” she said. “Because my son doesn’t have a dad. Jay’s mother doesn’t have a son. Adam and Boomer and Jeff lost their brother. It’s just been a nightmare.”

Bjaranson’s last words to Mallory were a text message from his cell phone as the Lady Cecilia chugged out to sea.

“He told me he loved me and didn’t know what he’d do without me. He told Talon he loved him. And that was all.”

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