Story last updated at 4:45 p.m. Thursday, October 17, 2002

2 missing, 6 stranded in separate incidents

Mariners find big trouble

by Sepp Jannotta
Staff Writer

The U.S. Coast Guard put several rescue swimmers into the gale-streaked Gulf of Alaska late last week as rough seas left two people missing and six stranded in a pair of mishaps off the Kenai Peninsula's outer coast.

The 53-foot wood-hulled C/V Shenandoah apparently broke apart and sank near Chugach Bay late Thursday night or early Friday morning while towing the 62-foot M/V Mary J to Seward.

The missing men are Mark DiMichele and Pat Thibault, both of Seward. They were reportedly the only people on board when the Shenandoah departed from the Homer Small Boat Harbor around 1 p.m. Thursday afternoon.

As Coast Guard search and rescue helicopters and a C-130 airplane searched for survivors near Chugach Bay Friday morning, another vessel issued a call for help.

Approximately 30 miles up the coast in the vicinity of Nuka Island, the 82-foot F/V Ranger of Homer had run aground on rocks and was in danger of taking on water.

According to Coast Guard spokeswoman Marshalena Delaney, a helicopter crew dispatched a rescue swimmer and a pump to the Ranger. As the tide began to rise, a second pump was added to stay ahead of the incoming water.

Owned and skippered by Bob Cousins of Homer, the Ranger was apparently unable to make way once it was floating again, so Cousins put out a call for assistance from any vessels in the area.

"The idea was apparently to be towed back to Homer, but either no vessels were in the area or none were capable of helping," Delaney said.

At Cousins' request, a Homer-based floatplane delivered parts to the Ranger, which a Coast Guard flight crew spotted beached Monday afternoon. The plane brought back Cousins' 10-year-old son, leaving five people on board, Delaney said.

The Ranger will likely have to remain where it is until the Coast Guard can inspect it and determine if it can safely continue on to Homer.

"The Coast Guard will continue to monitor this situation," Delaney said. "At the moment it doesn't seem like there needs to be a rescue."

While the crew of the Ranger worked to repair its vessel, the Coast Guard on Saturday suspended its search for the two missing Seward men who had been aboard the Shenandoah.

The first sign of trouble from the Seward-based charter boat came when the Coast Guard received an emergency radio beacon signal around 1:30 a.m. Friday. A Coast Guard search and rescue helicopter crew responded to the location of the signal and began a full-scale search around 5 a.m.

The crew reported 15-foot seas and very gusty conditions, with winds topping out at 50 knots.

The pilot located a large debris field and a life raft floating at the mouth of Chugach Bay near the western tip of the outer coast, but there was no sign of the Shenandoah, said Petty Officer Joseph Metzler, the rescue swimmer who deployed to check for survivors in the raft.

Metzler said there was a lot of wooden debris in the area of the raft, including a large chunk that looked to be lashed with a heavy-duty towing rig. But he saw no survivors.

Metzler hesitated to speculate on what caused the disaster.

"I can't guess, especially since they were towing," he said. "God only knows what happened to them. But whatever happened to them, happened quick. The boat completely disintegrated."

The Coast Guard search party later located the Mary J adrift in Windy Bay. A rescue swimmer went aboard the vessel and found no survivors.

Bering Sea Transport, which owns the Mary J and last had it working as a crew boat for North Slope oil rigs in the Beaufort Sea, sent another Seward-based crew to attempt to regain control of the wayward vessel.

Company spokesman Nick Goodman said the weather was so rough there was no hope of safely connecting a tow line. So the Mary J was left to drift in Windy Bay, despite the fact that Goodman said the vessel's engine is in working order.

Bering Sea Transport, a subsidiary of the Alaska Native corporation-owned Pribilof Vessel Management, hired the Shenandoah to bring the Mary J over to Resurrection Bay through Rainy Song Charters of Seward. Until Thursday the aluminum boat had been sitting idle in Homer for months.

Bob Popkins, owner of Rainy Song Charters, declined to comment on the incident except to say that Mark DiMichele, the skipper of the Shenandoah, was his friend.

Sepp Jannotta can be reached at sjannotta@homer