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Disaster struck in the waters 150 miles to the northwest of St. Matthew Island just after 8 pm Sunday evening when the 1,590 ton trawler 501 Oryang took a wave over the deck, flooding the boat’s cargo holds and sinking it, as crews were hauling back gear.
The 326-foot vessel was fishing for Pollock with trawl gear off of the coast of Chukotka, about 15 miles outside of U.S. borders when the incident occurred.
Despite having eight life rafts aboard, only four were located by other vessels in the area. One such raft was retrieved with five people aboard by the Nikkor Company owned Karolina . Another two survivors were plucked from the ocean by the Magadan registered trawler Zaliv Zabiyaka. Another crew member was recovered but later would succumb to the effects of hypothermia and die.
That one crew member is the only confirmed dead among the 54 still missing from the vessel. Even though the search attempt is extensive, with searchers from five vessels in the area, and search operations by the Kamchatka Border Guard Directorate and a United States Coast Guard HC-130 based out of Kodiak, the outlook is grim for those still missing in the frigid waters of the Western Bering Sea.
In addition to the HC-130 dispatched to the area, the Coast Guard Cutter Munro is also underway to the scene of the tragedy, but because of the vast distance involved, the location is approximately 580 miles from Dutch Harbor, the Munro will not reach the scene until Wednesday morning.
“Our ultimate goal is protecting life at sea whether at home or internationally, which is why we are working closely with the Kamchatka Border Guard Directorate to find survivors,” said Capt. Diane Durham, chief of response, Coast Guard 17th District. “There are also five good Samaritan vessels on scene that are assisting in the search for survivors; their commitment to helping is commendable.”
The weather in the area has hampered search efforts. Conditions were reported as heavy seas, approximately 25 feet in height, and poor visibility. Water temperatures in the area are in the 57 degree range, limiting survival time in the water, where survival is measured in minutes without survival gear.
The HC-130 flight out of Kodiak returned to the Coast Guard base there, another is expected to launch back to the scene Tuesday morning.
Although sea conditions continue to improve on Tuesday, with wave height dropping to 15-feet, 40 knot winds continue to buffet the area and fog persists with heavy freezing spray.