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Crewman Tells of Last, Frantic Minutes Aboard Aleutian Enterprise

March 30, 1990

SEATTLE (AP) _ Crew members fought over survival suits in the final minutes before a fishing boat sank in the Bering Sea a week ago, a survivor testified at a hearing Thursday.

Crew member Harvey Dale Philpot also told the Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board inquiry that he couldn’t close the suit he had grabbed because the zipper was corroded.

Philpot, 20, testified he had received no safety training aboard the 162- foot trawler Aleutian Enterprise, which capsized and sank March 22. Nine crew members are missing and presumed dead. Twenty-two crew members survived.

The crewman said there was little warning the ship was in trouble, and that he first noticed something was wrong when it began to list while he was in a freezer on the lower deck.

When he went up to the next level the list had increased and the port side of the deck was covered with four or five feet of water, Philpot said.

Philpot said he tried to turn on a pump, but it didn’t work. Crew members then began yelling to abandon ship and he ran to the next deck up to wake up his friend, Matt Price, 19, and to get a survival suit.

At a box where the flotation suits were stored, he and four or five men struggled over the suits, he said.

″People were trying to grab from one another,″ he said.

Philpot said somebody tried to grab his suit, but ″I was holding on to it. I wasn’t letting go.″

Once he was topside, Philpot donned the suit and tried to zip it up, but found the zipper corroded. ″It just wouldn’t go,″ he said.

By that time, the ship had heeled far to port and Philpot and others on deck were swept into the near-freezing water, he said. He clung to buoys and debris until he was picked up by one of the life boats, he said.

The survivors later were picked up by other fishing boats.

Philpot said that on another fishing boat he worked on, the crew ran through safety drills and suit zippers were waxed to ensure they worked. None of that happened on the Aleutian Enterprise, he said.

Terry Baker, chief executive officer of Arctic Alaska Fisheries Corp., the operator of the cod fishing and processing boat, said outside the hearing he was surprised at the testimony about the suits.

″It’s the first I’ve heard of it,″ Baker said, adding there were more than a total of 30 suits at three locations on the boat.

He declined to comment on Philpot’s testimony about safety training, except to say, ″We try to give as much training as possible.″

Philpot, the lead-off witness in the hearing that is expected to continue through early next week, also said he thought he smelled marijuana in the ship’s pilot house early in the voyage. Under questioning by Coast Guard officers, he said that was the only occasion he detected any illegal drugs, and that he did not know the crewman in the pilot house.

The Aleutian Enterprise’s captain, Mark Siemons, was outside the pilot house at the time, he said.

Philpot said alcohol was banned on the boat.

As the hearing opened, attorneys for Arctic Alaska and Siemons objected that it was being held so soon after the accident. Attorney Jim Whitehead, representing the company, said some family members were still conducting memorial services for the missing, and the Coast Guard was showing ″unintended insensitivity″ to them.

Coast Guard Capt. Rene Roussel, the hearing’s chairman, said the Coast Guard wanted to get the information about the sinking on record as soon as possible.

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