A crew member on a doomed US crabbing vessel sent desperate texts to his wife before it sank in rough seas, killing all three aboard.
Denise Porter gave tearful testimony about a series of texts and two alarming phone calls from her husband Joshua, who told her the seas were “real big” and that he was pulling on his life vest.
The evidence emerged on the third day of a week-long US Coast Guard hearing into the January 8 shipwreck off the Oregon coast.
The Mary B II overturned in waves up to six metres high as it tried to cross the Yaquina Bar near Newport, Oregon, after a trip to collect crabbing pots during the lucrative Dungeness crab season.
Toxicology tests found the boat’s skipper, Stephen Biernacki, of Barnegat Township, New Jersey, had amphetamine, methamphetamine and alcohol in his system, but the blood alcohol content fell below the legal limit for intoxication.
A toxicology expert, Brian M. Bourgeois, testified that the levels of methamphetamine indicate that the 50-year-old was impaired.
“I would call this mariner not fit for duty and certainly not what I would call seaworthy,” Mr Bourgeois said.
Biernacki’s relatives have said they would not comment.
The skipper had recently moved to Oregon and had hired Porter, an experienced fisherman from Toledo to work on the Mary B II for about a week during the intense start to the crab season, Denise Porter testified.
Porter quickly noticed that Biernacki didn’t seem to know what he was doing and wouldn’t listen to Porter or take his advice, she testified.
He didn’t check the tides, for example, didn’t know how to use some equipment and kept alcohol on board, she said.
Her husband was concerned about his safety, but continued to go out because they had bills to pay and he was only supposed to work a few more days before taking a different job, she said.
“Every time we talked about it, it was like, ‘Why are you on there?’ He said, ‘We have bills to pay.’”
On the day of the shipwreck, Porter expected to be back in port by 2pm, because bad weather was coming.
He called his wife shortly after 2pm to say he wouldn’t be home until 4pm.
Her husband told her that Biernacki wanted to “go and do two more strings,” she said, referring to pulling up more crab pots.
A short while later, Porter texted his wife again to say the Coast Guard was sending a boat to help the Mary B II as it tried to cross Yaquina Bar, a treacherous area where the Yaquina River flows into the ocean current.
The Coast Guard had told the crew that the boat that crossed the bar before them had trouble, she said, referring to her husband’s texts.
“In the midst of the texting back and forth he called me and said, ‘I’m scared, it’s really big out here, I’m putting my life jacket on and I’m putting my phone and wallet in my pocket,’” she recalled.
“And he said, ‘I’ve got to go’ and he hung up.”
Denise Porter, also an experienced fisher, began to drive to the jetty, all while texting her husband. She saw flares over the water and the lights from three boats in the heavy surf.
“I said, ‘They’re shooting up flares’ and the very last text I got from him was ‘WTF. Who is?’ That’s all he wrote,” she said.
She took off her glasses in the fine drizzle, but still could make out lights in the water and hoped one was the Mary B II.
“That’s when I texted him, ‘Are you guys through now?’ and then I didn’t get a text back,” she said.
“Then there’s a series of questions that I text him and I get no answer back and I couldn’t figure out what was going on,” she said. “And then I saw the helicopter and I knew something bad had happened — and I knew I’d never talk to him again.”
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