SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


Ordeal at sea 'was just a wet hell'
Anchorage Daily News


June 27, 2007

Dale Pruitt was soaked and frozen and clinging to the hull of the capsized commercial salmon boat two miles off the Alaska Peninsula.

The 56-foot seiner had been knocked over in roaring seas just before dusk. Water temperature was 48 degrees. As Pruitt, barefoot and wearing only a T-shirt and shorts, held onto the slippery hull, it started to sink beneath him.

Pruitt, 47, a commercial fisherman since he was 13, thought about his two teenage children and niece floating away in the waters around him. After 30 years of going to sea, from Russia to Ketchikan, Alaska, he didn't allow himself any fatal thoughts. He saw a box with the life raft in it among the debris from the boat.

"We were in trouble," he said. "I knew the only chances of survival were to get in that raft."

Pruitt and the teens survived the sinking of the Magnum and 62 hours floating in a life raft across Shelikof Strait before another boat spotted them.

Pruitt, his 18-year-old son, Mitchell, 15-year-old daughter, Calista, and 18-year-old niece, Cally, survived by luck and, they think, an unwavering belief that someone was going to rescue them.

As 5-foot waves crashed over them in the small, crowded life raft, about the size of a tent, they kept conversations going, sang songs and talked about what they were going to do when they got back home.

The family recounted their experience by phone Monday from their home in Kodiak, where the Magnum was originally headed.

Theirs was a family commercial-fishing operation. Mitchell had been fishing with his dad for a half-dozen years already, Calista for at least two.

The family had just fished for red salmon. The boat trip back home was supposed to be a 15-hour ride across Shelikof Strait and around the coast of Kodiak Island. They were carrying a light load of 10,000 pounds, or roughly $10,000 worth of fish.

They were two hours into the trip Wednesday night when something went wrong.

"The weather changed so fast," Mitchell recalled.

Winds whipped at 60 mph, with seas sloshing 15-foot waves. Dale tried to turn the boat back to land, but something was wrong with it; it was rolling violently from port to starboard.

He believes water leaked in somehow.

The boat listed 40 degrees.

Dale told the kids to get their survival suits on and get out of the cabin. He got on the radio and started calling mayday. Dale never had time to put on his survival suit, which he had in his hand at one point but lost in the chaos.

On top of the sinking boat, Dale and Mitchell tried to pry off the attached metal skiff but couldn't. The overturning boat had tightened the knot so much that only a knife could undo it. They didn't have a knife.

They saw the life raft, still in its box, floating nearby and went after that.

When he hit the frigid water in his shorts and T-shirt, Dale's bruised and scraped body went numb, he said.

Only Calista had her survival suit on all the way. The suits on Cally, who had a broken arm in a cast already, and Mitchell quickly filled with water.

The family didn't know it, but no one heard the mayday call. The EPIRB, an emergency signal that is supposed to go off when a boat is in trouble, also didn't go off. It was almost a full day before they were reported overdue and searchers even began looking for them.

They had no drinking water. No food. And the only warmth came from their bodies. They shot off the two flares they had.

That first night, they didn't let each other fall asleep, afraid hypothermia would set in and they would never wake up.

They told family stories, talked about eating chicken tenders at a restaurant in Kodiak, and sang "Long Black Train" by Josh Turner.

The first day, it rained for half an hour, and each survivor was able to drink about 2 ounces of water that collected off the raft's rain flap, Dale said. Two days later, it rained four hours and the family carefully collected enough water to hydrate themselves.

The second day on the raft they thought they spotted Kodiak Island and spent six hours paddling fruitlessly towards the land, the wind counteracting their push.

Mitchell started to think, "What if they don't know we are gone until we are really gone?"

"It was hell," he said. "It was just a wet hell."

Dale wanted to yell across the empty ocean to his wife, Mindy, whom he knew must have been out of her mind with her whole family missing at sea.

Meanwhile, the Coast Guard was searching with fixed-wing C-130s and HH-60 and HH-65 helicopters.

It wasn't until Saturday that Dale heard the unmistakable sound of a nearby boat. He told Mitchell to open the flap of the raft and take a look outside. It was the Sea Storm, a 105-foot fishing vessel under contract to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"That was a hallelujah moment," Dale said.


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Stories In The News
Ketchikan, Alaska