At 10:14 in the morning of October 22, 1982, the fish-processing ship Al-Ind-Esk-A Sea, which is on fire at its anchorage less than a mile off the Port of Everett, sinks 200 feet or more into Port Gardner Bay. For almost two days, since a welder's torch accidentally set fire to insulation around the ship's refrigeration units, crowds along the Everett waterfront have watched the ship burn spectacularly in the harbor. The vessel is unoccupied: the six crew members aboard escaped to the tender Alaska Trader immediately after the fire broke out. Officials make little effort to battle the blaze because the risk to firefighters from possible explosions or toxic fumes is too great. The loss of the Al-Ind-Esk-A Sea turns out to be a financial benefit for the struggling Alaska Native corporation that owns it when Lloyds of London pays off on the ship's $14 million insurance policy. No attempt at salvage will be made because the ship lies so deep beneath Port Gardner Bay, where it remains an occasional, and risky, destination for divers.
The Al-Ind-Esk-A Sea
When it burned and sank, the 336-foot, 3,767-ton Al-Ind-Esk-A Sea was one of the largest and most modern fish processors sailing under the American flag. It had just returned from a successful fishing voyage to Alaska where it processed 4.8 million pounds of salmon for the Japanese market. The processing ship was owned by Trans-Alaska Fisheries, a subsidiary of the 13th Regional Corporation, one of the Native corporations formed under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act to administer money that Alaska Natives received in compensation for loss of their land. The 13th Regional Corporation, based in Seattle, was for those living outside of Alaska. The name Al-Ind-Esk-A Sea was derived from Aleuts, Indians, and Eskimos of Alaska in Seattle.
The Al-Ind-Esk-A Sea began life as the Coastal Guide, a private cruise ship built in Wisconsin by the Leathem D. Smith Shipbuilding Company and launched in May 1945. Within a few years, the vessel was acquired by the U.S. Army, renamed the Sgt. George Peterson, and transferred to the U.S. Navy. The Peterson spent the 1950s as a Navy cargo ship before being inactivated and placed in reserve in Alabama. The ship was sold for civilian use in 1971 and had a series of owners during the 1970s. The 13th Regional Corporation's Trans-Alaska Fisheries purchased the ship in 1979, refitted it as a fish processor and renamed it the Al-Ind-Esk-A Sea.
Fire on Board
On Wednesday, October 20, 1982, the Al-Ind-Esk-A Sea, just returned from its 15,000-mile summer salmon fishing voyage, was anchored off the Port of Everett. Six members of the 18-member crew were aboard making minor repairs and preparing the ship for the upcoming herring season. A cutting torch they were using ignited the insulation around refrigeration units on the ship's middle deck. The tender Alaska Trader -- a smaller boat that during the fishing season collected fish from fishing boats and transported it to the processing ship -- had just tied up alongside the Al-Ind-Esk-A Sea when the fire broke out around 2:15 p.m.
The presence of the tender allowed the crew members to escape the fire uninjured, but it may also have been the inadvertent cause of the disaster. On the day the Al-Ind-Esk-A Sea sank, Everett Fire Marshall Walt Cooper criticized the crew for failing to maintain a "firewatch" on the lower deck where they had been using the cutting torch:
"I was told that when the Alaska Trader came alongside, everybody went topside to tie it up ... . That was wrong. The firewatch should have stayed below" (Haley, "Tough Old Ship...").
Ed Bowers, president of charter company Marine Enterprises which managed the fish processor, who was on board when the fire broke out, said the crew tried briefly to fight it but was repelled by toxic smoke. The danger from cyanide gas produced by the burning polyurethane insulation and the risk that the 18 tons of pressurized liquid ammonia used a refrigerant could explode led officials to decide that firefighters would not attempt to board the burning ship. Instead, the Coast Guard established a one-mile safety zone around the Al-Ind-Esk-A Sea. Throughout Wednesday afternoon and evening explosions periodically rocked the vessel and the leaping flames and billowing smoke attracted scores of onlookers to the Everett waterfront and streets overlooking the harbor.
Concerns over possible explosions and toxic smoke led government officials and staff at institutions near the Everett waterfront, including the Scott Paper Company and Providence Hospital, to consider evacuation plans. Given the ship's distance from shore, possibly toxic smoke was the main concern. Fortunately the wind blew the smoke parallel to shore, bypassing both downtown Everett and Marysville to the north. By 7:00 p.m. Wednesday the risk of explosion had declined sufficiently that the City of Seattle fireboat Alki was able to approach the Al-Ind-Esk-A Sea and douse the flames on its deck. The lower levels kept burning, shooting off fireballs throughout the night.
The Ship Goes Down
The Al-Ind-Esk-A Sea burned throughout the day on Thursday, October 21. The Coast Guard and other observers expected the ship to sink that evening, but it stayed afloat through the night. Bowers, captain Dewey Bouck, and other owners and managers kept vigil aboard the Alaska Trader, while carloads of the curious watched from land. By the morning of Friday, October 22, 1982, the ship was quickly taking on water and listing to starboard. Not long after 10:00 a.m. the Al-Ind-Esk-A Sea rolled on its side, and at 10:14 it sank stern first beneath the water.
The Coast Guard made preparations to clean up any oil that spilled from the wreck, but the ship had only 10,000 gallons of diesel fuel in its 235,000-gallon capacity tanks, and that either burned up or remained in the sunken ship. From the start, Coast Guard officials said that because of the depth of the water where the Al-Ind-Esk-A Sea sank it would pose no danger to navigation and there would be no attempt to move it. Noting the extent of the destruction, company officials also said there would be no attempt at salvage. Because it was insured for $14 million, the loss of the Al-Ind-Esk-A Sea actually helped the 13th Regional Corporation avoid bankruptcy following a sequence of mismanagement and bad investments.
Port of Everett officials marked the location of the wreck with a yellow buoy to warn boaters against anchoring there. Over the years, the Al-Ind-Esk-A Sea has become a diving destination, although the dive is so deep that it is difficult and dangerous. At least one experienced diver -- Mark Wolfe in 1994 -- has died in an attempt to reach the sunken ship.