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A Mystery as Deep as the Ocean

Times Staff Writer

Down, down, down the robotic rover descended into the Pacific Ocean’s cold-hearted depths, searching for signs of a 46-foot commercial fishing vessel that had gone missing.

Veteran captain Bill Burchell and his two crewmen aboard the trawler Marian Ann vanished one evening in late September as the trio worked the long nets they used to scour for rock cod 40 miles northwest of this scenic fishing port.

With all three men presumed lost at sea, U.S. Coast Guard investigators in December dispatched the submersible on a longshot search for clues to the ship’s fate.

Aboard a U.S. Navy search vessel, they huddled over a computer screen that displayed the robot’s-eye view of the ocean below. Slowly, in the gloom at 2,106 feet, as sinewy squid darted from view, a boat’s murky form came into focus -- first the towering mast, then the hull beneath it on the sea floor.

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The camera focused on the name painted on the port bow.

Marian Ann, it read clearly.

“Seeing that name just took your breath away,” recalled Burchell’s 42-year-old wife, Suzie Howser, who reviewed the footage later.

“Before that, you imagined they might be drifting, lost, caught in the currents, heading toward Hawaii -- all the images you use to keep up hope they might still be alive. Then you see the video.”

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Commercial fishing ranks among the deadliest professions in America, with a fatality rate typically five times higher than that of police officers and firefighters. Between 1992 and 2002, more than 630 commercial fishermen died on the job, according to Coast Guard statistics.

As with the crew of the Marian Ann, many lost fishermen are never found. The solitary nature of the enterprise means there are rarely witnesses, and physical clues often sink with the ship.

In this case, the vessel was located. But the discovery, in some ways, deepened the mystery.

The robot found the Marian Ann sitting upright and apparently undamaged, looking, as Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer Richard Loster said, “like someone reached down and delicately placed it on the ocean floor.”

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Why was Burchell, a stickler for safety, unable to rely on such sophisticated equipment as an automatic distress beacon? With cellphones and a radio, why didn’t the crew send a mayday? And why was the ship’s life raft found floating un-deployed, still in its canister?

Although the weather had been a bit sloppy that night -- with choppy 3-foot seas and a whiff of fog -- it was certainly nothing the crew hadn’t handled before.

“Boats get lost at sea,” said Wayne Sohrakoff, who docked his boat alongside the Marian Ann at Woodley Island Marina, where 300 colorful boats bear such names as Tempest, Stormbringer and Borrowed Time.

“The mystery here is that it happened to Billy,” he said. “He was a prudent mariner.”

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Bill Burchell, 52, bought the Marian Ann used in 1996, a boat with the builder’s wife as its namesake. Burchell didn’t give a thought to altering that identity, a nod to old seafaring superstitions: You never eat bananas on a boat. You don’t whistle in the wheelhouse or leave port on a Friday. And a boat’s moniker never changes.

Along with his two fishermen brothers, Burchell grew up on San Francisco Bay. For years he worked out of Eureka, where he became a respected skipper, a ruddy-faced veteran with a walrus mustache who always talked around a toothpick that dangled from the side of his mouth.

He had been a shrimper and crabber and had also chased salmon from Monterey to Alaska. But after marrying Howser in 2002, he’d turned to net fishing to stay closer to home, taking the Marian Ann offshore on short trips to drag the ocean floor.

His crewmen -- John Mogg and Maurice Alvarado Sr. -- called him “Cappy,” and both respected not only Burchell’s experience but also his near-fanaticism for safety.

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“It was always ‘Cappy this and Cappy that,’ ” recalled Mogg’s wife, Jennifer, 41. “Anything Cappy said was the God’s truth, the law. They believed it because they believed in him.”

Burchell had a weak spot for troubled mariners seeking a second chance. As long as his crew came to work on time, he allowed men’s pasts to stay in the past.

That’s the way it was with Mogg and Alvarado, best friends and recovering drug addicts, whom Burchell called “the boys.”

In 1998, Mogg joined the Marian Ann after a series of onshore construction jobs. The Idaho native quickly got his sea legs, and Burchell began calling him “the Big Show” for the skillful way he handled the crab pots.

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At home, the father of five rarely talked about fishing’s dangers. Once, while in line to see “The Perfect Storm,” Mogg, 41, questioned why he was taking his wife to a movie that so graphically portrayed fishermen lost at sea. He never wanted to give her more reasons to worry. Instead, he waxed about the serenity and abstract beauty of the unyielding ocean. The recovering methamphetamine addict believed that heading out into the open water was a natural high that helped him stay clean.

He talked his buddy Alvarado into joining him in 2003. Always afraid of the ocean, Alvarado, part Yurok Indian, quickly became a believer and would carry home pictures he’d taken of ravishing purple sunsets. He loved to watch the panicked crabs skitter across the decks after being released from the submersible crab pots.

But the 38-year-old Oakland native suffered from seasickness. His teeth ravaged by years of meth use, he wore dentures and, several times, he got sick at sea and lost his teeth overboard. Cappy and Mogg laughed until their sides ached.

Teena Alvarado often worried about her husband, but he stressed how Cappy would make them perform tasks twice to be sure they were done right.

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And Burchell believed in his boys. Inspired by their diligence, he bought a house in Eureka that he helped convert into a halfway house for recovering addicts.

When Burchell wasn’t fishing, he was tinkering with his boat, which his wife always joked was the real woman in his life. Last spring, he spent four months upgrading the Marian Ann, installing new wooden decks, lights and fish hold. There was also that new blue-and-white paint job, which Burchell described as “applying lots of lipstick.”

In July 2004, the Marian Ann easily passed its Coast Guard safety inspection. “For Bill, safety came first,” Howser said. “He never wanted to hurt those boys. That something should ever happen to them was his greatest fear.”

Bill Burchell never missed a deadline.

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So Teena Alvarado got nervous when the Marian Ann didn’t show up for a 6 a.m. appointment to unload its catch at Pacific Choice Seafood. The boat had left port early on Sept. 20 and was due back two days later.

For more than a year, since her husband joined the crew, Teena’s ritual was to greet the men with coffee as they tied up at the dock. This was the first time the drinks ever got cold.

She called Jennifer Mogg, who reminded her friend about the joke between them: “Never start panicking until Suzie calls.”

At 7:45 a.m., as the two sat in Mogg’s living room, the phone rang.

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It was Suzie.

The skipper’s wife sounded worried. Howser had tried to reach the Marian Ann on the ship’s radio and on her husband’s cellphone. Howser said the Coast Guard, alerted by a Pacific Choice manager, was looking for the boat.

A computer check of the Marian Ann’s vessel monitoring system, which tracked its whereabouts by satellite, showed its last known location was 20 miles offshore. But most worrisome: Its last signal was sent at 7:22 the night before.

“When I learned that,” recalled Howser, “that’s when my world fell apart.”

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The Coast Guard checked for signals from an emergency beacon about the size of a flashlight designed to disengage and float to the surface if the boat sank. There was no signal.

A helicopter flew over the boat’s last known position. Making several sweeps 100 feet off the water, the pilot reported seeing debris on the surface: some plastic totes and wooden planks.

Rescuers from the Coast Guard Group Humboldt Bay dispatched a second helicopter, as well as a Coast Guard cutter and a 47-foot lifeboat. A long-range C-130 aircraft was also sent from Sacramento.

Two of Burchell’s fishing colleagues, Ian Roberts and David Burns, heard about the search on their radios and joined the hunt. At home, Howser juggled three telephones.

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At Jennifer Mogg’s house, dozens of friends gathered. As they waited, each wife thought back to the last phone conversation she’d had with her husband the previous evening.

Suddenly those quick little talks loomed as last goodbyes.

When Burchell and Howser last spoke by cellphone about 6 p.m., there was no talk of danger. Their call lasted only minutes.

John Mogg telephoned Jennifer about the same time. She was writing a paper for school and didn’t have much time to talk. As he always did when the catch was good, John sounded excited: “We’re full on. It’s going to be a good payday.”

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At the Alvarado house, Teena listened as Maurice asked her to make a dentist appointment for the following day. He had gotten sick again and lost his dentures.

Then the phone cut off, but Maurice called right back. Recalled Teena, 34: “He said he just wanted to hear my voice.”

Then the fishermen vanished.

At sea, Coast Guard rescuers collected such information as the water’s drift speed and direction, wave height and cloud coverage, entering the data into a computer to gauge how wide a search area to plot.

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Nobody knew: Did the men even have time to pull on their cold-water survival suits before plunging into the frigid waters?

In the late afternoon, Burns’ boat found the Marian Ann’s un-deployed life raft. Then, about 5 p.m., officials called off the search. The men presumably went into the water nearly 24 hours before. Life expectancy in such conditions is eight hours.

Coast Guard officials had worked regularly with Suzie Howser in her position as Woodley Island dock master. That night, delivering difficult news to grieving families got even harder. “We had to tell a friend that we were going to stop searching for her husband,” Loster said.

For months, people speculated about the Marian Ann’s fate: The vessel could have been run down by a container ship, some said. The Coast Guard checked commercial ship logs but didn’t turn up any vessel in the area that night. Or maybe a Navy submarine became entangled in the Marian Ann’s nets, pulling the ship to its doom. Jennifer Mogg wondered if the crew was kidnapped by pirates who sank their ship.

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Officials knew that Burchell’s boat was the third fishing vessel to sink off the Northern California coast in several months. They wanted to know if there was a pattern, so in mid-December, the Coast Guard contracted with the U.S. Navy to send out a search ship to find the ship’s wreckage. For three days, the ship used sonar to plumb the depths across several miles of ocean.

On the final day, searchers found a form that fit the description of the Marian Ann and sent down the robot to investigate.

What the camera transmitted continues to confound investigators.

The boat’s nets were found rolled up on their reel -- with fish still inside -- ruling out the accidental netting of a Navy submarine. The absence of hull damage suggests there was no surface collision with another ship. And the emergency beacon device designed to automatically deploy in a sinking has not been found.

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Most fishermen say a plausible theory is that the vessel -- sitting low in the water with a full load of fish -- was struck by a rogue wave that rolled it over.

Still, nothing explained how the ship came to rest upright.

“I doubt we’ll ever know what really happened,” Loster said. “There are no black boxes on these boats, no records of final conversations. The only people who know are no longer with us.”

In May, hundreds gathered at Commercial Fisherman’s Memorial at Woodley Island to remember the dead. On a solemn slab of stone by the harbor waters are etched more than 60 names of local mariners lost at sea. It has three new names.

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Most days, Suzie Howser visits the memorial to tend to the flowers she leaves there in Burchell’s memory. For weeks, she feared the crewmen’s wives would blame the captain for the deaths of their husbands.

But that didn’t happen. If anything, the three women are closer now. As a reminder, she keeps a few pieces of the Marian Ann found at sea, including an ice chest and the unused life raft.

At Jennifer’s Mogg’s house, the youngest of the couple’s three sons wants to follow his father to sea. “If I can get close to my dad without dying, this is the way,” Travis Mogg said.

Jennifer covered her ears: “I don’t want to hear it.”

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To honor Alvarado’s Yurok heritage, his family conducted a sweat ceremony in which they burned his prized possessions as an offering to their owner. They torched Maurice’s clothes, his cigarettes and the homemade hat he wore while crabbing.

“He made that hat by cutting up an old sweatshirt,” Teena recalled. “He was so proud of that thing. It still makes me laugh. It was so ugly.”

Phyllis Sovereign, Alvarado’s mother, imagines the last moments of her boy’s life as he floated in the capricious ocean waters, the passing moments slowing to a crawl, knowing death was near. “I have this image in my head of John Mogg and Maurice just looking at each other and smiling, because they knew this was it,” she said.

“If one went down, they all went. They would not have left anyone behind. They had that much respect for each other.”

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In June, the Coast Guard closed its case on the Marian Ann. Said investigator Jim Crouse: “Our conclusion is that the Marian Ann sank for causes unknown.”


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