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Survivor details harrowing experience during sinking of F/V Scandies Rose

Public hearing to continue on Thursday
Published: Feb. 25, 2021 at 10:49 AM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - “This is not good. This; there’s no coming back from this. We’re sinking. Now.”

Jon Lawler – who was on the F/V Scandies Rose on Dec. 31, 2019, when the boat began rapidly sinking into the sea – spoke at length in an ongoing Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation hearing Wednesday of his experience aboard the boat as it went down, leaving five people presumed dead as it disappeared under the sea.

As soon as things began going wrong around 10 p.m. that New Year’s Eve, Lawler knew something was severely amiss, he said, and immediately ran upstairs, encountering Capt. Gary Cobban in the process.

“And I look at Gary,” he said. “And I said, ‘What the f--- is going on? What’s going on?’ And he said, ‘I don’t know what’s going on. I think we’re f------ sinking.’ ‘No f------ s--- we’re sinking.’”

Lawler looked out the windows and testified that they were “iced over a little bit, but not a lot.”

“And I’m just trying to figure out, How did it go from nothing to, like, the boat is literally leaving us now?” he said.

RELATED: Formal hearing begins into the sinking of the F/V Scandies Rose

Lawler’s heart-wrenching accounts were woven through Wednesday’s session, which also included exhibits of evidence and a myriad of questions from investigators about the 130-foot crab fishing vessel, which normally homeported in Dutch Harbor and sank near Sutwik Island.

“I don’t know how to explain it to anybody,” Lawler said, recounting the final moments leading up to the ship’s sinking. “It’s just that gut-wrench.”

Fast forward, and Lawler would miraculously make it outside the boat alive, donning a rescue suit. That, though, was hardly the end of the distress.

“Someone was grabbing on to my suit saying, ‘Help me, Jon, help me!’ And I couldn’t help him,” Larlwer said through tears. “I had to leave the boat. I had to make that decision. I had to go.”

Finally donning his survival suit, which he had had trouble putting on and didn’t even get fully set until he was outside the boat, Lawler paced on the pieces of the vessel that remained above water until he had no choice but to leave.

“It went down so fast. It sat up for a second, bashing back and forth; you hear the steel, reeeeee, reeeeee,” he said. “It was like the movies. So stupid. Swim away from the boat. I’m looking at the boat, paddling backward, hard as I could, and then one second, like a rocket: Down. Gone. Nothing but silence, me, the ocean.

“I was just accepting it, that I wasn’t going home,” he said.

To both his surprise and relief, a voice would eventually break the deafening silence.

“The fact that raft showed up? I didn’t know what to think about that,” Lawler said. “I heard [Dean Gribble] yelling at me. I barely had enough room to look over my neck, and there he was, sitting in the raft. I couldn’t believe it. All I could do was swim as hard as I could to it. Not very easy in those suits, as you know. And I got in it and at that point, it was nice to know someone else was there.”

After yelling and searching for other survivors for a long while, Lawler and Gribble were able to access a few flares and waited a bit before lighting several in a row.

“Fired one off. Two off. Waited. Three. Four,” Lawler said during his testimony. “No one ever came. But the wind was so violent, I kept thinking I heard the chopper. Playing games with my head. Wind, just beating that thing.”

The two were together for “a while,” Lawler said, trying to keep spirits up: “‘We’re gonna be okay. We’re gonna be okay.’ We knew we weren’t going to be okay.”

The pair waited and waited and waited some more, as hypothermia appeared to set in for Gribble.

And then, hope was literally seen on the horizon in the form of a light on the water.

RELATED: ‘It’s what we do’: Family of missing fishermen mourn but pledge to keep fishing

“I thought it was another vessel,” Lawler said. “And I kept saying ‘Dean-o, Dean-o, I think I see something. Someone here.’ And then that light, it shot up.

“That’s when I knew there was a helicopter,” said Lawler, who years ago had once worked on the F/V Destination, a boat also lost at sea with a crew aboard in 2017. “I was shining my light the whole time, hoping someone could see us because we didn’t have a light in the canopy.”

A Coast Guard aircraft made its way to the two and hovered over them.

“That’s the most beautiful sound I’ve ever heard in my life,” Lawler said. “The rotors of that chopper, just duh duh duh duh.”

Miraculously, the Coast Guard rescued both men, lifting them to safety. Five others, however, and the Scandies Rose were never seen again, despite search efforts that spanned more than 20 hours and 1,400 square miles, utilizing four MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crews, two HC-130 Hercules airplane crews, and a full crew aboard Coast Guard Cutter Mellon.

Lawler’s emotional testimony – also including intermittent questions from a lead investigator – was followed Wednesday by a series of questions from various investigating agencies, such as the Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board.

The hearing overall is intended to “focus on the conditions influencing the vessel prior to and at the time of the casualty,” according to the Coast Guard, including but not limited to weather, icing, the condition of the Scandies Rose itself, owner and operator organizational structures and culture, regulatory compliance of the vessel, and testimony from the survivors and others.

A report into the incident, which will eventually determine a likely cause of the sinking, could take about 12 months before it is publicly available. The NTSB will also take its analysis of the facts presented to add to its findings as it prepares and publishes a separate report.

The hearing will continue to be live streamed as well throughout its duration. It is currently scheduled to end on March 5.

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