By Hal Bernton / The Seattle Times
Waves filled the life raft with chest-deep water, and at times threatened to flip it. The light atop a canopy was supposed to help rescuers spot them in the night, but it had gone out.
For John Lawler, the only encouraging thing was a glow from a second life raft about a quarter-mile away. He hoped that light would stay on, and someone would find him and crewmate Dean Gribble Jr. in the pitch-black aftermath of Scandies Rose crab boat going down in the Gulf of Alaska.
“We would lose sight of it because the waves were so big, but it would always reappear, ” said Lawler, a 34-year-old crabber from Anchorage, Alaska.
Lawler and Gribble, of Edmonds, were veterans of the Alaska crab fleet. They were on their first trip aboard the 130-foot Scandies Rose, which left Kodiak, Alaska, on Dec. 30 with a crew of seven and went down around 10 p.m. Dec. 31. They also were the only two survivors, with the other five lost at sea: The captain, Gary Cobban Jr., 60; his son, David Cobban, 30; Seth Rousseau-Gano, 29; Brock Rainey, 47; and Arthur Ganacias, 50.
In an interview with The Seattle Times, Lawler detailed what it took to survive a sinking that left him and Gribble adrift in 20-foot seas for four hours. Lawler said he did not want to comment on why the boat may have gone down.
On the night of Dec. 31, Lawler was asleep in his bunk when he was awakened by the boat listing hard on its starboard side. Though no emergency alarms were sounding, Lawler, who has been crabbing since 2010, was certain the boat was in grave danger of sinking.
Lawler and other crew rushed to the wheelhouse as the captain relayed a radio call about the imperiled Scandies Rose to another skipper, then got off a mayday distress call.
By then, the boat was listing so heavily that Lawler had to climb to a box that contained insulated survival suits, which offer protection from the chill sea. He knew from training that he typically took a medium. He grabbed a bigger size, green in color, to make sure he could put it on quickly. Yet once it was on, the zipper jammed at the bottom, and Gribble spent anxious moments helping Lawler pull it all the way up.
Lawler said he and Gribble, with difficulty, made their way out of the wheelhouse as the vessel rolled more. They found themselves standing on the boat’s side. They hoped other crew would follow. But they did not see anyone leave the wheelhouse.
“Dean and I both wish everyone else would have made it to the life raft with us. We both wish there was more time. But it was out of our hands. We got out of the door, and that’s all we could do,” said Lawler, who also said he wanted to convey his condolences to the families of those lost.
Gribble, in a video posted last week and then taken off public view, also expressed sympathies to his crewmates’ families.
Once the two men were outside of the wheelhouse, Lawler said, an alarm went off.
Lawler said he gripped a scupper — an opening on the boat’s side — to try to hang on. Even though he was standing knee-deep in water, he thought the Scandies Rose might retain air pockets that would keep it afloat.
But a big wave knocked Lawler and Gribble off the boat.
Once in the water, they tried to use a piece of line to stay together but it tangled around their feet. They abandoned that effort.
As Lawler drifted away from the Scandies Rose, he recalls an awful final sight of the boat.
“We saw the bow sticking up like a scene out of the Titanic,” he said.
Two life rafts inflated and floated free from the boat as it sank. And after some 20 minutes bobbing about in the ocean, Lawler recalls looking over his shoulder and seeing Gribble in one of the rafts.
“He yelled, ‘Johnny,’ and I swam as hard as I could to get to him … and pulled myself in,” Lawler recalled. “I felt like the weight of a feather getting into it. It was my adrenaline pumping.”
In the raft, they faced another battle for survival.
They went to opposite sides to make the raft more stable. It was covered with a canopy, and Lawler sat beside a flap door. He would peek outside to scout for the next big wave to slam over the craft.
“I would yell, ‘here comes another,’ and we would brace ourselves to keep from flipping over.”
They did not have a locator beacon to send signals that could enable rescuers to track their position, Lawler said. They sent off some flares but there was no sign anyone saw them.
Lawler did not think they would be found. The chances seemed more remote when the dome light on top of the canopy went out. Still, Lawler could occasionally catch sight of the light on the second life raft as it drifted some distance away.
The two men tried to keep their spirits up. They noted how different their New Year’s Eve was from those they had in the past. Gradually, they became colder, and quieter. Lawler could not help but focus on his wife and unborn child.
“We both had the same thought. We thought we were dead. But at least our families would recover our bodies,” Lawler said.
But sometime before 2 a.m. New Year’s Day, Lawler noticed something different about the second life raft. He saw a second light — at sea level — close by its side. Maybe help was near.
Lawler thought his mind might be playing tricks on him. But maybe not.
He found a flashlight in a bag in the life raft and waved it back and forth. He made hand signals.
Then, the light next to the other life raft moved up into the air.
The light was fastened to a swimmer set down by a Coast Guard helicopter crew.
The swimmer had found that raft empty and was moving on.
The helicopter soon hovered over the raft that sheltered Gribble and Lawler.
Rescue was at hand.
Seattle Times reporter Evan Bush contributed to this report.