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4 die as boat sinks off Alaska

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Four crew members died Sunday and another was missing after a Seattle-based fishing boat sank in high seas off Alaska's Aleutian Islands, the Coast Guard said.

The dead were among 47 crew members who abandoned ship after the 184-foot Alaska Ranger developed problems. Forty-two crew members were recovered safely, but a search was continuing for the missing person, said Chief Petty Officer Barry Lane.

The vessel started taking on water shortly before 3 a.m. after losing control of its rudder 120 miles west of Dutch Harbor, which is on Unalaska Island. Seas with up to 8-foot waves and 25-knot winds were reported at the time of the sinking, Lane said. The Coast Guard is investigating the cause of the accident, he said.

State environmental regulators were notified that the ship was carrying 145,000 gallons of diesel when it sank in deep seas, according to Leslie Pearson, emergency response manager for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

An oil sheen covered an area of a quarter mile by a half mile, Coast Guard spokesman Ray Dwyer said. Because of the strong winds, however, any cleanup effort is unlikely, although those conditions would disperse a spill much more quickly than calm weather, Pearson said.

Some of those on board the Alaska Ranger were heading to Dutch Harbor in a Coast Guard cutter and the sunken vessel's sister ship, the Alaska Warrior. The vessel took part in the rescue operation along with two Coast Guard helicopters that were used to pluck crew members from life rafts, Lane said.

Other survivors were on board the Coast Guard cutter Munro, which remained at the scene to search for the missing crew member. Lane said the names of the dead would not be released until their next of kin had been notified.

A C-130 also remained to help search for the missing crew member.

Coast Guard Lt. Eric Eggan said it was unknown how or when the four died. The identities of the dead were unknown.

Chuck Harvey, a harbor officer on duty in Dutch Harbor, said his office was notified by the Coast Guard to clear a dock for its arrival, expected around 11 p.m. EDT Sunday.

The Coast Guard also told harbor officials to have an ambulance ready, but didn't specify the degree or nature of any injuries, Harvey said.

"I figure there's quite a bit of hypothermia going on," he said.

The Alaska Ranger is owned by Seattle-based Fishing Company of Alaska. A man who answered the company's phone Sunday afternoon declined to identify himself or comment. He said no one else was available to comment.

"Today, they're all pretty much tied up," he said.

Coast Guard Petty Officer Levi Read said the company had sent an insurance adjuster to Dutch Harbor, who was expected to arrive Sunday afternoon.

In December, an engine fire damaged another of the company's ships, the Alaska Patriot, while it was docked near Dutch Harbor. No one was injured in the blaze.

Roger Deffendall, fire captain with the Unalaska Department of Public Safety, told radio station KIAL that a crew member extinguished the worst of the fire before he and the rest of the crew fled the trawler.

The Fishing Company of Alaska, the owner of the Alaska Juris — a catcher-processor ship it managed — and the ship's captains were fined a combined $254,500 in 2006. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries Service said the company — as well as the ship's owner, Alaska Juris Inc., and its captains — committed numerous violations, such as tampering with or destroying equipment used by industry observers and failing to provide observers a safe work area.

Federal officials said the case stemmed from a multiyear investigation that documented a range of federal violations, including keeping inaccurate information on required reports and fishing contrary to seasonal closures.