NEWPORT — Coast Guard investigators revealed that the captain of the doomed Fishing Vessel Mary B II tested positive for methamphetamine and alcohol in toxicology tests.
Testimony at the hearings this week on the Jan. 8 sinking that claimed three lives pointed to inexperience and possible intoxication on the part of Captain Stephen Biernacki, who registered 0.17 mg per liter of amphetamine and 0.50 mg per liter of meth, according to post mortem toxicology results. The level of alcohol in his body was 0:033g/dL at the time of his death while piloting the boat across a breaking bar at night.
A five-member panel of Coast Guard investigators on Monday kicked off the multi-day hearing in which they grilled witnesses on varied aspects of the tragedy. Lost to the sea — their bodies later recovered from the wreck and on the beach — were Biernacki, 50, of New Jersey, and crewmen Josh Porter, 50, of Toledo and James Lacey, 48, of New Jersey. Porter did not have any intoxicants or drugs in his system. Lacey tested positive for marijuana, but toxicology did not register the amount.
At the Newport hearing attended by a couple of dozen people, Oregon State Police Trooper Heather Van Meter detailed accounts from people who felt Biernacki was impaired in the days leading up to the wreck, including a call from a concerned business owner and her own witnessing of Biernacki on the docks with bloodshot eyes and slurred speech the day before the accident.
Following the accident, a Newport commercial fisherman who had previously employed Biernacki as a captain told Van Meter he had fired him over concerns about his abilities.
Clint Funderburg, the former owner of the 42-foot crabber recalled selling the boat to Biernacki and his mother in the months leading up to the accident. Biernacki behaved erratically and appeared to have little or no experience on the Newport bar, Clint Funderburg said.
"While going through the boat, I sensed he didn't understand or respect the local bar and crossing," Funderburg testified. "It concerned me at the time."
Funderburg said he tried to explain safety factors related to local conditions and the boat.
"He wasn't that interested in talking about it," he said. "He basically keeps telling me he knows what he's doing, he's very experienced."
Funderburg had sold the boat, then called the Bess Chet, to move up to a larger vessel.
The Mary B II was inbound on the Newport bar attempting to escape a building storm when it was crushed by breaking waves just north of the channel. The Mary B II was at the end of the lineup of boats seeking safe harbor when it encountered 16-foot breakers.
Funderburg estimated the boat, while seaworthy in its size class, was suited to weather not greater than 25 knots of wind and 10-foot seas.
"It was a very good, stable seagoing vessel but all boats have their limitation," he told investigators.
Marine surveyor Robert Schones said his inspections of the vessel prior to the accident had revealed no red flags from a mechanical standpoint. Schones detailed the trail of marine debris scattered from the bar to Yaquina Head and remembered taking objects from the boat to its owner as keepsakes. He gave his own analysis of the sea conditions based on hundreds of his own bar crossings.
"Those are the kind of conditions you only want to approach at high water and during daylight hours," he said.
Schones detailed the precise seamanship involved in timing a series of breakers, running full throttle during the lull between waves and the speed adjustments needed to keep a boat upright while battling waves.
Faced with worsening conditions and 60 to 100 mph winds that could still unfold, "you're going to do you're very best to cross that bar even if it's not optimum conditions," he said, referring to the type of weather-related judgment calls that commercial fishing captains must routinely make.
"Do you attempt to cross the bar and reach safe haven or do you stay out in the ocean for three days and take a beating?" he said.
The wood and fiberglass vessel appeared to have been snapped in half by the waves and sheared off at the deck line, Schones said.
The investigators heard from additional witnesses on Tuesday and on Wednesday were set to take testimony from medical examiners and toxicology professionals as well as former employers of Biernacki and a colleague of Porter. The hearings, set to stretch into Friday, will also include testimony from the boat owner, Mary Anderson, of San Diego and Chief Warrant Officer Tom Molloy of Station Yaquina Bay.
Molloy was aboard one of two Coast Guard boats which were escorting the Mary B II and firing flares to help light the way when the boat was crushed off the tip of the North Jetty. The findings will help inform a detailed report and possible recommendations to be released by the Coast Guard this fall.