NEWPORT — The Pacific Ocean and a rising swell destroyed a Newport crab boat and claimed three lives late Tuesday night.
The Fishing Vessel Mary B II was overcome by 16-foot breakers around 10 p.m. as the older plank boat tried to enter the bar to escape a building storm.
A motor lifeboat and helicopter search effort located James Lacey, 48, of South Toms River, New Jersey floating in the surf. He was flown to Samaritan Pacific Communities Hospital in Newport where he was pronounced dead, according to Oregon State Police. The Newport Fire Department located the body of Joshua Porter, 50, of Toledo, on the sand near Nye Beach. The body of the boat’s captain, Stephen Biernacki, 50, from Barnegat Township, New Jersey, was removed Wednesday morning from the cabin of the vessel, which washed ashore north of the bar.
The boat was one in a lineup of vessels that had all but emptied from the crabbing grounds Tuesday afternoon and evening to escape a new round of storms and southeast wind.
The Mary B II had been under escort by the 52-foot Motor Lifeboat Victory as the Coast Guard shadowed boats during their crossing into the river mouth. The Mary B II strayed north of the range line as it approached the bar, exposing it to breakers off the north tip and a shallow area west of there commonly called the Dumping Grounds.
Chief Warrant Officer Tom Molloy was on the escort boat following about 100 yards behind the Mary B II when it approached the bar, and provided a narrative of the accident.
Two Coast Guard boats hovered at the bar, setting off flares so boat captains could see their way in. The seas were building fast on their way from a small four-foot swell to a 20-foot swell. Every 10 to 15 minutes a massive set would come through, Molloy said. His boat was setting off flares behind the Mary B II so the captain could see if waves were approaching from his stern.
“The boat wasn’t moving as fast as we would have hoped,” Molloy recounted during an interview Thursday. “It was doing about two knots and we would have liked it to be about seven.”
As the 42-foot crabber began its approach to the bar, Molloy told the captain he was too far north, but received no response on the radio. Then a massive set built across the reef on the south side of the bar.
“I could see the jetty in his halogen lights heading toward the jetty and I told him you need to turn to starboard,” Molloy said.
As the set of breakers came across, the crabber made a partial turn into the wave about 200 yards off the north tip.
“The wave broke across the pilot house and pitch-poled him upside down,” Molloy said. “The debris then washed into the area north of the jetty where it is impossible to get a boat in.”
A MH-65 Dolphin helicopter from Air Facility Newport scrambled to the scene. The Newport Fire Department sent responders to the beach, where they reported debris washing onshore.
The aircrew recovered Lacey’s body from the water around 11:30 p.m. Porter was found on the beach approximately an hour later. Biernacki’s body was located early on, but was covered in sand that had filled the wheelhouse and rescue personnel had to wait for the tide to go out and then work to free the body on Wednesday morning.
State Parks workers hunched against rain and gusts to recover broken planks and other debris from the vessel on Wednesday morning. At the scene, Coast Guard Petty Officer First Class Rory Jenkins said the Coast Guard is working with parks officials to make sure any diesel spills are contained.
"The sea state is just horrendous out there," Jenkins said. "For an old wood boat like that, it's just really tough."
Lacey and Biernacki were newcomers to the Newport crab fishery, but Porter was well known in the fishing community and local area. The Mary B II had recently been purchased and had formerly been named the Bess Chet, out of Charleston.
The Coast Guard and parks personnel have been monitoring the sand north of the jetty for signs of fuel. It isn’t known how much diesel was aboard, but the boat had been fishing for several days so the quantity was likely low, Jenkins said. If the tanks are located, the Oil Spill Liability Fund will be used to cover the cost of their removal. The fund provides an immediate source of federal money for oil spill response.
The Newport Fishermen's Wives have set up a fund to help the families and have been working particularly to aid the wife of James Lacey.
"She's by herself and doesn't have a lot of support; we're reaching out to help her as much as we can," said Taunette Dixon, president of the Wives. "We've dealt with this before and our focus is to support these families through this tragedy."
Donations can be made by going to http://www.newportfishermenswives.com/ and clicking the "Donate" button. Checks can also be mailed to Newport Fishermen's Wives, P.O. Box 971, Newport, OR 97365