A crew member on a doomed Oregon crabbing vessel that sank in rough seas, killing all three aboard, sent desperate texts to his wife just before his death saying the seas were “real big” and he was putting on his life vest, according to testimony at a U.S. Coast Guard hearing Wednesday.
Denise Porter gave tearful testimony about a series of texts and two alarming phone calls from her husband Joshua during the third day of a weeklong hearing into the Jan. 8 shipwreck off the Oregon coast. The hearing was held in Newport, Oregon, and livestreamed .
The Mary B II overturned in waves up to 20-feet (6 meters) as it tried to cross the Yaquina Bar near Newport, Oregon, after a trip to collect crabbing pots during the lucrative Dungeness crab season.
Toxicology tests found the boat’s skipper, Stephen Biernacki, of Barnegat Township, New Jersey, had amphetamine, methamphetamine and alcohol in his system, but the blood alcohol content fell below the legal limit for intoxication. A toxicology expert, Brian M. Bourgeois, testified the levels of methamphetamine indicate that Biernacki, 50, was impaired.
“I would call this mariner not fit for duty and certainly not what I would call seaworthy,” Bourgeois said.
Chris Reilly, an attorney for Biernacki’s family, did not immediately return an e-mail, text or phone call seeking comment Wednesday while he was in the hearing proceedings. Biernacki’s relatives have said they would not comment.
Biernacki had recently moved to Oregon and had hired Porter, an experienced fisherman from Toledo, Oregon, to work on the Mary B II for about a week during the intense start of the Dungeness crab season, Denise Porter testified.
Porter quickly noticed that Biernacki didn’t seem to know what he was doing and wouldn’t listen to Porter or take his advice, she testified. He didn’t check the tides, for example, and didn’t know how to use some equipment and kept alcohol on board, she said.
Her husband was concerned about his safety, but continued to go out because they had bills to pay and he was only supposed to work a few more days before taking a different job, she said.
“Every time we talked about it, it was like, ‘Why are you on there?’ He said, ‘We have bills to pay.’”
On the day of the shipwreck, Porter expected to be back in port by 2 p.m., she said, because bad weather was coming. He called her shortly after 2 p.m. to say he wouldn’t be home until 4 p.m. Her husband told her that Biernacki wanted to “go and do two more strings,” she said, referring to pulling up more crab pots.
A short while later, Porter texted his wife again to say the Coast Guard was sending a boat to help the Mary B II as it tried to cross Yaquina Bar, a treacherous area where the Yaquina River flows into the ocean current.
The Coast Guard had told the crew that the boat that crossed the bar before them had trouble, she said, referring to her husband’s texts.
“In the midst of the texting back in forth he called me and said, ‘I’m scared, it’s really big out here, I’m putting my life jacket on and I’m putting my phone and wallet in my pocket,’” she recalled.
“And he said, ‘I’ve got to go’ and he hung up.”
Denise Porter, also an experienced fisherperson, began to drive to the jetty, all while texting her husband. She saw flares over the water and the lights from three boats in the heavy surf.
“I said, They’re shooting up flares’ and the very last text I got from him was ‘WTF. Who is?’ That’s all he wrote,” she said tearfully.
She took off her glasses in the fine drizzle, but still could make out lights in the water and hoped one was the Mary B II.
“That’s when I texted him, ‘Are you guys through now?’ and then I didn’t get a text back,” she said.
“Then there’s a series of questions that I text him and I get no answer back and I couldn’t figure out what was going on,” she said. “And then I saw the helicopter and I knew something bad had happened — and I knew I’d never talk to him again.”