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Fatal Voyage : It's been 6 months since the commercial trawler Vil Vana and its even crewmen vanished in waters off Santa Cruz Island. But unanswered questions still haunt the families left behind.

August 04, 1994|JEFF MEYERS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NORMA WATKINS talks about her 11-year-old granddaughter, who has been prone to sleepless nights and dark moods ever since the child's father was lost at sea last year. One evening recently, Watkins says, the family was watching a TV movie about '30s aviator Amelia Earhart when the youngster made a haunting connection.

"Amelia Earhart just disappears," Watkins says, "and my granddaughter goes, 'That's just like . . . . ' But she couldn't make herself say it. Her grandfather finally said, 'Just like Dad.' "

Nearly 16 months have passed since the commercial trawler Vil Vana and seven crewmen vanished just north of Santa Cruz Island. While families of the victims are still tormented by the mysterious and seemingly implausible event--one of the worst maritime disasters in Ventura County history--they are also exasperated and angry with the U.S. Coast Guard, which has neither solved the mystery nor finished its official report on the investigation.

"We should have had answers by now," says Laura Huffman, the mother of the three children of crewman Donnie Watkins.

Without an official report, the tragedy lacks finality for relatives, preventing them from letting go. "For all I know," Norma Watkins says, "my son is alive."

And without definitive answers, rumors and imaginations run wild. How could a 41-foot wooden trawler and everyone on board just vanish in the middle of Santa Barbara Channel? Conjecture around the docks ranges from drug snuff to UFOs.

SPECULATION

Norma and Don Watkins speculate that the Vil Vana was sunk in a collision with the U.S. Navy's black stealth ship, the 160-foot Sea Shadow, a scenario straight out of a Tom Clancy novel but with a touch of credibility: The Sea Shadow just happened to be at Santa Cruz Island that day, the Navy confirms.

The drawn-out official report and the Sea Shadow's presence fuels the conspiracy theories. "Something big-time happened on that ocean," Norma Watkins says, sitting under a shade tree outside her La Conchita trailer.

"I don't know . . . with that report taking so long . . . The whole thing is fishy."

But the Coast Guard sees thoroughness behind its lengthy investigation--after all, Amelia Earhart's disappearance hasn't been solved in 57 years. While most fatality reports usually take only weeks to complete, running just a few pages, the Vil Vana report has grown to 60 pages and "is the largest investigation file I've ever seen in my two years here," says Lt. Commander Adeste Fuentes, who is in charge of the investigation for the Coast Guard's Marine Safety Office in Long Beach.

The Coast Guard investigation has been stymied by a lack of hard evidence and a total absence of eyewitnesses. But next of kin, Fuentes says, want intrigue and revelation, where none exists. "If you're looking for answers," he says, "the answer is, 'We don't know (what happened).' "

This much is known: The blue-and-white Vil Vana was last seen at 4:30 a.m. on April 9, 1993, easing away from E dock at Ventura Harbor Village Marina and setting a course for the shrimp beds off Santa Cruz Island. That afternoon, satellites began picking up distress signals.

At 8:43 p.m., the pilot of a search helicopter spotted an emergency strobe light amid a small debris field floating 1 1/2 miles north of the island, off an area called Chinese Harbor. But no boat and no bodies were ever discovered.

The Coast Guard turned up "nothing significant" during its investigation, but Fuentes has been able to piece together several parts of the puzzle. A revised copy of the nearly completed official report, reviewed by The Times, rules out collisions, fires or any scenario evoking the Bermuda Triangle.

What probably happened? "All evidence points to the Vil Vana capsizing and sinking quickly without prior warning," Fuentes says.

Fuentes' own scenario will be an addendum to the final report, which is expected by the fall. He believes the Vil Vana was unstable in the water because of changes made to the boat before its last voyage. He believes pilot error may have caused the boat to veer sideways to a wave; broadsided by waves, the trawler tipped to one side, took on water and rolled over.

Fuentes thinks the vessel went down with all seven men trapped inside, some in the hold, some in the pilot's cabin, some in the work area, which was enclosed by a 2-foot-by-4-foot lattice cage running from the pilot's cabin to the transom.

Rollover "may have been caused by a deadly combination of two or three factors," Fuentes says.

But relatives of the victims refuse to accept rollover as the reason their men didn't come back. "That doesn't satisfy me," says Norma Watkins, frowning and lighting a cigarette. "It's hard to believe not one of those men was able to get off that boat and make it to the island. Even if they all drowned, not one body popped up. Bodies float."

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