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Deadly Capsizing Stuns Oregon Coast's Residents

Fishermen and others ask whether Taki-Tooo tragedy should have happened at all.

June 16, 2003|Tomas Alex Tizon | Times Staff Writer

GARIBALDI, Ore. — The only visual evidence that something had gone terribly wrong here over the weekend was the yellow police tape that fluttered like kite tails along a windy stretch of beach.

It cordoned off the Taki-Tooo, a 32-foot charter boat that capsized Saturday morning -- killing at least nine of the 19 people on board -- and then washed ashore an hour later like a piece of driftwood.

Now it's considered evidence.

Investigators spent Sunday under a clear blue sky and a bright sun, searching for clues in what is being called one of the worst accidents on the Oregon coast. It was the talk of the region, from Astoria to Newport, talk that ranged from stunned muttering and heavy-hearted amazement to furious debate over whether it should have happened at all.

Nine people, including the boat's captain, Doug Davis, were confirmed drowned. Two men are missing and presumed dead, the search officially called off. One of the eight survivors, 22-year-old Tamara Buell, a deckhand, was seen around town Sunday looking wan and being circumspect as she was escorted from one investigator to the next.

"She didn't think she was going to make it," said Tamara's sister Tylea, 19. "She thought, 'I'm going to die right here.' " Tamara Buell was on the verge of succumbing, her sister said, when somebody grabbed her and helped her ashore.

Fishermen who have spent their lives along this Pacific Northwest coast and have grown familiar with news of drownings were grief-stricken Sunday by the sheer number of victims.

"Nine people dumped, nine people gone, that's a lot," said John Ward, a fishing boat captain who witnessed the accident, which occurred just outside the entrance to Tillamook Bay, and who saw bodies washing ashore.

In fact, there were a fair number of witnesses, including the owner of the Taki-Tooo -- Tamara Buell's father, Mick -- and other fishing boat captains who were on the water at the time. And in their view, the elements of the tragedy were simple.

The boat found itself facing the wrong way as 10- to 12-foot waves approached, and it was knocked over, probably injuring passengers as it rolled on top of them.

Among the witnesses, however, the question of what happened was not nearly as relevant Sunday as whether it should have happened.

There were fishermen like Steve Dana -- whose boat was near the same spot as the Taki-Tooo -- and Ward, who said risk comes with being a commercial fisherman; they explained that Davis, 66, was a highly regarded skipper with decades of experience, and neither found reason to blame him.

"That's all it was, an accident," Dana said. "It can happen to anybody, anytime."

"When the ocean wants you, it's going to get you," Ward added.

Others were not so generous.

Karl Gunderson, 58, is a commercial fisherman with a boat equivalent in size to the Taki-Tooo. Gunderson said "no one with any sense" would have taken a boat that size into "the bar" -- not on a day when swells were more than 10 feet and the Coast Guard had issued a small-craft advisory.

Much of the talk had to do with the bar, which refers to a spot just off the narrow channel where Tillamook Bay meets the Pacific Ocean. Boats heading to the ocean must cross the bar, where waves and swells are most dangerous. Witnesses said the Taki-Tooo had passed the bar and was trying to outrun a big wave by going north -- parallel to the beach -- when the wave hit broadside, followed by other big waves.

Gunderson pointed out that many commercial fishermen, himself included, decided not to go out to sea Saturday because of the rough waves.

Some other fishermen speculated that Davis' decision to go out was a financial one. If he had turned back, he would have had to refund his 17 passengers the $70 they each had paid for six hours of bottom-fishing. It was the first big weekend of the summertime charter season.

The group aboard the Taki-Tooo was a mix of friends and strangers. At least five were pals who knew each other from working at the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway. Two of the dead were from that group, as were the two still missing.

One of the railroad workers who died was 61-year-old Larry H. Frick of Spokane, Wash. The trip was an annual event; this was the 10th year, said stepson Ronald Owens.

Owens said authorities speculated that the men might have been tossed and then hit by the boat as it capsized. He said his stepfather was in excellent shape and knew how to swim.

"We know something must have happened, because he would have made it to shore," Owens said. "This guy is a brute.

"He was cut short a bit on what he had coming. He worked so hard for so long, and then this was just like a freak accident.... It wasn't his time yet, and that's why it's so sad here."

Another victim, Steve A. Albus, 54, of Ephrata, Wash., was a maintenance chief at the railroad, said his wife, Sally.

"He's a good man, and everyone is going to miss him," she said. "All the guys are calling and saying that he's the best boss they ever had."

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