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COLUMN ONE

A Mystery as Deep as the Ocean

An undamaged fishing trawler is found on the sea floor, its nets full. The captain and crew are lost. And no one can figure out why.

July 09, 2005|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

Coast Guard officials had worked regularly with Suzie Howser in her position as Woodley Island dock master. That night, delivering difficult news to grieving families got even harder. "We had to tell a friend that we were going to stop searching for her husband," Loster said.

For months, people speculated about the Marian Ann's fate: The vessel could have been run down by a container ship, some said. The Coast Guard checked commercial ship logs but didn't turn up any vessel in the area that night. Or maybe a Navy submarine became entangled in the Marian Ann's nets, pulling the ship to its doom. Jennifer Mogg wondered if the crew was kidnapped by pirates who sank their ship.

Officials knew that Burchell's boat was the third fishing vessel to sink off the Northern California coast in several months. They wanted to know if there was a pattern, so in mid-December, the Coast Guard contracted with the U.S. Navy to send out a search ship to find the ship's wreckage. For three days, the ship used sonar to plumb the depths across several miles of ocean.

On the final day, searchers found a form that fit the description of the Marian Ann and sent down the robot to investigate.

What the camera transmitted continues to confound investigators.

The boat's nets were found rolled up on their reel -- with fish still inside -- ruling out the accidental netting of a Navy submarine. The absence of hull damage suggests there was no surface collision with another ship. And the emergency beacon device designed to automatically deploy in a sinking has not been found.

Most fishermen say a plausible theory is that the vessel -- sitting low in the water with a full load of fish -- was struck by a rogue wave that rolled it over.

Still, nothing explained how the ship came to rest upright.

"I doubt we'll ever know what really happened," Loster said. "There are no black boxes on these boats, no records of final conversations. The only people who know are no longer with us."

In May, hundreds gathered at Commercial Fisherman's Memorial at Woodley Island to remember the dead. On a solemn slab of stone by the harbor waters are etched more than 60 names of local mariners lost at sea. It has three new names.

Most days, Suzie Howser visits the memorial to tend to the flowers she leaves there in Burchell's memory. For weeks, she feared the crewmen's wives would blame the captain for the deaths of their husbands.

But that didn't happen. If anything, the three women are closer now. As a reminder, she keeps a few pieces of the Marian Ann found at sea, including an ice chest and the unused life raft.

At Jennifer's Mogg's house, the youngest of the couple's three sons wants to follow his father to sea. "If I can get close to my dad without dying, this is the way," Travis Mogg said.

Jennifer covered her ears: "I don't want to hear it."

To honor Alvarado's Yurok heritage, his family conducted a sweat ceremony in which they burned his prized possessions as an offering to their owner. They torched Maurice's clothes, his cigarettes and the homemade hat he wore while crabbing.

"He made that hat by cutting up an old sweatshirt," Teena recalled. "He was so proud of that thing. It still makes me laugh. It was so ugly."

Phyllis Sovereign, Alvarado's mother, imagines the last moments of her boy's life as he floated in the capricious ocean waters, the passing moments slowing to a crawl, knowing death was near. "I have this image in my head of John Mogg and Maurice just looking at each other and smiling, because they knew this was it," she said.

"If one went down, they all went. They would not have left anyone behind. They had that much respect for each other."

In June, the Coast Guard closed its case on the Marian Ann. Said investigator Jim Crouse: "Our conclusion is that the Marian Ann sank for causes unknown."

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