Avelino Garcia 2011-05-17
Roberto Ramirez
Jose Revera
Jose A. Sandoval
Ramon Valdiva

3 clam diggers found dead in Cook Inlet; search on for 2 more

The Associated Press, Published: May 18th, 2011

The president of a company that contracted with five clam diggers working off the coast of Alaska who are now either missing or dead said Wednesday he and employees are heartbroken by what has occurred.

"This is the most tragic event in the history of our company," Frank Dulcich, president and CEO of Pacific Alaska Shellfish, said in a statement. "These hard-working and experienced individuals have contracted with our company for many years and are considered close friends and family."

The company said it was notified at 3:55 p.m. Tuesday that a vessel with five of the company's long-term clam digging contractors was overdue. Shortly afterward, Pacific Alaska Shellfish was informed that the skiff the crew was in was involved in an accident and three clam diggers were found dead southwest of Kalgin Island in Cook Inlet. The search continued Wednesday for the other two.

Coast Guard Petty Officer David Mosley said Tuesday that two men were found dead about a mile from the shore. Workers from Pacific Alaska Shellfish found the third dead man.

It's not clear what took down the men's 20-foot aluminum skiff. The company said the men were in transit after a day digging for clams.

Top managers with the company were assisting the Coast Guard and the Alaska State Troopers in the search for the remaining clam diggers, Dulcich said.

Mosley said two helicopters took turns, assisted by a 110-foot patrol boat, in searching throughout the night for the two missing men. The search continued Wednesday.

The investigation into the accident is just beginning, Mosley said.

"We don't know what led up to the individuals being in the water," he said.

Pacific Alaska Shellfish is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Pacific Seafood Group, headquartered in Clackamas, Ore. The company has a seasonal plant in Nikiski, 60 miles south of Anchorage, where it processes razor clams, according to the company's website. The clams are harvested on a 6-mile stretch of beach between Polly Creek and the Crescent River.

Skiff overloaded in fatal Inlet accident
VICTIMS: Troopers identify 5 men killed when skiff swamped.

By KYLE HOPKINS, khopkins@adn.com, Published: May 21st, 2011

The aluminum skiff carrying the five clam diggers killed in Cook Inlet this week was overloaded when it swamped in rough seas, troopers said.

Troopers, who had previously declined to name the men pending notification of next of kin, released their names Friday but in some cases could not provide a hometown or, in one case, a home state for the workers.

Based on the identities provided by troopers, it was not clear Friday night if the men were licensed to harvest razor clams commercially in Alaska.

According to troopers, those killed in the boating accident were:

Roberto Ramirez, 42, unknown residence

Jose A. Sandoval, 34, of Bakersfield, Calif.

Avelino Garcia, 36, of Oregon (town unknown)

Jose Revera, 24, of Los Angeles.

Ramon Valdiva, 31, of Oregon (town unknown).

The bodies were identified by the state medical examiner's office, troopers said.

The men were part of a group that had spent much of the day Tuesday digging for razor clams between Crescent River and Polly Creek on the west side of Cook Inlet, troopers said.

One worker, 42-year-old Noel Garcia of Aberdeen, Wash., decided to walk back to camp. But five other men loaded the skiff with buckets of clams and got on board, troopers said.

The last time Garcia saw his co-workers, they were motoring back to a camp at Polly Creek at about 2:30 p.m. Tuesday, troopers said.

When Garcia reached the camp, the boat had not arrived. Camp workers set out in another boat to look for the missing men. Once they found Ramirez's body on the shore, someone notified the Coast Guard about the missing skiff, troopers said.

The wind, tide and rough seas all contributed to the boat swamping, troopers said.

Troopers investigated the accident alongside the Coast Guard and the Mexican Consulate.

A prepared statement from Pacific Seafood Group this week said the workers held licenses and permits from the state Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission, Department of Environmental Conservation and Department of Fish and Game. The company said the men worked as independent contractors.

However, the state Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission website lists only 25 people with statewide commercial permits for harvesting razor clams with shovels. None of the names on the list match the names provided by troopers, although two have similar spellings.

Details in the troopers' account differ from earlier statements by the Coast Guard and the president of the Oregon-based seafood company.

The Coast Guard said three of the men were found wearing life jackets and two were not. Troopers Friday said only one man -- Ramirez -- was wearing a life vest.

In another departure from the earlier Coast Guard accounts, troopers said the Coast Guard was not notified of the missing boat until men working at the clam digging camp found one of the bodies on shore.

The men worked on contract for Pacific Alaska Shellfish, which is owned by Oregon-based Pacific Seafood Group.

Pacific Seafood president Frank Dulcich told the Daily News on Thursday that, to the best of the company's knowledge, three of the men were U.S. citizens, while two may have been in the country with work visas.

Dulcich said three of the men were from Oregon and two were from California.

Trooper spokeswoman Beth Ipsen said Friday night that, "as far as we know," all five were U.S. citizens. "We don't (have) information that says they are not," she said in an email.

The bodies of Ramirez, Sandoval and Garcia were found Tuesday, troopers said. The Coast Guard found Revera and Valdiva the next day, troopers said.

Heavy load, rough seas worried one clammer
FATAL VOYAGE: Washington man opted not to join 5 others in boat.

By LISA DEMER, ldemer@adn.com, Published: May 24th, 2011

Before a skiff loaded with men and razor clams motored from a muddy Cook Inlet fishing ground last week, one of the clam diggers in the group saw the potential for danger and didn't get in the boat, troopers investigating the case said Monday.

Noel Garcia, 42, of Aberdeen, Wash., told Alaska State Troopers the boat was overloaded with more than 100 buckets full of razor clams, each weighing about 35 pounds. The seas were rough. It was windy. The tide was rushing in.

While troopers had revealed Friday that the skiff was overloaded, new, dramatic details from Garcia's report emerged Monday.

On the afternoon of May 17, Garcia set out walking several miles from the commercial clamming grounds along the western shore of Cook Inlet back to the fish camp at Polly Creek. He last saw the boat, with the five doomed clam diggers aboard, at about 2:30 p.m., motoring to camp as he was walking there, trooper Thad Hamilton said.

Waves likely rose up over the bow of the 22-foot skiff and swamped it, Hamilton said. Only one of the men, Roberto Ramirez, 42, was wearing a life jacket. He and the other four drowned or succumbed to the frigid water, Hamilton said.

Other clam diggers found the boat at low tide, full of water and sitting on the mud. Forty to 50 clam buckets were still aboard and others scattered around it, the trooper said. Because it was upright, it appears to have swamped and sunk, he said.

The others killed were: Jose A. Sandoval, 34, of Bakersfield, Calif.; Avelino Garcia 36, of Oregon; Jose Rever, 24, of Los Angeles; and Ramon Valdiva, 31, of Oregon, troopers said. In at least some cases, they used different names to get their state commercial clamming permits and to register with the Department of Fish and Game, according to a spokeswoman for Pacific Seafood Group, the parent company for Pacific Alaska Shellfish Co.

The U.S. Coast Guard is investigating what led to the deadly accident that put the five clam diggers into the water.

Commercial clam diggers have pulled razor clams from the Cook Inlet tidal flats for decades. Pacific Alaska took over the operation in 1983, said spokeswoman Shannon Berg. The parent company has never had a workplace death in its 70-year history, she said.

This year, the clam diggers arrived May 12 for what was expected to be a nearly three-month stint working as independent operators, kind of like a salmon crew selling to a processor.

Before the deaths, Pacific Alaska had some 23 diggers. Since the deaths, the clamming, which produced some 6,000 pounds a day, has been dramatically scaled back. The company flew home anyone who didn't want to stay, Berg said.

As of Monday, seven diggers remained, she said. Some who left may decide to come back, and she didn't believe the company was hiring.

All of the men killed were experienced clam diggers, Berg said. One had been working there for 20 or so years and another for 15, she said.

"They were considered close friends of many in our company," she said.


Each digger fills up his own buckets and is paid by the pound, making $130 to $150 or more a day for backbreaking work. Sometimes they put the clams in a raft that they pull and haul back to camp. But they've also used company-owned skiffs for years, Berg said.

Pacific Alaska arranges for the harvested clams to be picked up multiple times a day in a small plane and flies them to Nikiski to be processed for shipment.

It's unknown why all the diggers weren't wearing life jackets, Berg said. The company provides each a life jacket, whistle and flares, she said.

Technically, the skiff should have been equipped with survival suits, the neoprene Gumby-like suits that have saved the lives of fishermen in high seas for years, said Ken Lawrenson, the Coast Guard's commercial fishing vessel safety coordinator for Alaska.

Setnetters, who also operate out of skiffs, have gotten exemptions but under Coast Guard rules then the crew must wear life jackets and have a VHF radio and flares on board.

Pacific Alaska didn't get an exemption but is working on that now, Berg said.


One murky issue concerns the double names of the men who were killed.

The state medical examiner provided the names released by troopers. Each man's identity was confirmed through photo IDs and identifying information provided by families, said Ann Potempa, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Health and Social Services.

Those names didn't match any of those listed as razor clam permit holders on the state Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission website. A couple were close but three were entirely different.

Berg said the men used different names to get their permits, perhaps due to the Mexican practice of using both paternal and maternal last names.

Berg said all the workers were legal residents. Immigration officials on Monday were unable to confirm that.

Wildlife troopers checked the clamming permit and registration files and are satisfied the men had complied with state requirements, Trooper Hamilton said.

Reach Lisa Demer at ldemer@adn.com or 257-4390.