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A boat sank in Napakiak. Then the barge sent to save it sank too

Earl Brock

A small ship graveyard is forming outside Napakiak after a 20 foot by 45 foot barge sank in the Kuskokwim River on Aug. 24.

The barge had been brought upriver to help recover a different boat, which sank the last week of July. That boat was being used by the Bethel contracting company "Job’s Done Right" to transport equipment to Napakiak for construction on the high school. Job’s Done Right, which is owned by Job Hale, was subcontracted by H Construction to work on the school. Napakiak’s high school is currently operating with remote learning while they wait for construction to be completed.

After the first boat sank, Job's Done Right brought in a Homer-based company called Kachemak Marine to help salvage it. Then that barge sank too. Earl Brock, Kachemak Marine's salvage master, said that no one saw either vessel sink. He believes that the storm last week was likely to blame.

“I am sure that between the high waves, the high wind, and all the other things that could possibly go wrong, Murphy showed up and that was the end of it,” Brock said. “It sank that barge.”

The storm’s high winds led to flooding and large waves on the Kuskokwim, which Brock thinks ultimately swamped the barge. The barge was being used as a work platform for salvage divers who were attaching lift bags to float the first boat that sank. It’s still unclear why the original landing craft sank at the end of July, and Brock said that it’s likely that no one will ever know.

“I'm going to tell you that if you talk to 15 different people in the community, you'll get 15 different answers,” Brock said. “What I'll also tell you is that nobody has a smoking gun: rock solid explanation of why the landing craft sank.”

Hale, the owner of Job’s Done Right, directed all questions to Brock. According to Brock, no one was on either vessel when it sank, and both the barge and the original boat have been secured to land. The boats are not blocking river traffic at Napakiak. He claimed that there is minimal environmental concern and that no fuel is currently leaking.

“We don't see any environmental threat or any other issue,” Brock said. “There is a very small amount of fuel that was released when the vessels went down, possibly less than a gallon, but a gallon looks like a lot of fuel.”

If there is oil in the water, the U.S. Coast Guard said that it would be Job’s Done Right and Katchemak Marine’s responsibility to clean it up. The Coast Guard said that they received a report of the sunken barge on Aug. 29, and that the owner’s report will dictate whether they go to inspect the sunken vessels. Owners are supposed to report sunken vessels to the Coast Guard immediately and submit a written report within five days.

Kevin Williams, a marine casualty investigator with the Coast Guard’s Anchorage sector, said that at least in terms of the first boat that sank, there’s a lot they don’t know.

“We don't know if the tanks were full or half empty, or if there was oil in the bilges in the engine room, '' Williams said. “The vessel name that was given to us is not even in our database.”

Brock, the salvage master, gave no timeline for recovery of the two vessels, but they are currently constructing rigging to refloat the two boats. He doesn’t expect either of them to be damaged.

“We're still in the middle of sourcing the equipment we need, but the short version is we're going to lift them up, refloat them, and take them and deal with them once they're refloated,” Brock said.

Hale, the owner of Job’s Done Right, said that the sinking of the two boats has not impacted the timeline of the school construction. Hale said that he already had all the equipment he needed in Napakiak before the landing craft sank. According to Sally Benedict, the site administrator for Napakiak’s schools, construction was supposed to be completed on Aug. 21. The school is still waiting to be hooked up to water and heat before they bring students back into the building.

Will McCarthy is a temporary news reporter at KYUK. Previously, he worked as a furniture mover, producer, and freelance journalist. Will's written for the New York Times, National Geographic, and Texas Monthly. He holds a master's degree in journalism from UC Berkeley.