Ryan Miller, 10/14/05

Wrangell mourns fisherman
Ryan Miller

FUNERAL: Miller's death keenly felt in small town; cause of capsizing unknown.

By MATT VOLZ, The Associated Press

Published: October 24, 2005

WRANGELL -- What happened in the final moments before Ryan Miller's boat capsized in the frigid waters of Clarence Strait is a mystery, and his family would just as soon leave it at that.

A fishing family has to be understanding and accepting of tragedy. A fishing family finds peace in burying a fisherman in the graveyard instead of losing him to the sea.

"We're just thankful they got the body back for the family so we can have closure," said brother-in-law Frank Warfel Jr.

Even with the fire trucks cleared out for the memorial service, Wrangell's public safety building overflowed with people Saturday afternoon. It seemed the entire town of 2,000 was a fishing family that day.

They stood in line up to 10 minutes to get in the door. Some came in suits, but many more in this blue-collar town wore jeans and baseball caps to pay their respects. Their knee-high rubber boots protected their feet from the soggy Southeast Alaska weather.

They filled the garage and lined the walls among the hoses and uniforms. After the eulogy, as a slide show of Ryan and movies of his fishing boat sailing played, men and women alike pulled out handkerchiefs to dab at their eyes.

These were the people who had come to say farewell, who felt the tragedy as though it was their own. And they will later be the ones to care for Ryan's wife, Jennifer, and their three children, Calleigh, Garrett and Trevor.

"That's the beauty of Wrangell. Through any tragedy like this, the town comes together," said Gary Allen Jr., a friend of Ryan's.

Wrangell became dependent on commercial fishing when the timber industry crashed in the 1990s, and the 38-year-old sandy-blond captain and his boat, the MRS, came to symbolize the fleet.

"Out of all the boats in Wrangell, the MRS was the one I could point out and I could name," said Eliza Hansen, a childhood friend of Jennifer and Ryan.

Ryan was a stocky, cheerful guy who had an easy smile and a boisterous manner. He was one of those men who could walk right up to anyone and start a conversation. He was respectful, but he could be brutally honest, Allen said.

"There's one less person you can trust," he said.

A walk through Wrangell takes 20 minutes if it's raining hard and you're beating a path to someplace dry. For Ryan, the same trip would take two hours because he'd have to stop every few feet and talk to somebody new.

The MRS was a floating piece of Wrangell history, a fixture of the fleet built right in the town's harbor 52 years ago. She was a 48-foot wooden vessel that was later extended to 53 feet after Frank Warfel Sr. bought her in the 1960s. She was rigged to catch just about anything that swims in the waters of the Inside Passage: salmon, halibut, shrimp, crab.

Frank Warfel Sr. took on Ryan as a crewman after Ryan began dating his daughter. Frank Sr. thought Ryan, who was living on his own since high school and was fixing outboard motors, needed a little direction in life.

Ryan found his place on the water. He was suited for the life of a fisherman, and though the job took him away from home for long periods of time, he was proud that he could provide a good home for Jennifer and their young children.

Frank Jr., who captains the MRS' sister ship, the Ivar P. Nore, said Ryan loved the job, but he took it a step beyond most fishermen: He thought like a fish.

"You have guys who don't do so well, you have average fishermen, and then you have the guys who take it to the next level. That's where Ryan was headed," Frank Jr. said.

The crew of the MRS was pot shrimping Oct. 14 when it turned over under clear skies and winds of less than 10 mph. They had already pulled out some shrimp and had more pots on board before it turned over.

It's still not known if too much weight was on board or if the weight on deck had shifted and caused the boat to flip.

The Lady Mae, a fishing vessel out of Ketchikan, was just a mile away when its captain, Melvin Fairbanks, heard the mayday call. Fairbanks hurried to the spot and found all three men in the water. The two crewmen were hypothermic. Ryan wasn't breathing and didn't have a pulse.

Francis said investigators are constructing a time line to find out what went wrong. They're going to take into account crew interviews, the weight of the pots and the weather. They also will try to pull up the MRS, which may be resting as deep as 400 feet at the bottom of the Inside Passage.

Frank Sr. said the boat was sturdy and he has complete faith in Ryan's ability. Whatever happened out in that strait, it happened in seconds, he said.

"I don't know what Ryan did or what transpired," Frank Sr. said. "He never took any super chances where he really pushed the envelope. That's easy in this business. When there's a buck to be made, fishermen will push the envelope."

Frank Jr. said the loss of his friend and brother-in-law has made him question his own livelihood. He's done fishing for the season. But come February, he'll be back out to search for brown crabs. He's already looking forward to it.

"The thing is, Ryan died doing what he loved doing. He wouldn't want to do anything else in the world," Frank Jr. said. "He loved killing fish. And I'm the same way."