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Crew member on factory trawler dies after possible ammonia exposure on board

The Northern Eagle docked in Unalaska/Dutch Harbor in July 2020.
Hope McKenney
The Northern Eagle docked in Unalaska/Dutch Harbor in July 2020.

Updated 08/23/23 at 9:20 a.m.

A crew member on an American Seafoods factory trawler died at sea last week, likely from an ammonia leak on board.

U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer Second Class John Highwater said they received a satellite call from the Northern Eagle at about 4 a.m. Friday.

“One of their crew members was found unresponsive in one of their engineering spaces,” Highwater said. “They believe there was an ammonia leak somewhere in the vessel that caused the person to fall unconscious.”

Jeremy Baum, the Alaska Wildlife Trooper stationed in Unalaska/Dutch Harbor, identified the crew member as First Engineer David Kumah from Ghana, in West Africa.

Forty-three-year-old Kumah was found unresponsive just after 12 a.m. that morning, according to Highwater.

The nearly 350-foot vessel was already en route to Unalaska/Dutch Harbor when they made the call to the Coast Guard. Highwater said it would have taken Coast Guard crew longer to reach the vessel than for the trawler to head to port.

Unalaska’s Fire Chief Ben Knowles said the Northern Eagle reached Unalaska around 5 a.m. the next day — roughly 24 hours after the distress call. From there, the case was turned over to local responders.

“The fire department, along with NOAA, the U.S. Coast Guard Marine Safety Detachment and the Alaska State Troopers boarded the vessel around 6 a.m., once they were all tied up, and began the investigation into the incident,” said Knowles.

He said Kumah was pronounced dead prior to arriving at port. The Unalaska Fire Department assisted the State Troopers with their investigation, provided decontamination and offered grief counseling for the vessel, according to Knowles.

“We were able to hold some listening sessions and just kind of make sure that the crew members were able to have someone to talk to,” he said.

American Seafoods brought Kumah’s family to the island, according to Knowles.

“We’re shocked and saddened at this loss, and are in contact with the family to express our deepest condolences and to provide whatever support we can," American Seafoods told KUCB in an email. "We are also providing grief counseling to crew members and are fully cooperating with local authorities. Our hearts and prayers go out to his family and friends during this difficult time.”

Knowles said the local fire department is also available to offer help to the family and crew.

“We're hoping that they can find some healing in this process,” he said.

The Coast Guard, Alaska State Troopers and NOAA Enforcement are investigating the incident.

Kumah’s body was sent off island to the State Medical Examiner’s Office on Tuesday for an autopsy, according to Wildlife Trooper Baum.

Correction: This story previously misspelled Kumah.

Hailing from Southwest Washington, Maggie moved to Unalaska in 2019. She's dabbled in independent print journalism in Oregon and completed her Master of Arts in English Studies at Western Washington University — where she also taught Rhetoric and Composition courses.
Hope McKenney is a public radio news director, reporter, producer and host based in the Aleutian Islands, Alaska.
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