Section: Capital Region,  Page: D3

Date: Sunday, December 7, 2008

ALBANY -- Five years ago this Tuesday, on Dec. 9, 2003, the capsizing of the cargo ship Stellamare in the Port of Albany left three Russian sailors dead, requiring years of litigation to resolve the worst local maritime disaster in recent history.

The ship's owner, Jumbo, based in the Netherlands, reached an undisclosed cash settlement in Russia with the families of deceased crewmen Sulieman Khasenevich, Yuri Akofin and Victor Alexeev. They died after being trapped by debris in a flooded cargo hold.

A 304-ton General Electric Co. generator was being lifted by crane and lowered next to a 234-ton generator already in the hold when the 289-foot ship rolled suddenly to port and turned over in 35 feet of icy Hudson River water.

A year ago, a daughter of one of the deceased crewmen tried to file a new suit in the United States, but a judge dismissed it, said Pat Bonner, a New York City maritime attorney who represented Jumbo.

"Everything else has been settled. There's nothing pending," Bonner said.

The shipping firm also paid an undisclosed cash settlement in 2005 to Rainer Hoelzl, a marine consultant from New Jersey, who sued Jumbo in federal court in Albany after he was thrown from the ship into the water, sustaining head injuries, before he was pulled to safety by longshoremen.

Hoelzl has returned to work as a shipping surveyor with steel pieces implanted in his face due to serious facial fractures from the capsizing. "He has a good attitude about what happened and is grateful to be alive," said Donald Boyajian, an Albany attorney who represented Hoelzl.

A 2007 U.S. Coast Guard report highlighted mismanagement of ballast tanks as one of several errors by supervisors and crew that led to the capsizing. No criminal wrongdoing was involved, investigators found. Among the failures was a language barrier between the Russian-speaking officer and seamen, the Dutch-speaking supervisor and orders relayed in English. The report said Jumbo should review its safety management system and how it conducts heavy lifts of items such as the GE generators in the future.

The ship was sold as is, cleaned up locally and re-sold to a Greek ship owner who put it into service as a cargo hauler between Russia and the Middle East. A stone memorial to the three deceased Russian sailors rests at the Port of Albany.

-- Paul Grondahl

Plane crash survivor recovers

Matthew Ramige has rebuilt both his health and his life in the four years since miraculously surviving a small plane crash in the Montana wilderness.

Badly burned with a broken back and left for dead by rescuers, Ramige, now 33, has fully recovered, said his mother, Wendy Becker, who at the time was an assistant professor of management at the University at Albany. He's again living in Missoula, Mont., where he is completing his master's degree in business administration and pursing a new job with the federal Department of Homeland Security.

Ramige is not sure where a homeland security job may take him, but he expects to move from Montana, his home for more than a decade.

Ramige was working for the U.S. Forest Service Sept. 20, 2004, when a small plane carrying him and four other people on an mission crashed into a remote mountain near Glacier National Park. He and another survivor walked out to get help, emerging a day after authorities declared them both dead and halted the search.

"Matt doesn't like to talk about the accident," said Becker. "He had been getting requests to do movies, to do books. He has no interest. He wants to focus on the future."

With surgeries and therapy behind him, Ramige is again in "great physical shape," his mother said, able to do the hiking, kayaking and back-country skiing that he loves. "He is very active with his friends and has a completely normal life. He is building his new career," said Becker, who now works as an associate business professor at Shippensburg University, near Harrisburg, Pa.

Becker has turned her son's accident into a case study on how organizations deal with accidents and their aftermath.

"Four years later and I am still in this process. It is like a crime scene investigation," she said.

"I have been using the federal Freedom of Information Law to obtain records from both the Forest Service and the National Transportation Safety Board. ... My son does not talk about the accident, but I know he is proud of my work in looking into it."

Becker maintains her ties to Albany. She and a colleague recently formed a management consulting business here, Becker Dale Consulting, that advises crime labs.

---- Brian Nearing