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Some months she could barely come up with the gas money to drive the 140 miles round-trip to the University of Central Arkansas, a trip she made four or five days a week. She worked odd jobs to pay for basics like groceries. "My house got pretty dirty because I'd ignore it to get schoolwork done," Gwen says. "So then I'd stay up all night to catch up on my housework. The kids got told 'no' more than 'yes,' because I was a starving college student." But in 2005, when Gwen walked across the stage to pick up her diploma, she could hear her children screaming: "Go, Mom! Go!" Later her daughter, Jordan, asked her what 'cum laude' meant. Gwen was crying as she answered: "It means your mama did really good."

A year after she earned her biology degree, Gwen saw a posting for the Alaska fisheries job on Monster.com. "The drawback was, I had to be away from home for months at a time," she says. But the job seemed the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, to be out on the ocean, conducting actual biology fieldwork. And it was decent money: $130 a day to start, with a $20-a-day raise each time she completed 90 days of work. Gwen's ex-husband agreed to take the kids, although not without berating her, in front of them, for being selfish.

Gwen was torn but decided to go—her dream was finally within reach. She'd travel to Alaska for three months at a time, working alongside a crew of fishermen, many of them recent immigrants, roughnecks, and ex-cons, during the summer and winter fishing seasons. After each stint, she'd present her data to the National Marine Fisheries Service in Seattle, then take a few months off before heading north again.

"Mayday. Mayday. Mayday. Mayday. This is the Alaska Ranger." Gwen stood in the wheelhouse listening in as Silveira made the first call to the coast guard. "We are a factory trawler," he reported. "We're 184 feet in length, black hull, white trim." It was 2:46 A.M.; the ship was about 140 miles west of the nearest fishing port, Dutch Harbor, in the Aleutian Islands, and 920 miles west of Kodiak, Alaska, where the coast guard picked up the call.

Over her fleece jacket, fleece pants, long johns, and wool socks, Gwen had already pulled on her bright red neoprene survival suit, designed to keep her dry even if she ended up submerged. She looked around at the crew members. A handful wore only shorts and T-shirts, and some were barefoot as they pulled on their survival suits.

The Ranger was a 35-year-old trawler. Each day the crew dropped a massive net into the ocean, dragged it along the bottom until it was full of fish, pulled it back up, and then beheaded, gutted, and froze the fish (most often yellowfin sole, Pacific Ocean perch, and Atka mackerel) onboard. Every time she boarded a new boat, Gwen was required to fill out a standardized safety checklist, provided by the National Marine Fisheries Service, to ensure that the ship had the required survival equipment and was safe enough for the observers to sail on. She had walked the Ranger with her checklist in hand and noted that its fire extinguishers were in poor condition, and that some of the watertight doors designed to stop flooding from one compartment to the next did not seal properly. "It was by far the worst boat I'd ever set foot on," Gwen remembers. Still, none of the problems she noticed were what her form called "no go" items—missing safety equipment that would prevent a government employee like her from heading out to sea.

"My very next thought was: 'Oh, no, I am not dying today. I am living and I am getting off this boat'"

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