Four die as a result of blaze aboard fish processor in Bering Sea

Mar 1, 2007 12:00 AM
Three crewmen were killed and five injured following a raging fire and explosion aboard the 180-foot fishing/processing vessel Galaxy in the icy waters of the Bering Sea. A fisherman aboard another vessel was swept overboard and lost at sea as the vessel was making its way to port with more than a dozen Galaxy crewmembers who had been saved from a life raft.

Galaxy is enveloped in smoke and flames as other fishing vessels come to its aid in the Bering Sea. The fire started in the engine room. An ensuing explosion blew two crewmembers overboard.

The accident occurred Oct. 20, when Galaxy, a Seattle-based vessel that catches and processes Pacific cod, was about 30 miles southwest of the Pribilof Islands, which are more than 300 miles from mainland Alaska and 250 miles north of the Aleutian Islands. U.S. Coast Guard officials said the fire — so intense it turned the deck and handrails searing hot — caught the crew by surprise when it broke out in the engine room. As the crew attempted to douse the blaze, a fiery explosion rocked the vessel and knocked two crewmembers into the 45° waters, where they were presumed drowned.

Witnesses reported 50-foot-high flames, and black billowing smoke could be seen 30 miles away. Six crewmembers — given the choice of burning flames or freezing waters — jumped ship and were hoisted to safety in a basket lowered by a Coast Guard helicopter. Fifteen crewmembers were picked up in a life raft by another fishing vessel, and two others in survival suits were pulled out of the waters by other fishermen.

"This was quite a case — the stuff they make movies out of," said Lt. Michele Schallip of the Coast Guard station in Juneau, Alaska.

The tragedy is the latest in the Bering Sea, one of the most productive — and dangerous — fishing grounds in the world. A Coast Guard investigation is likely to take months.

The steel-hulled Galaxy was built for the U.S. military 50 years ago and served as a Coast Guard buoy tender for decades before being converted to a fishing vessel in the mid-1970s.

On the afternoon of Oct. 20, the fire erupted without warning in the engine room below the wheelhouse. Galaxy's captain radioed for help as the fire spread so quickly it prevented access to nearly every porthole and hatch, the Coast Guard said. Some crewmembers were trapped on the bow and in the wheelhouse, while others jumped into the frigid ocean.

As a Coast Guard rescue helicopter took off from the tip of the Alaska Peninsula, and other fishing boats responded to the mayday call, Galaxy crewmen attempted to fight the flames. That's when something exploded, a blast so violent it blew two crewmen, 1st Mate Jerry Stephens and cook George Karn, overboard. The other victim, Jose R. Rodas, was plucked from the waters without a survival suit and flown to the Pribilof Islands, where he was pronounced dead.

When the helicopter and three fishing vessels arrived three hours later, they were greeted by a floating inferno. A crewmember and a National Marine Fisheries Service observer who had jumped overboard in survival suits were rescued by fishing vessels. A life raft with 15 people in it was also pulled to safety. The helicopter dropped a Coast Guard swimmer to the water and instructed six people still onboard to jump into the water — where they were then pulled to safety in the rescue basket.

The captain, the last to leave the ship, suffered broken ribs and severely burned hands and arms. Four other crewmembers were hurt, but none of the injuries were life-threatening.

Schallip said Daniel Schmiedt, a fisherman aboard Clipper Express, was also lost at sea as that boat was headed toward the fishing port of Dutch Harbor following the rescue. Schallip said Schmiedt was swept overboard when he went on the bow of Clipper Express to secure the life raft that had carried the 15 members of Galaxy, who were onboard Clipper Express.

An investigation into the events is being headed by the Marine Safety Office in Anchorage.

Galaxy was allowed to float until the fire went out, but it has not been found since and is presumed to have sunk.

Fishing in the deep seas off Alaska is one of the most dangerous occupations. Hundreds of fishermen have died in the Bering Sea over decades. Still, it has become much safer in recent years with the advent of regulations requiring EPIRBs, survival suits, more safety inspections and the like, Schallip said.

Including the three deaths on Galaxy, there were nine fishing-related deaths off Alaska during 2002, according to Coast Guard statistics. By comparison, there were more than 30 fishing-related deaths in each of 1990, 1991 and 1992.

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