Captain Tells of Alaska Shipwreck That Killed 3

From Associated Press

Fire, explosion, men overboard -- the skipper of the 180-foot fishing boat Galaxy says he was prepared to handle any one of those things.

But Capt. David Shoemaker told a Coast Guard hearing Thursday that his vessel encountered all those crises and more in a short period on the disastrous day last October when it sank in Alaska's Bering Sea.

Three people died; 23 others were rescued.

"What I have trouble dealing with is that, in such a short time frame, we had a number of situations," Shoemaker said during a full day of testimony.

"I firmly believe that had we had an opportunity to deal with one situation, we would have been successful," he said. "And when you're out at sea, there's nowhere you can run." Shoemaker insisted that crew members had participated in many safety drills and that each did his correct job when the trouble began on Oct. 20, 2002.

Aboard the Galaxy were 25 crew members and one federal observer from the National Marine Fisheries Service. Fifteen made it into their survival suits and onto a life raft. Two were rescued after using a life ring to stay afloat. A Coast Guard helicopter hoisted up five crew members who jumped from the burning vessel. Another jumped ship and swam to a nearby fishing boat that was aiding the rescue effort.

Lt. Cmdr. Chris Woodley of the Coast Guard said the cause of the initial explosion will never be known.

"If you really look at this situation, it's hard to say if something could have been done to prevent the loss of life," he said. "A boat explosion in the Bering Sea in the middle of October is a really bad situation."

The captain's tale began on an ordinary day, as the factory long-liner chased cod about 30 miles southwest of St. Paul Island, with winds from the north-northeast and 12- to 15-foot waves.

He remembers Jose Montoya, assistant factory foreman, coming to tell him there was smoke downstairs.

The captain thought there was a fire in the void, an empty space below the wheelhouse floor. He sounded a general fire alarm.

Lights, steering and radar went out as the wheelhouse quickly filled with smoke.

Then an explosion rocked the boat. He went up onto the deck above and heard people screaming.

Below he saw three men in the water -- one of them his trusted first mate Jerry Stephens.

As Shoemaker rushed up and down from wheelhouse to deck, he told the men to help those in the water. Two were brought back on board but he could see that Stephens, still in the water, seemed to be injured. The captain found a workable radio and sent a mayday call.

Several small explosions followed.

"I went up the stairs; I knew I had to be calm, I knew I had to present myself to the guys not to create panic," Shoemaker said. Off the side of the ship, he saw Stephens paddling weakly alongside the vessel.

"I didn't have any power. I couldn't get to him," he said.

Then a huge explosion rocked the vessel and flames shot over the crewmen passing out survival suits.

A deckhand swam to Stephens. But the boat heeled to the side and Stephens slipped through a life ring.

Along with a cook and a crewman, Stephens died.

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