Bering Sea search fails to find missing mariners

Posted: Tuesday, October 22, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Searchers found no trace Monday of two men missing from a vessel burning in the Bering Sea.

One man died Sunday and two were lost after an explosion and fire on board the Galaxy, a 180-foot Seattle-based vessel used to catch and process Pacific cod.

The Coast Guard, the Air National Guard and private fishing boats fanned out over a stretch of ocean 30 miles southwest of St. Paul Island looking for the men.

The search was conducted in winds up to 55 mph and 20-foot seas, with freezing rain and snow, said Petty Officer Darrell Wilson, a Coast Guard spokesman. Nightfall halted the air search but the cutter Jarvis continued throughout the night.

Capt. Ron Morris, Coast Guard captain of the port for western Alaska, declared the Galaxy fire a ''major marine casualty'' that will set in motion a formal investigation similar to the inquiry that followed the sinking of the 92-foot fishing vessel Arctic Rose. Fifteen people died when the Arctic Rose sank in the Bering Sea in April 2001.

Adm. James Underwood, head of the Coast Guard 17th District, appointed Lt. Cmdr. Chris Woodley of the Marine Safety Office in Anchorage to head the inquiry. Woodley will have subpoena authority and will interview crew, oversee drug and alcohol testing, and board the vessel, if possible.

The Galaxy was carrying a crew of 25 and an observer from the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Jose R. Rodas of Pasco, Wash., was lifted from the ship but died of injuries. Missing are Jerry L. Stephens of Edmonds, Wash., the first mate, and cook George F. Karn of Anchorage.

The vessel Sunday had topped off its fuel tanks at St. Paul Island, the largest of the five that make up the Pribilofs, and was carrying 50,000 gallons of diesel fuel. St. Paul Island is 750 miles west of Anchorage and almost 300 miles off the mainland.

The Coast Guard received a distress call from the ship at 4:40 p.m. Sunday and dispatched a C-130 search plane, the cutter Jarvis and a helicopter. The Kodiak-based helicopter had been deployed in Cold Bay at the western tip of the Alaska Peninsula, the last edge of the mainland before the start of the Aleutian Islands, in anticipation of the commercial crab season, Wilson said.

The helicopter reached the burning vessel at about 7 p.m., well after nightfall, and lowered a rescue basket to six injured crew members, including Rodas. Three were trapped in the wheelhouse at the stern and three were plucked off the bow.

They were flown to St. Paul Island, where Rodas died while waiting for an air ambulance to Anchorage.

The air ambulance flew three of the injured to Anchorage hospitals, including the boat captain, David Shoemaker of Carnation, Wash., who suffered burns and broken ribs. Shoemaker later was flown to the burn unit of Seattle's Harborview Medical Center, where he was reported in satisfactory condition.

Fifteen crew members were picked up in a life raft by other fishing vessels. Three crew members wearing survival suits were pulled from the 45-degree waters by fellow fishermen.

One of the missing men may also have been wearing one.

''The rest of the crew told us that one of them was and one of them was not,'' Wilson said.

The bulky survival suits are referred to as ''Gumby'' suits because of the mariner's appearance once they're on, Wilson said.

The suits have sewn-on boots and mittens that cover every part of the body except for a small portion of the face with insulated, buoyant material, often a thick neoprene.

Commercial fishermen are required by federal law to carry survival suits for every crew member. The Coast Guard inspects suits to make sure they are in good working order and requires them to be disposed of if they are not.

Crew members are required to train in the cumbersome suits, learning how to put them on and how to maneuver in water.

In 45-degree water, a person in a survival suit could survive 18 to 25 hours, according to the Coast Guard. A person dressed warmly without a survival could might last 12 to 18 hours, Wilson said.

The ship's owner is Galaxy Enterprises. The company has contracted with a salvage company, Magone Marine of Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands, to retrieve the vessel. Wilson said Magone attempted Monday to reach the vessel but was turned back.

''They're waiting for a break in the weather,'' Wilson said.

The fisheries observer, Ann Weckback, was one of the three pulled from the ocean and was recovering from hypothermia on board the Clipper Express. Fifteen seamen were rescued by the Glacier Bay. Two men were picked up by the Blue Pacific.

The air search was to resume at first light Tuesday.

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