Crewman swept overboard from Bering Sea rescue ship; Coast Guard suspends all searches

Posted: Wednesday, October 23, 2002

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) -- A crewman was swept overboard Tuesday from a ship searching for survivors from a Bering Sea fishing vessel explosion and fire, raising to three the toll of those lost in the frigid water.

The Coast Guard on Tuesday night abandoned its search for the three missing men.

A fourth man died earlier of injuries suffered in the fire Sunday aboard the fishing vessel Galaxy, a 180-foot Seattle-based vessel used to catch and process Pacific cod.

The crewman was lost Tuesday morning from the Clipper Express, a 138-foot Seattle-based vessel.

Searchers looked for the missing Galaxy crewmen for more than 50 hours.

''We did the absolute best we could to find the two missing crewmembers,'' said Capt. Mike Neussl, search and rescue chief for the 17th Coast Guard District.

''The deciding factor for suspending the search was the extremely low probability of survival this long after entering the water,'' he said.

Lost from the Galaxy were Jerry L. Stephens of Edmonds, Wash., the first mate, and cook George F. Karn of Anchorage and Auburn, Wash.

The Clipper Express, which rescued two people swimming in survival suits on Sunday after they abandoned the Galaxy, was holding its position Tuesday in 30-foot seas and 50-knot winds when the crewman was lost, said Coast Guard Petty Officer Roger Wetherell.

That man, identified as Daniel Schmiedt of Arlington, Wash., was wearing neither a survival suit nor a life jacket, only rain gear.

''In 45-degree weather, that's not a very long survival time,'' said Coast Guard Lt. Michele Schallip of Juneau.

The Coast Guard was preparing to launch a formal investigation into the cause of the Galaxy blast.

''These people had probably less than five minutes to get off the ship,'' Wetherell said.

The Galaxy was carrying a crew of 25 and an observer from the National Marine Fisheries Service. Eighteen of those on board were rescued by fishing boats in the area. Five injured crew members were taken to hospitals in Anchorage and Seattle.

Jose R. Rodas of Pasco, Wash., was lifted from the ship but died of injuries.

The Galaxy was about 30 miles southwest of St. Paul Island when the explosion occurred at about 4:40 p.m. Sunday. St. Paul is 750 miles southwest of Anchorage.

The cause of the explosion is not yet known. John Young, a lawyer for Galaxy Enterprises of Seattle, which owns the vessel, said the chief engineer had discovered an engine room full of smoke and before he could activate a chemical fire suppression system, ''it flashed.''

The Coast Guard and Alaska Air National Guard searched a 625 square-mile area of the Bering Sea by boat, plane and helicopter. said.

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. 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 fire that charred much of the vessel had burned itself out Monday. Galaxy Enterprises has hired a salvage company that is waiting for the weather to subside before towing the vessel to the Aleutian fishing port of Dutch Harbor.

''It's good to know that the vessel is still afloat,'' Wetherell said. '' ...We'll examine the boat and try to get a sense of what happened out there so that we can begin our investigation and we'll have something to go on.''

The captain of the vessel, David Shoemaker of Carnation, Wash., was the worst injured of the survivors. He was flown to Seattle's Harborview Medical Center with burns and broken ribs.

Shoemaker is a Vietnam veteran in his early 50s with a great deal of fishing experience, said Young, the attorney for Galaxy Enterprises. Shoemaker helped refurbish the Galaxy a few years ago.

''The guy's a hell of a hero,'' Young told the Anchorage Daily News. ''He was the last guy off the boat. He experienced these burns by walking and crawling across a red-hot deck. He treated his crew like they're his family.''

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