Galaxy captain describes multiple disasters on day fish boat sank

Posted: Friday, January 24, 2003

SEATTLE - 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. He wept often as he told his story.

Shoemaker said crew members had participated in numerous safety drills, and each did his correct job when the trouble began on Oct. 20, 2002. He said there is no way to train for such "multiple situations."

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 aiding the rescue effort.

Lt. Cmdr. Chris Woodley, who heads the Coast Guard inquiry into the sinking, told The Associated Press the cause of the explosion will never be known.

Woodley said it's easy to look back and say some things could have been handled differently.

"Given what they faced, I think they performed really well," he said.

The captain's harrowing tale began on an ordinary day, as the factory longliner chased cod about 30 miles southwest of St. Paul Island in 12- to 15-foot waves. He remembers Jose Montoya, assistant foreman, coming to tell him there was smoke downstairs. Shoemaker sounded a general fire alarm. Lights, steering and radar went out as the wheelhouse quickly filled with thick, black smoke that smelled like rubber.

Then a major 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. "I wasn't going to lose these guys," he said.

Two were brought back on board but he could see that Stephens, still in the water, seemed to be injured. The three men were thrown overboard by the explosion.

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 top of crewmen trying to pass survival suits to other crew members.

Shoemaker saw Calvin Penipt-chuck, a deckhand, swimming out to help Stephens. But the boat heeled to the side and Stephens slipped through a life ring, the captain said.

"I remember Jerry's face was in the water and it was obvious to me that he had passed away but Calvin wasn't going to stop" even at risk of his own life, Shoemaker said. Finally another crewman told Peniptchuck the effort was futile, the captain said.

Stephens, cook George Karn and crewman Jose R. Rodas died. Shoemaker was hospitalized with severe burns.

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