180-foot fishing boat explodes, burns in Bering Sea

1 dead, 2 missing among 26 aboard

Posted: Monday, October 21, 2002

A 180-foot fishing vessel from Seattle exploded and caught fire in the Bering Sea Sunday, leaving at least one crew member dead, two people missing and five with serious injuries, a Coast Guard spokesman said today.

The Galaxy, a long-line ship owned by Galaxy Fisheries LLC and used to catch and process Pacific cod, was carrying a crew of 25 and an observer from the National Marine Fisheries Service at the time of the blast about 4:40 p.m. Sunday.

Six men were trapped aboard the steel-hulled former Navy ship until a Coast Guard helicopter arrived more than five hours later, Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Roger W. Wetherell said from Juneau.

One died as the group awaited transfer from St. Paul Island in the Pribilofs to hospitals in Anchorage. Two were stabilized at the island clinic and three were flown to Anchorage early today. None of the five had life-threatening injuries, officials said. The names of the dead and missing were being withheld this morning.

More than 11 hours after the blast, the ship was burning with no one to fight the flames.

The blast and fire perplexed Galaxy Fisheries officials, said John Young, the company's lawyer.

"It's an absolute mystery. This is a first-class boat," Young said. "This is a boat that just shouldn't burn like that."

Conditions were not especially severe for the area but still difficult for rescue operations with winds of 30 to 40 knots, seas of 10 to 15 feet, freezing spray and scattered snow, Wetherell said.

A mayday from the vessel, about 30 miles southwest of St. Paul Island and 750 miles southwest of Anchorage, was heard at a Coast Guard station on the island, Wetherell said.

"They reported that some people actually had been blown off the ship and into the water," Wetherell said.

Seeing at least one man struggling, "they tossed a life ring and then the person just wasn't there," he said.

That man, who was not wearing a survival suit, and a second who reportedly was wearing a survival suit, were missing.

Three men wearing survival suits were pulled from the water and 15 people who had managed to get into a life raft were taken aboard the Blue Pacific, Glacier Bay and Clipper Express, other fishing boats that were in the area, Wetherell said.

About 10 p.m. a Coast Guard helicopter from Cold Bay arrived and found three people trapped in the wheelhouse and three trapped in the bow, all seriously injured and some unconscious with broken bones, hypothermia, third-degree burns and other injuries.

All six were taken alive to St. Paul for transfer to air ambulance flights to Anchorage, but one died while waiting, Wetherell said.

The condition of two improved enough that they remained at the clinic in St. Paul for treatment and three were flown to Anchorage early today. Two were listed in fair to serious condition at Providence Alaska Medical Center and one was in satisfactory condition at Alaska Regional Hospital

State ship records show the boat was built for the Navy in 1942 and was converted to pull miles of baited hooks through the Bering Sea and equipped for processing and freezing the fish, the Anchorage Daily News reported.

Galaxy Fisheries bought the boat from another seafood company, UniSea, about five years ago, made extensive improvements and last had the vessel in drydock in Seattle in July, Young told the newspaper.

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