ANCHORAGE - From the air, Coast Guardsmen in a C-130 airplane could see three fires burning on board the 180-foot fishing boat Galaxy. Two injured seamen were trapped atop the pilothouse on the stern and three more on the bow.
Buffeted by 30-knot winds, the rescuers determined the men could not be picked up by lowering a basket. A helicopter would have to drop a rescue swimmer into the boiling sea, and the injured crewmen would have to jump into the water - and to safety.
Lt. Jim Zawrotny, 29, of Windsor, Conn., was part of the Kodiak crew called out at 4:45 p.m. Sunday to answer the distress call of the Galaxy, which was hit by an explosion and fire Sunday while fishing in the Bering Sea.
One crewman died and two more were lost at sea. A crewman from one of the rescue boats also was lost Tuesday after being swept overboard by a wave.
The Coast Guard on Tuesday night abandoned its search for the three missing men. But rescue efforts Sunday were more successful.
Zawrotny was co-pilot of the C-130 aircraft, a four-engine turboprop with a wingspan of 136 feet that can drop life rafts from a rear ramp. In the two hours it took to reach the vessel, more than 300 miles from the mainland, the seven-member airplane crew monitored radio transmissions from three fishing vessels who responded to the stricken vessel.
"I was very impressed with the captain of the Blue Pacific," Zawrotny said. "Without his quick action and judgment and taking charge of the scene, we would have had a lot more than two persons missing."
The Blue Pacific, the Clipper Express and the Glacier Bay immediately started setting up search patterns, estimating which way survivors would have drifted. Their efforts paid off. The Glacier Bay picked up 15 crewmen on a life raft. The Clipper Express fished out three people, including one suffering from hypothermia, The Blue Pacific found one crewman.
Two men in the water remain missing.
From 30 miles out, Zawrotny could see smoke on the horizon. His crew found seas of 15 to 20 feet.
The Galaxy was dead in the water, turned sideways to the waves, "which is not a good place to be if you're a mariner," Zawrotny said.
The helicopter had reached the reached the Galaxy at 7:10 p.m. As the C-130 approached, Zawrotny could see three distinct fires on the ship.
Coast Guardsmen on the helicopter already had determined that two men in the stern were in the most danger.
"The captain and one other was trapped on the pilot house, surrounded by flames," Zawrotny said.
Upwind of the boat and smoke from the fires, the helicopter dropped a rescue swimmer, Petty Officer 2nd Class Jason Quinn.
"He's one of the best ones we have here," Zawrotny said.
Then it was gut-check time for the injured crewmen. To reach the basket lowered by the helicopter, they had to jump to the water.
The captain, David Shoemaker, had suffered burns and later would be diagnosed with three broken ribs. He jumped.
"It just speaks volumes about his courage," Zawrotny said.
The helicopter hoisted up the injured men and Quinn, then flew to the bow. Again, Quinn went into the water, the men on the boat followed, and one at a time, they were hoisted to the helicopter.
The helicopter made one more pickup - an injured Galaxy seamen was lifted from the deck of the Clipper Express.
The rescue lasted an hour and 40 minutes. At 9 p.m., the helicopter departed for St. Paul Island. Jose R. Rodas of Pasco, Wash., was pronounced dead on the island. Two others were treated at a clinic and three were flown to Anchorage.