Web posted Tuesday, October 22, 2002

Coast Guard continues search for men missing from boat

Associated Press Writer

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A commercial fisherman was swept overboard Tuesday morning from a vessel aiding in the rescue of survivors of a boat explosion and fire in the Bering Sea.

Daniel Schmiedt of Arlington, Wash. was a crew member of the Clipper Express, a 138-foot Seattle-based vessel that on Sunday had rescued two people swimming in survival suits after they abandoned the Galaxy.

One man was killed and two were lost after the explosion Sunday aboard the Galaxy, a 180-foot Seattle-based vessel used to catch and process Pacific Cod.

Coast Guard Petty Officer Roger Wetherell said the Clipper Express crewman was not wearing a life jacket or a survival suit when he fell overboard at about 10 a.m. Alaska time. His name was not released and Coast Guard officials were attempting to contact family members.

The Coast Guard immediately launched a rescue helicopter and a C-130 aircraft to search for the man.

The Clipper Express was holding its position about 50 miles south of St. Paul Island, attempting to ride out 30-foot seas and winds exceeding 50 knots, when the crewman was lost, Wetherell said.

''Waiting to approach, taking it slow, riding the waves, hanging on,'' Wetherell said.

The search for two men missing from the Galaxy continued as Coast Guard officials prepared to launch a formal investigation into the cause of the blast.

''We feel very fortunate that this didn't turn out as tragically as it could have. 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 airlifted to hospitals or clinics.

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 and Auburn, Wash.

''We're just holding out hope that they got into a life raft and they're out there floating,'' Wetherell said.

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 Monday, but found no trace of the missing men.

Blowing snow reduced visibility and made the search difficult. Temperatures were in the mid-30s.

''In 30-foot seas it's difficult to spot much of anything,'' Wetherell said.

The storm also kept those rescued by fishing boats, including the Clipper Express, the Glacier Bay and the Blue Pacific, from reaching shore.

Coast Guard investigators planned to interview crew members when they reached Anchorage, Wetherell 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 contracted with a salvage company that was 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. ''When the search and rescue is completed 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.''