After the Galaxy
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Captain Dave Shoemaker's account of the crisis on the Fishing Vessel Galaxy ranks as one of the great stories of sea survival. No one knew of the plight of his vessel, 30 miles southwest of the Pribilofs, the remote fur seal islands north of the Aleutian Chain; even if they did know, rescue units were hours away. Their circumstance was hopeless, yet 23 of 26 men and women would ultimately survive. More
He said, ‘Captain’.
And I said, ‘What Mirek?’
Are we going to die today?
Yes, Mirek. We're going to die.
• • •
Four men huddled on the bow of the burning, 190-foot fishing vessel Galaxy as the crippled boat foundered on one of the world’s cruelest oceans. Captain Dave Shoemaker was seriously hurt. After the backdraft explosion, he made several desperate attempts to enter the smoke-filled wheelhouse, find a radio and issue a mayday call. Each foray left him puking and gasping, smoke searing his lungs and contact with the steel bulkheads charring his flesh and igniting his clothing. After each attempt, he climbed through an escape hatch onto the roof of the wheelhouse, gasping for air. When he regained the ability to speak, he exhorted his crew in a desperate effort to quell their rising panic.
Seventeen men and one woman fled the inferno in the house and mustered atop the shelter deck at the stern. Clad in T-shirts and sweat pants or pajama bottoms, many in stocking feet, they clustered helplessly in the sub-Arctic wind and watched the advancing flames. Protected only by a railing with three steel bars, they would have been 34 feet above the water at the dock. As the vessel surged over the crest of a 20-foot sea, they soared as high as the roof of a five-story building. Trapped between a wall of fire and a relentless ocean, they were terrified.
There were four more men on the foredeck, isolated from the others by the conflagration consuming the superstructure, and three men in the water.
Captain Dave Shoemaker's account of the crisis on the Galaxy ranks as one of the great stories of sea survival. No one knew of the plight of his vessel, near the Pribilofs, the remote fur seal islands north of the Aleutian Chain. Even if they did know, rescue units were hours away. Their circumstance was hopeless.
Within four minutes of the discovery of smoke on the afternoon of October 20th, 2002, the Galaxy was rocked by the first of many explosions, a huge blast that hurled three members of the starboard fire team through the gear-setting hatch at the stern and 30 feet through the air, into the frigid Bering Sea. His boat crippled in the 15-to 20-foot seas and 30-knot winds, forced out of the wheelhouse by the intense fire that roared out of control below decks, without radio communications, with men in the water, with the port life raft consumed in flames and survival suits melting on the blistering deck plates, Shoemaker struggled to save his crew.
For his efforts in saving 23 of the 26 men and women aboard the Galaxy that day, Shoemaker was awarded the U.S. Coast Guard’s Gold Lifesaving Medal, the agency’s highest civilian commendation for heroism. Three crewmembers received similar recognition.
"After the Galaxy" is the story of courage, extending from the captain throughout the ranks of his crew. It is the story of survival, including the astonishing ordeal of federal fisheries observer Ann Weckback who endured nearly two hours of immersion in the Bering Sea without a survival suit–a medical miracle. It is the story of heroes like deck boss Ryan Newhall who could have swum to the life raft to save himself but chose to take his chances in the water with Weckback, or chief engineer Raul Vielma, who risked his own life repeatedly in his efforts to save the others.
It is the story of tragedy, like the death of Jerry Stephens, the "second captain," who was hurled through the air by the backdraft explosion and died in the arms of rescue swimmer Calvin Paniptchuck. It is the story of one of the most difficult and dangerous Search and Rescue operations ever mounted by the U.S. Coast Guard; ultimately, one of the agency’s most successful.