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Thursday, June 9, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Galaxy fire blamed on back draft

Seattle Times staff reporter

A fire that claimed three lives aboard the fishing vessel Galaxy in the Bering Sea nearly three years ago was caused by a back draft — a rare occurrence no one on board could have predicted or prevented, according to a Coast Guard investigation released yesterday.

Had it not been for the heroic actions of a few of the 26 crew members aboard the 180-foot vessel, more lives almost certainly would have been lost, Lt. Cmdr. Chris Woodley of the Coast Guard said at a news conference.

The Galaxy exploded into flames on Oct. 20, 2002, and the fire spread so rapidly that the entire vessel was engulfed within four minutes of the first signs of smoke. The boat was top of the line, and the crew was handpicked and highly trained.

"It was a terrible accident that happened to one of the best boats in the fleet," Woodley said yesterday.

And yet, with the benefit of hindsight and a two-year investigation, Woodley said he has made recommendations that would benefit the Galaxy's class of vessels, the so-called Fish and Gut Fleet.

The fishing industry has long ranked among the most perilous of U.S. occupations. Past Coast Guard investigations helped set the stage for safety reforms, including a landmark 1982 act that required survival suits. But the fishing industry, citing costs and other concerns, often has resisted the Coast Guard's safety proposals.

Woodley said his key proposals have been accepted by the fleet because the recommendations are both practical and inexpensive.

"It's not rocket science," Woodley said. "There are some very simple things that they can do, things that make sense, things that people will actually do, that could definitely make a difference in accidents."

Of the 29 recommendations to come out of Woodley's investigation, two in particular — better fire-safety training and handheld radios for the captains, engineer and first mate — might have made a difference for the Galaxy's crew.

The vessel was about 30 nautical miles south of St. Paul Island when a fuel leak possibly from a generator began to smolder and smoke seeped from the engine room's hatch. Three crewmates ran to fight the fire, and one of them mistakenly ordered that the outside hatches be opened to clear the smoke. That air apparently caused a rare back draft, and within seconds an explosion sent flames throughout the boat.

With no radio, the chief engineer had to run up the stairs to tell the captain, according to protocol, that he planned to activate the vessel's fire-suppression system. But by time the engineer returned, the boat was aflame.

Four surviving crew members were awarded medals for heroism, including one who jumped into the sea to try to save a drowning man, another who wrapped himself around a crewmate with no survival suit, and the captain, who ran repeatedly into the burning wheelhouse to send a mayday.

First mate Jerry Stephens of Edmonds, cook George Karn of Auburn and processor Jose Lino Rodas of Pasco were killed. A fourth man, Daniel Schmiedt of Arlington, was washed overboard and lost when his boat answered the Galaxy's call for help.

Times staff reporter Hal Bernton contributed to this report.

Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or cclarridge@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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