And I said, ‘yes, Mirek, we’re going to die today.’
And he shook his head and he looked down at the deck and then it was real quiet.
Four men huddled on the bow of the burning, 190-foot fishing vessel Galaxy. Captain Dave Shoemaker was seriously hurt, with internal injuries and deep tissue burns to his hands, arms, legs and torso. After several desperate attempts to enter the smoke-filled bridge, find a radio and issue a mayday call, he had climbed onto the roof of the wheel house in an effort to quell the panic that consumed his crew.
Eighteen men and a woman fled the inferno consuming the superstructure and mustered atop the shelter deck at the stern, 34 feet above the water. Clad in pajamas or sweat pants and T-shirts, they huddled in the bitter, sub-Arctic wind and watched the advancing flames burn through the steel deck plates. There were three more men in the water.
Only one crewmember witnessed Shoemaker’s fall. The captain had been struggling to raise a bundle of survival suits the trio on the foredeck had lashed together using a three-eighths-inch polypropylene line so he could distribute them to the crewmembers on the stern when an explosion rocked the boat and sent him tumbling through the safety railing. He screamed as a four-inch diameter pipe broke his twenty-foot plunge, shattering three ribs, knocking his shoes off and leaving him lying on the blistering hot steel.
I remember laying there and it sounded almost like bacon frying in a frying pan. It was just sizzling the skin, and I knew I had to get out of there so I started rolling. I kept saying, ‘my crew, my crew, they need to get into the raft and I’m not there to help them.’
Captain Dave Shoemaker’s gripping account of the fire that consumed his vessel on October 20, 2002 ranks among the great stories of tragedy and courage at sea. He was alone in the wheelhouse shortly after 1600 hours when one of his processing factory foremen burst into the wheelhouse and shouted that there was smoke in the fish factory.
And I said, what type of smoke is it, and he said, ‘Well, it’s like that smoke behind you’.
Shoemaker turned and what he saw brought him to his knees. Already, the wheelhouse was filling with thick black smoke. Within four minutes, the vessel would be rocked by the first of many explosions, a blast that hurled three members of the starboard fire team through the three-by-three-foot gear-setting hatch at the stern and 30 feet through the air, into the frigid waters of the Bering Sea. Crippled, without power or steerage in the fifteen-to-twenty 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 or any means of calling for help, 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 mates and himself. For his efforts in saving twenty three of the twenty six men and women aboard the Galaxy that day, Shoemaker would be awarded the U.S. Coast Guard’s Gold Lifesaving Medal, the agency’s highest civilian commendation for heroism.