Tragedy and Courage on the Bering Sea

FPV Galaxy on fire in the Bering Sea, Oct. 20, 2002. Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard.

One of the most riveting stories of disaster and bravery at sea is now a television documentary, being broadcast this week on KTOO’s 360 North.

Tragedy and Courage on the Bering Sea, by filmmaker John Sabella, recounts the fire that destroyed the Fishing / Processing Vessel Galaxy in 2002.  The story is told entirely by the ship’s captain, Dave Shoemaker.

As Rosemarie Alexander reports, Shoemaker is now devoting his life to training people who spend their time on the water.


On October 20th, 2002, Captain Dave Shoemaker and his crew aboard the 180-foot Galaxy were fishing in the Bering Sea some 30 miles southwest of St. Paul Island in the Pribiloffs. About 4:20 p.m., the ship was hit by a very large wave on the starboard side.

From all accounts, smoke was immediately detected on multiple decks.  Captain Shoemaker was in the wheelhouse when a factory foreman alerted him.

Thick, black smoke began to fill the bridge.

As he set the fire alarm, explosions began to wrack the ship.

“The next thing I feel is this boat rock violently and this explosion took place, and now I’ve got people screaming ‘man overboard,’ ” Shoemaker told filmmaker John Sabella.

Up to that point, it had been just another day on the freezer longliner.

“Within 4 minutes there had been a huge backdraft explosion that basically destroyed the vessel and most of its survival equipment and all of their safety plans and procedures,” Sabella says.

He originally produced training films for fishing groups with Shoemaker. The television documentary grew out of those projects.

“This catastrophe occurred so fast it just overwhelmed the crew,” Sabella says.

The 137-page U.S. Coast Guard accident report is gripping, but the story of the Galaxy in the Captain’s words is powerfully evocative.

The documentary condenses the more than three hours between the discovery of smoke to Shoemaker’s rescue.  He was the last man on the burning ship.

“I’m asking people to jump off the back of a boat that’s 34 feet out of the water at the dock, and add 20-foot seas to that. You’ve got 40, 45, 50 feet and these kids are standing back there petrified,” Shoemaker recounts in the documentary. “Not only am I going to have them jump off the back of the boat,  I’m going to have them jump out of a four-story building.”

Several of the crew members were in their early 20s; for some it was their first experience on a floating processor.

Three men died, but the rest were rescued, including a National Marine Fisheries Observer who was in the frigid water for nearly  an hour and a half without a survival suit.

Since that day, Shoemaker has told the story hundreds of times.

“And when I bring up the fact that I prayed on the bow of the boat on the Galaxy I was actually saying ‘goodbye world, hello heaven.'”

Shoemaker had been with the Bering Sea fleet for nearly 30 years, but this was a near-death experience no one ever expects.

A Good Samaritan vessel comes to the aid of the Galaxy. Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard.

Good Samaritan boats broke off their fishing to help rescue the Galaxy crew. Later, skippers called him in the hospital where he recovered from his burns.

“They said, ‘you know Dave, if it can happen to you it can happen to any of us. We need to pay closer attention.'”

He is now a Coast Guard certified trainer with the North Pacific Fishing Vessel Owners’ Association.

“This is something I’m going to do for as long as I can do it and get in front as many fishermen that I can,” he says.

He has realized a goal of speaking to the cadets at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy.  He’s become a trainer for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA fisheries.

It wasn’t that Shoemaker or his crew had not trained for emergencies before. Training was part of their work.

“I think one of the things that happens in the fleet is everybody becomes calloused at one particular point or another, because we don’t have the experience to relate to. We’ve not had  the emergency we had to deal with.  We become a little hardened to the fact that it could in fact happen,” he says.

Shoemaker knows mistakes were made that day. Throughout the film he talks about trying to regain control of his crew and the ship.

The Coast Guard report of the Galaxy fires and sinking calls his actions extraordinarily brave and heroic. He and two other crew members were given Coast Guard commendations.

“Twenty-three people managed to survive and I attribute that to the effort, energy and heroism of every individual on the vessel that day,” he says.

He believes most of the Galaxy crew members have left fishing.  His therapy for dealing with the trauma is to help other fisherman achieve through training what he calls a level of unconscious competence in emergency response.

Tragedy and Courage on the Bering Sea can be seen on 360North, Sunday, at 7 p.m.  360North can be found on GCI cable channel 18 in Juneau, and channel 15 elsewhere in Alaska, as well as DirecTV and Dish Network.