JUNEAU, Alaska, Oct. 23 (UPI) -- The search for three fishermen lost in the icy Bering Sea was suspended Tuesday night after Coast Guard officials decided that the already-slim possibility that the missing men were somehow still alive in the storm-tossed waters had evaporated.
Two of the fishermen were from the fire-damaged processing ship Galaxy while the third had been washed off one of the rescue fishing boats taking part in the search for the Galaxy crewmen.
"The deciding factor for suspending the search was the extremely low probability of survival this long after entering the water," lamented Coast Guard Capt. Mike Neussl, head of search-and-rescue operations for the 17th Coast Guard District. "We did the absolute best we could to find them, but we have not been able to locate them."
Coast Guard and Air Force aircraft, as well as the Coast Guard cutter Jarvis, and a trio of civilian fishing boats braved abysmal weather conditions off St. Paul Island for some 50 hours after an engine room fire and subsequent explosion rocked the Galaxy Sunday afternoon. Heavy seas, bitter cold winds and water temperatures in the low 40s hampered the search and reduced the likelihood that anyone in water could survive for very long.
First Mate Jerry Stephens, of Edmonds, Wash., and ship's cook George Karn, of Anchorage, were apparently knocked off the Galaxy by the force of the explosion Sunday afternoon. The blast forced most of the 26 crew members to abandon ship. One man died of hypothermia while the Seattle-based vessel's skipper and five other injured crewmen had to be airlifted off the burning ship by helicopters.
The third missing man, Daniel Schmiedt, 24, Arlington, Wash., was washed off the fishing boat Clipper Express by a rogue wave Monday night as he and other crewmen attempted to secure a life raft recovered from the Galaxy to the deck.
"Unfortunately, the crewman was swept into the water without wearing any equipment to help survive the cold water," said Neussl. "Even with a helicopter quickly on scene and the Clipper Express helping us search for hours, we were not able to find him."
The Coast Guard has launched an investigation into the explosion and fire that crippled the Galaxy, leaving it abandoned and adrift in the churning seas Wednesday as a tugboat waited for a chance to take the charred 180-foot vessel in tow. The probe is expected to take several months to complete.
Coast Guard officials and representatives of the Seattle company that owns the Galaxy have stated that the explosion appeared to have been caused by ammonia in the ship's large refrigeration system or by a broken fuel line, however neither diesel fuel nor ammonia is considered particularly volatile.
"The explosion was not gigantic, but it did disrupt the evacuation, and it may have cost Jerry Stephens his life," John Young, an attorney representing Aleutian Spray, the company that owns the Galaxy, told The Seattle Times.
(Reported by Hil Anderson in Los Angeles)