Tragic images from the MSC Flaminia, why we posted them

There’s been some controversy surrounding the posting of a few disturbing images from the MSC Flaminia tragedy. Showing the images of the burned first mate was not a decision we took lightly. We ultimately decided that it was important to show the reality of what happened and the seriousness of the situation that unfolded.

Firefighting at sea is dangerous, and for those of you who work at sea, I hope you felt an emotional response when you read the story and saw the photos. Perhaps this may motivate a more serious and personal approach to firefighting drills and training in the future. We’re certainly not saying that these poor souls on the Flaminia didn’t, it’s our hope however, that the gravity of the situation resonates.

The dangers of life at sea can be taken for granted, and for those of us in the industry, we all know this to be true. Our hearts go out to the families of the victims and those that died as a result of this tragedy. RIP.

No controversy in the least and I don’t think you need to explain your decision at all Rob. I believe we are all adult professional mariners here who work with the spectre of having a crewmember or members become badly injured at any minute of any day. Likewise, any one of us can easily become that man on the stretcher wrapped in bandages as one of our shipmates attempts to give us oxygen but can’t because our airway has swollen shut. We not only need to know what to do but to be mentally prepared to put that training to use when called upon. Seeing it in graphic images only assists in that preparation.

Since it is very close to home for me, I often relate the story of a vessel I had commanded in my early days as a master which eventually burned and sank in the Bering Sea in 2002 with the loss of three lives. Based on the circumstances of what happened and the weather at the time, in all honesty it should have been more lives lost and but for the Grace of God, what happened to her master on that afternoon in October would have just as easily have happened to me and might well have happened in far worse conditions. I used to not be mindful of what can happen to a ship suddenly at sea but after the loss of the GALAXY, I never will be complacent like that again.

Skipper describes tragic day aboard Galaxy fishing boat

Published 10:00 p.m., Thursday, January 23, 2003

Tossed by the deadly grip of the Bering Sea in October, a crewman trying to rescue a comrade in trouble made an agonizing decision: give up on one friend to save a second life.

In emotional testimony before a Coast Guard hearing in Seattle yesterday, the skipper of the burned and apparently sunken fishing boat Galaxy recalled how the ship’s engineer had to call off a crewman trying to rescue first mate Jerry Stephens. It was time to save the life of the rescuer, deckhand Calvin Paniptchuck.

Paniptchuck himself was tiring and had been unable to slip a life ring over Stephens in the pitching seas, so engineer Raul Vielma told Paniptchuck to give up so he could be pulled from the sea.

Seeing Stephens foam at the mouth and slowly stop thrashing in the water, Vielma and skipper Dave Shoemaker concluded Stephens was dead and focused their efforts on retrieving Paniptchuck, who was wearing a survival suit and had slipped on a life ring. Vielma called to Paniptchuck to back away so he could be rescued.

“I knew Jerry was dead at the time, and Calvin was desperate and was calling for my help,” Vielma said yesterday of the moments before the decision. “I still can’t get over it.”

Shoemaker, his voice frequently breaking, recounted the gut-wrenching choice as he retold the harrowing tale of the Seattle-based ship, which caught fire and exploded several times during a cod-fishing trip 817 miles southwest of Anchorage on Oct. 20. Three of the 26 people onboard died.

Shoemaker recounted how he fought through thick black smoke to find crew members after the fire broke out in the engine room late that afternoon and how he exhorted one injured crewman to struggle to his feet so he could be fitted with a survival suit and taken off the boat.

"He said, ‘Dave, I’m hurt.’ I said, ‘I don’t care, get up,’ " Shoemaker said.

The ship had been rolling back and forth as it sailed northeast late that afternoon. A strong wave hit its starboard side. Smoke from the fire was reported a few minutes later and began seeping into the wheelhouse though a multideck opening.

Smoke was so thick in the Galaxy’s wheelhouse that Shoemaker said he choked and even vomited, but he couldn’t clear out the bridge even by opening a window because the smoke was too thick.

He made his way out to the deck, saw two crewmen in the water and ordered a lifeboat deployed. At one point Stephens had a life ring on, but he appeared to be running out of energy, Shoemaker said, and somehow the ring slipped off.

Shoemaker borrowed a crewman’s bandana to cover his face so he could get back to the wheelhouse and make a distress call on the radio.

Between gulps of air from the one window that finally offered ventilation, he found a working radio that hadn’t been melted by the heat or had its wiring burned. He had burned an arm on a red-hot bulkhead and suffered three broken ribs, but he managed to get out the “mayday” call.

A Coast Guard station picked it up, as did other fishing boats, triggering a rescue effort that saved all but three of the 25 crew members and one government fisheries observer.

Stephens, of Edmonds, and cook George Karn, who lived in Anchorage and Auburn, were lost and crewman Jose Rodas of Pasco died in a medical clinic of injuries suffered during the explosion and while he tried to escape using a rope.

The Coast Guard is holding hearings on the Galaxy, trying to find a cause of the accident and perhaps recommend safety improvements to prevent future accidents. Questioned by Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Chris Woodley, Shoemaker said he had received safety and firefighting training during his 23 years at sea and that drills were conducted during “every trip” on the Galaxy, including “man overboard” exercises performed by retrieving objects from the water.

Crewmen also were shown how to launch a lifeboat and how to drag fire hoses around the ship, though there were no drills in fighting fire in tight spaces, he said.

In the October disaster “the key players . . . responded beautifully,” Shoemaker told Woodley, but he said the training “doesn’t compare to what’s the actual event,” particularly one involving several shipboard problems occurring at once.

“There’s no comparison, and it would be almost impossible to train anyone on a multilevel tragedy,” Shoemaker said.

Several crew members and relatives attended the hearings, which started last month and end today. Trish Karn, George Karn’s sister, said her brother might have had a better chance at surviving had the ship’s owner, Aleutian Spray Fisheries, conducted more drills.

“It bothers the family a lot,” she said. Woodley, after hearing more than five hours of emotional testimony, recessed the hearing early as Shoemaker became emotional on the stand.

Woodley said he may recommend new safety features for fishing boats based on the accident aboard the Galaxy, such as faster heat- and smoke-detection methods and life rafts that can be launched by a single crew member.

By the time smoke was detected on the Galaxy “it was probably too late,” and that the crew had trouble launching just one of two lifeboats aboard, Woodley said. His report, to his district commander in Alaska, is due April 20.

John Devlin, an attorney for Aleutian Spray Fisheries, said the company has records showing George Karn attended at least two on-board safety drills before the October incident.

He said the company has rethought “everything imaginable” about the vessel and the trip since the Oct. 20 disaster but declined comment on Woodley’s thoughts until he sees them in the April report.

The cause of the explosion has not been determined, though some suspect it might have involved ammonia in the ship’s refrigeration system.

Woodley said he doubts the crew could have trained adequately to respond to the kind of multiple-event crisis like those the Galaxy faced that day.

Woodley, in a graduate-school thesis, studied more than 500 Alaska fishing accidents that occurred in a 10-year period but said the Galaxy’s is “the most amazing story I’d ever read in what the crew did.”

I strongly encourage every crewmember of any vessel I command now read the USCG Final Report on the GALAXY’s loss…it is one of the best learning tools I can possibly think of of what and what not to do in a sudden major catastrophic fire emergency at sea. See what can happen to others and don’t let the same things happen to you. If others are lost, let their loss at least lead to knowledge and from that knowledge may fewer mariners be lost in the future as a result. Anticipate for the worst and prepare you and your ship accordingly.

Thank you Rob, Mike and John for running the story and posting the images. Thank you also for the site and this forum.


I haven’t seen the images in question, and feel badly for those injured and killed in the incident. Godspeed.

This ship is now berthed a few km from where we are working, and if the wind is right, you can smell it. They are removing the boxes, and trying to figure out what to do with thousands of m3 of contaminated water. It sits quite low in the water right now, but not dangerously so. I’ve got some good (non-controversial) photos of the ship NOW, and if I ever figure out how to post a few, I will.

Hi C Captain
the Galaxy story would make a good thread, IMHO the word “poor” would appear everywhere re
training, design, rules, enforcement
It has always amazed me the lack of video surveillance on commercial vessels as its so cheap would help in many situations.
Mega yachts I worked on had it everywhere that was important
( of course a decent magayacht is never built down to class) quote from a few dutch yards

Thank you for mentioning the Galaxy as well. I thought you should know we did an in-depth study of this incident during Advanced Marine Firefighting course in Astoria, OR. It is part of the program there. We continue to learn from this tragedy.