PUBLISHED: 4:54 PM on Wednesday, March 5, 2008
Prepared crew saves ship from raging fire in Bering Sea
KODIAK - For thousands of years mankind has recognized the power of the four basic elements of earth, wind, fire and water; catalysts of life, yet equally pervaders of destruction. Perhaps nowhere is this commingling of power as abrupt as the maritime environment, where a shipboard fire can pit a crew against a raging inferno yet place their backs to an unforgiving sea. It was in this situation that the crew of the Pacific Glacier found they were struggling to survive in one of the most destructive forces of nature in one of the harshest environments on the planet.

It's only been a few days since fire threatened to destroy the 253-foot fish processor in the Bering Sea. Yet today the ship sits moored in Dutch Harbor; testament to the battle that crews fought and won in the now charred trench-like hallways. Although no evidence of the ordeal is visible from the outside, the smell of smoke permeates the wind as one boards the ship. The crew is busy giving statements to Coast Guard investigators and reclaiming what belongings they can before flying home. The process of examining the ship to determine exactly what happened has just begun. But as the 106 crew prepare to leave, all uninjured from their ordeal, one thing is certain; something went tremendously right aboard the Pacific Glacier.

On February 26th the Pacific Glacier was 136 miles northeast of Dutch Harbor. Half the crew was on shift engaged in fishing while the rest of the crew was on their free time below deck, some sleeping. In the wheelhouse Olaf Vagen, captain of the Pacific Glacier and Odd Rotset, his first mate, were standing watch. For the Bering Sea the weather was calm and everything was going as usual. It was then that the ships fire alarm broke the routine of the evening. Rotset, following procedure, immediately grabbed a radio and sent fire crews to the area indicated by the alarm. This was the beginning of a fight neither man had ever fought in their more than six decades of combined experience as commercial fishermen.

As the fire teams struggled to get control of the situation below decks near the crew berthing area, ships in the immediate area were appraised of the situation. Meanwhile, the rest of the crew were falling back on training they probably never thought they would use.

"The rest of the people had no training," Vagen explained. "They were all in survival suits right after the alarm went off and they were the first ones to be evacuated."

Within 45 minutes of the fire alarm, it became clear that the situation was deteriorating. Across a sea of static Rotset broke the silence. "Comm Sta Kodiak, Comm Sta Kodiak, Comm Sta Kodiak, this is Pacific Glacier, Pacific Glacier, Pacific Glacier ... we have a fire aboard ... the fire is not under control. We are starting to evacuate people to other boats in the vicinity"

This initial notification to Communications Station Kodiak was received at 6:26 p.m., and gave the Coast Guard notice to begin preparations for a rescue mission. "Contacting the Coast Guard early and often is the first of three steps mariners need to take during a shipboard fire," as pointed out by Ken Lawrenson, 17th Coast Guard District commercial fishing vessel safety coordinator. "Letting someone else know that your vessel is in trouble is key."

In response, the Kodiak based Coast Guard Cutter Alex Haley was diverted from its Bering Sea patrol, but it would take five hours to reach the burning vessel. Despite the severity of the situation the crew of the Pacific Glacier found themselves surrounded by a sea of help.

More than a dozen ships from the fishing fleet responded to the Pacific Glacier's call for help. Several deployed rescue boats and began the process of evacuating the majority of the crew. Vagen noted that the crew trains up to twice a month for fire, but they had never evacuated a ship before. It was routine in the fact that everything went fairly smooth, he added. With the daunting task of evacuating 90 crew completed those remaining behind turned their full attention to the fire, while Vagen and Rotset coordinated the response from the wheelhouse.

"Together with Olaf we ran the communications between the fire teams, wheelhouse and the nearby boats," Rotset explained. "There was times when I had to run out and cough my brains out, and Olaf would take over, there was so much smoke in the wheelhouse at times, you couldn't stay in there."

As the fire teams methodically began to battle the fire, which was now spreading though the woodwork and into a second level of the ship, one shortcoming became clear. They would soon not have enough air to battle the fire.

The Pacific Glacier is required to carry four self-contained breathing apparatus for firefighting, explained Lt. Cmdr. Patrick Lee, Supervisor of Marine Safety Detachment Kodiak and an investigating officer. But upon inspection in Dutch Harbor there were considerably more aboard the ship. As it turns out, the additional vessels that responded to the fire not only evacuated the nonessential crew, but also contributed firefighters and equipment. Lee noted that sometimes the best trained crews and having all the necessary equipment just aren't enough.

Having the necessary equipment and knowing how to use it is the second key to managing an emergency at sea, Lawrenson noted. Vessels can never have enough fire extinguishers, firefighting and response equipment, he added. Luckily for the Pacific Glacier they were surrounded by equipment. The American Beauty, another fishing vessel responding to assist, was alongside the Pacific Glacier and transferred personnel and air tanks during the battle. It is the other vessels Vagen and Rotset credit with turning the tide in their favor.

"We would have run out of air and never had a chance to stop the fire if we didn't have the support from the other vessels," Rotset stressed. "We had at times 76 full bottles aboard that we got from other boats and they were refilling them all the time."

For investigators, seeing the large amount of additional firefighting equipment on board told them a lot about what happened during the course of the fire.

"A lot of the fires that go bad are attributed to lack of training, lack of preparedness on the crew or equipment issues," Lee explained. "With that said, even with the best trained crews, the best equipment things can still go pretty badly on board a vessel. In this particular case the crew was very successful and I think a lot of it has to do with partnering they had going on with the other vessels in the area."

That partnering was no coincidence. Vagen has been fishing in Alaskan waters on factory trawlers since he came to Alaska from Norway with Rotset in 1980.

"Olaf had so many of our companion ships in the area that we knew we could get lots of help if we needed it," Rotset explained. "It was a heck of a team effort. It could have never been done without the support we got from the other ships."

At about midnight the Coast Guard Cutter Alex Haley arrived and found the Pacific Glacier surrounded by support vessels. An HH-65 Dolphin helicopter from the Alex Haley had previously been monitoring the situation as well as an HC-130 Hercules airplane from Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak. An additional MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter was launched from St. Paul Island to the northwest. Although the Coast Guard had arrived, Vagen was not ready to abandon the vessel.

"We had a limit," Vagen said. "So long as we were able to contain the fire on the two lower decks we figured we could fight. If it was expanding to the next deck level we would probably decide to call it."

As a master of a vessel the size of the Pacific Glacier, Vagen holds a masters license and is no stranger to the stringent requirements for equipment, training and drills. Training and continued practice is the third step that historically has shown to make all the difference.

"All of the successful search and rescues that we've had, and the mariners who have survived all the different groundings and sinkings around Kodiak this year, the success of those folks surviving has come back to their training," Lee noted. "If they keep their training up, chances are their going to do okay when a particular event pops up."

Vagen expressed his full confidence in the ability of his crew and confessed that training is obvious, but after the fire it is more obvious than before. To mariners Vagen advised, "Take all the training and all the repeating drills seriously. You'll never be quite ready for it but it will make you more prepared."

By 6 a.m., the fire was out. Crews had fought for nearly 12 hours through the night and saved the ship. The fire had spread on the port side, from stern to amidships, consuming crew berthing and galley spaces, destroying two decks in the process. Despite the destruction there was a sense of accomplishment among the crew.

"We felt great and I think the whole fleet felt great," Rotset explained. "We were beat but we came out of it. We still had a long run to go to town so we had fire watches ready to go. It was a long tiring ordeal but we came out of it with the boat and everybody was intact."

The Pacific Glacier was able to make its way to Dutch Harbor under its own power, escorted by the Alex Haley. Although the fire is believed to have started in a laundry room, conclusive evidence is pending completion of an investigation by Coast Guard Sector Anchorage. While we will have to wait for the cause of the fire, the fishing community is already examining how they can improve their firefighting techniques.

"A lot of the other boats are already talking about this," Rotset explained. "They are all saying they are starting to think a few different things when they saw what was going on. Hopefully something good will come out of it."