As the giant Munro lurched through the waves, the tiny 65 Dolphin helicopter clung to the flight deck on the ship’s stern. The helo resembled an unwieldy piece of furniture cinched to the roof of a car on a potholed road. It was perfectly secure—but still looked precarious.
Pilots TJ Schmitz and Greg Gedemer zipped up their orange dry suits and pulled on their visored helmets. Bracing against 35-knot winds, they ran from the hangar out to the aircraft. The flight deck netting whipped violently in the wind as the men walked around the helicopter, making sure the aircraft hadn’t built up too much excess ice. Then the pilots climbed into the cockpit and started her up as rescue swimmer Abe Heller and flight mechanic Al Musgrave buckled up in back.
“The limit light is on,” Gedemer told Schmitz. “It’s flashing on and off.”
An indicator on the helo’s instrument panel warned that the conditions outside the aircraft were out of limits for takeoff.
“Yeah, that’s because the blades are flopping all over the place,” Schmitz said.
The wind across the Munro’s flight deck was so strong that the helicopter’s computers had determined the aircraft was already at limits. They’d have to do a high-wind start.
The Munro had turned to secure the best launch course. In the engine room, the ship’s engineers had stopped the vessel’s high-speed turbines and were back on the diesel engines. They slowed the ship to about 10 knots and pointed the bow straight into the swells. Once the pilots were in the helicopter and hooked up to the ICS, they could communicate with Erin Lopez and the crew in Combat, who were in direct communication with the engine room. Up on the bridge, Captain Craig Lloyd was also looped in.
When their landing signal officer (LSO) gave the okay, four tie-down crew ran out onto the flight deck, hunched down against the powerful blow of the 65’s rotors, and uncinched the wide canvas straps that held the helicopter tight to the deck. Bundled up in bulky, insulated blue jumpsuits, matching helmets, and vest-style PFDs, the tie-down crew was easy to distinguish from the aircrew. The Munro’s officers had taken to calling them the “blueberries.” The captain and crew could watch the action on a series of black-and-white video screens on the bridge. The sequence looked like a well-choreographed dance, the 65 helicopter the prima ballerina among a troupe of little scurrying mice.
Everyone knew that the conditions were right on the edge of limits. Or, more accurately, every few minutes, there was a minute or so that was in limits. If this had been a training exercise, it’d have been canceled. But in life-or-death situations, the call is up to the commanding officer, and Captain Lloyd trusted his pilots. From the moment Schmitz arrived in Combat and heard the details of the case, he’d felt confident they would be able to launch. Now Schmitz was in the right seat with Gedemer at his left. He studied the incoming swells through his night vision goggles. They were close to twenty-footers, but rolling in at a pretty steady pace.
Schmitz had already briefed the crew on the takeoff conditions: “This is the deal,” he told them. “We’re going to overtorque the airframe when we take off. As long as we don’t pull more than eleven point eight, we can continue on in the mission.”
Coast Guard regulations lay out stricter operating standards at night than for daytime flights. In the dark, anything over 4-degree pitch, 5-degree roll is considered out of limits. But when a mission involves an opportunity to save a life, the men are authorized to go beyond those limits—even at the risk of damaging the aircraft. “Warranted effort,” the regulations call it.
Back in Combat, Schmitz had briefed Captain Lloyd on his plan. He would load on 1,750 pounds of fuel, several hundred pounds more than normal. Though the 65 has a powerful engine, its gearbox is relatively weak, which means that the weight of a full load of fuel makes it difficult, if not impossible, for the helo to maintain a stable hover—a more power-consuming maneuver than forward flight. In any case, they’d most likely burn off a good quarter of their fuel load just to reach the scene of the sinking. Schmitz told Captain Lloyd that he was expecting to overtorque, or stress, the main rotorhead on takeoff, but wouldn’t push it so far that he’d sacrifice the ability to keep flying. “In other words, I’m gonna break it, but I’m not gonna break it so bad I have to land right away,” the pilot had told the captain.
Now Schmitz watched the waves. A set of big swells was rolling in perpendicular to the cutter’s bow. Under normal conditions, a pilot would launch at a lull between waves, waiting for the calmest moment to lift from the deck. Not tonight.
“6566, ready to take off,” the crew heard up on the bridge.
Schmitz waited until the next wave pitched the bow into the air, and just as it began the sharp fall that would buck up the stern, Schmitz pulled the 9,000-pound bird off the deck, using the momentum of the lurching ship to catapult the helo into the air.
Gedemer called out the torque as Schmitz slid the aircraft to the ship’s left side. The helo’s official torque limit at takeoff is 10.3; Gedemer’s highest number was 9.9. They were golden—they hadn’t overtorqued after all.
Schmitz’s unconventional maneuver had worked.
It was just a couple minutes before 6:00 A.M. as the crew marked the Munro’s position and set off toward the last known coordinates of the Alaska Ranger.
JIM MADRUGA HAD TO PEE—BAD. He’d been in the water for what seemed to him like three or four hours. What else could he do? When he finally let go, the warm stream felt so good. He was cold, but, except for the urine inside his Gumby suit, dry.
His suit fit, the seals had held, and he felt alert. He was clearly doing better than the fisherman who had been floating with him for the past couple hours. The guy was out of his mind with fear. Jim had tried to calm him down, but hadn’t been able to help much. Every time they heard an aircraft overhead, the guy started screaming.
“Save your strength,” Jim told the younger man. “They’ll be coming for us, but they have to get the other people first.”
Jim was the Ranger’s second assistant engineer. He was fifty-nine years old, and like many other men of his generation, he was a former San Diego tuna fishermen who had made a second fishing career for himself up north. He’d headed straight to the wheelhouse after being woken up that morning. His chief, Dan Cook, was up there and had already concluded that the ship wasn’t salvageable.
“Abandon ship” was all Dan had said to him.
Jim and Dan went way back. They’d both started fishing in Alaska more than a decade before. For a few years, both men worked for Trident, one of the biggest fishing companies in Alaska. One year, they’d sailed one of Trident’s old ships to India to be scrapped. It was a skeleton crew on an adventure, and Jim and Dan got to know each other well. When they reached India, they drove the boat right up onto the beach at full steam. The carcasses of other ships littered the sandy expanse, and they watched as the Indian scrap crew went at it. They looked so poor, those skinny little guys wear only sandals and skirts to crawl around on a heap of rusty metal like that.
A few years later, both men found themselves working for the same company again. Dan’s brother Ed had been with FCA for a few years, as had David Silveira, a cousin of Jim’s from San Diego. That’s the way it worked in fishing—the same guys again and again over the years.
A handful of men had been in the wheelhouse when the last call was made to the Coast Guard, and then everyone got out. By that time, the water was almost to the wheelhouse door. Jim hadn’t seen where everyone else entered the water. He was alone with Dan. The chief engineer had been in poor health. They were both nudging sixty-years-old, but to Jim, Dan seemed like he could be a decade older.
Dan wanted to wait until the very last moment to get off the ship. Jim figured his friend was thinking that if they waited longer, they wouldn’t be in the water as long before help arrived. He wanted to stay to make sure Dan got off safely.
The two men waited until there was literally no choice. Then they jumped off the boat together.
“Dan, try to stay with me!” Jim yelled. The wind seemed to be blowing 50 knots and the waves were at least twenty feet, and breaking. Jim watched helplessly as Dan was pushed away by the waves.
After a few minutes, Jim drifted up next to some fishing net and buoys—debris from the ship’s deck. He grabbed on. He’d been floating there for about half an hour before he saw Byron, one of the new kids, a Hispanic guy who’d been on the boat just a few days. Jim hadn’t talked to him too much, but he’d sat next to him at lunch a few days before. He remembered Byron’s name. Jim also remembered that this was his first time on a fishing boat.
The engineer grabbed the younger man and pulled him into the net. They hadn’t been in the water that long, but already the kid seemed to be going into shock. “What’s the matter, Byron?” Jim asked.
“I’m so cold,” Byron cried. “I’m so cold.”
Jim pulled Byron closer and put his arm around him. He tried to keep him talking to get his mind off things. The younger man spoke a little about his family, a wife and two young daughters back in California. But mostly he just kept mumbling about how cold he was, and about all the water that had filled his Gumby suit.
Jim just held on to him, and they stayed with the net. It gave them a little buoyancy, and Jim figured it might be easier to see from the air.
“Help me! Help me!” In the distance, Jim thought he heard Dan Cook yelling. At least an hour had passed since they’d abandoned ship and Jim could barely make out his friend’s screams over the wind. He scanned the waves. For a moment, he thought he saw Dan floating on his back about fifty feet away. But there was no way he could get to him. Before long, Dan had drifted out of sight again.
Eventually, Jim saw what looked like a Coast Guard plane overhead. Byron must have seen it too because he began to yell.
“Just save your breath, man,” Jim told him. “They can’t hear you.”
Jim’s strobe light was out. It had worked on the ship, but after he’d been in the water for a while, he noticed it had gone dark. Byron’s was working fine, though, so Jim knew they were visible.
Was there a boat in the distance? Jim could see a bright light right on the horizon. At first it seemed to be getting closer, but then it stopped. Maybe they’re getting people out of the water, Jim thought.
A while later he saw a helicopter in the distance.
Again Byron started yelling, but Jim pleaded with him.
“They know we’re here,” he said. “They will come eventually.”
AIRCRAFT COMMANDER TJ SCHMITZ pulled the 65 Dolphin up to about five hundred feet and started south toward the last known coordinates of the Alaska Ranger. Even with the tailwind, the seventy-mile journey would take them about forty-five minutes. They’d heard some chatter over the radio from the Coast Guard rescuers already on scene. It sounded like the larger aircraft was at capacity, and had left quite a few people behind in the water.
Schmitz started talking strategy. He was expecting the worst. By the time they got there, some of these people would have already been in the water for close to three hours. He knew from experience that, even in survival suits, many people couldn’t make it in cold water for more than two.
Do we pick up people who might be dead? Schmitz thought. Or do we pick up people who seem most responsive? He posed the question to the rest of the crew. In Schmitz’s opinion, the best course would be to focus on the most responsive people first.
“Even though they’re not responsive, they may not be dead,” rescue swimmer Abe Heller noted from the back of the helo.
“Yeah, but we only have so much room,” Schmitz said. “Depending on how many people are in the water, you know, who do you go for first?”
When the 65 Dolphin was about fifteen miles north of the site, Gedemer spotted the larger 60 Jayhawk helicopter to their west.
He picked up the radio: “6007, this is rescue 6566.”
Brian McLaughlin told the Dolphin’s crew that there were two rafts holding survivors—and that at least a dozen or more people were still in the water.
“The survivors are getting less and less responsive,” McLaughlin reported.
Based on the inflection in McLaughlin’s voice, Schmitz anticipated a grim scene. He knew their tiny helicopter couldn’t possibly get even half of the people out there in one load.
“Okay, we’re going to need to do this as fast as we can,” Schmitz told the rest of the men.
Schmitz had spent his previous four-year tour in the Great Lakes, where he had plenty of experience with hypothermic victims. The rescue crews had often used a procedure called the “hypothermic double lift.” In the later stages of hypothermia, a person’s blood collects near the heart and vital organs. If the victim is suddenly lifted upright from the water, there’s a risk that this blood will rush from the torso into the legs, causing heart failure. Because of that risk, professional rescuers are taught to keep hypothermic victims in a horizontal position. Coast Guard helicopter rescuers are trained to use a double-harness system. The regular quick strop is fastened around the victim’s knees, while a second strop—a larger, older model, sometimes called the “horse collar”—is secured under their armpits, then tightened around their chest. Ideally, the hypothermic victim will be raised with knees and chest at about the same level, like a bride being carried over the threshold.
The crews had been trained that the two-strop method was the best for someone with hypothermia, but they knew that it was an inconvenient lift. It was time-consuming to get a victim settled securely into the two-strap setup, even in calm conditions when the survivor was alert and cooperative. With severely hypothermic survivors? In high seas? In the dark? It might eat up fifteen to twenty minutes per person.
We don’t have that much time, Schmitz thought.
In the back of the helo, Musgrave and Heller were thinking the same thing: the basket. With the metal rescue basket, they’d be able to raise the hypothermic fishermen in a seated position and minimize the risk of heart failure. The basket would also be faster because there were no straps to secure. With his dry gloves on, Heller knew he wouldn’t have much mobility in his fingers. It’d be tough to fiddle with the buckles on the straps and the clip on the hoist. With the basket, none of that would be a problem.
Heller had been on two long patrols since his arrival in Kodiak’s ALPAT shop two years before, but he’d never launched in conditions like this. Back on the ship, Aircraft Commander Schmitz had pulled the swimmer aside. This would be a “load and go” mission. It was clear people were in the water. Hopefully most were in life rafts, and it was likely they’d be lifting people from rafts up to the helo. There’d almost certainly be more people than they could take in one trip.
“If it’s all right, I may want to leave you in a raft out there,” the veteran pilot had said to the twenty-three-year-old swimmer.
Heller was ready to do whatever was necessary. He went back to his rack and bundled up in everything he had. He knew that the more layers he wore under his dry suit, the less dexterity he’d have in the water. But it was cold, and there was a good chance he could be in the Bering for hours. The tradeoff was clear. His first layer was long underwear made of Nomex fleece, similar to Polar fleece, but with fire retardant built in. Over the long johns, the swimmer wore another pair of fleece pants, two more shirts, a fleece unitard—a “uni” the Coasties called it—and then a heavy coat and wool socks. Last, he layered on his orange dry suit and his neoprene and rubber boots. Depending on the situation, he might have chosen wet gloves. Those form-fitting gloves offer more dexterity—but less warmth. But this morning he couldn’t risk frozen fingers. He grabbed the dry gloves. Limited mobility would be better than none.
Like rescue swimmer O’Brien Starr-Hollow, Heller had landed in Kodiak on his first assignment as a rescue swimmer. Historically it was rare to end up in Kodiak for your first billet as a swimmer, and even rarer to end up in Alaska Patrol, the ALPAT shop. Heller figured maybe the guy doing the assigning that month didn’t know the guidelines. In any case, it’d worked out well for him. He liked Alaska. He’d grown up in Wyoming in a Navy family, graduated high school in 2003, and joined the Coast Guard the following December. All his life, Heller had been interested in aviation. His dad worked for the Wyoming Bureau of Land Management as a range conservationist. He dealt a lot with helicopters, helping to manage the aviation side of wildland firefighting. Heller researched the Coast Guard’s three aviation rates, and Aviation Survival Technician—AST, or rescue swimmer—sounded like the most fun.
He went through boot camp, made it to A School a couple years in, and failed out two weeks later. It was the “rear release” test that got him. It’s a drill meant to prepare the swimmer for managing a panicking survivor. An instructor grabs hold of the swimmer from behind, and the swimmer has to take him underwater, wrestle him off, and come up with the instructor in tow.
Heller didn’t know why he failed. He’d done the rear release perfectly in training several times. But each time it counted, he couldn’t pull it off. He was one of the five of ten in his original class who didn’t make it through the course. If Heller had raised his hand and said “I quit,” there would’ve been no second chance. But if a student is injured or just has trouble with a specific skill, he or she may be permitted to try again.
Heller spent the rest of the fall of 2005 in the airman program in Elizabeth City. He prepared for two more months—more physical training (“PT” as the military calls exercise programs), more pool time. His next class started with nine students. Four months later, seven graduated, Heller among them. After A School, Heller spent three weeks at EMT school in Petaluma, California, and then went up to Kodiak. He’d been there since the spring of 2006 and had a little apartment in town. He’d made lots of friends and gotten in tons of snowboarding on Pyramid Mountain. He’d been involved in a couple of SAR cases.
His first was a medevac—a slip-and-fall victim off an 850-foot container ship. They flew out, Heller was hoisted down to the ship and put the injured crewman on a litter. They hoisted him up and flew him to Dutch Harbor. The whole mission took about an hour. A piece of cake. The next summer, Heller was deployed to Cordova and ended up on another medevac. It was a four-wheeler accident on a remote beach. A kid was getting towed on a sled behind an ATV (all-terrain vehicle) and was tossed off. The Coasties airlifted the kid and brought him back to Cordova for medical treatment.
Heller had only been in the water on a real case one time. Schmitz had been one of the pilots on that case, too. It was a small fishing boat, just around thirty feet. The vessel got too close to shore, got caught in the breakers, and ended up capsizing. The helicopter crew found it at around midnight, lying on its side inside the surf zone, getting knocked around by the waves. The pilots landed the helo on the beach and Heller waded out to the boat. He swam around, looking, but there was no one there to save. The fisherman’s body eventually washed up on a nearby island. Investigators guessed he’d fallen off the boat before it even got caught up in the surf. The Coast Guard had been too late; there hadn’t even been a chance to help him.
SCHMITZ AND HIS CREW WERE about three miles out from the scene when they spotted the strobes. There were about ten of them, flashing on and off across almost a square mile of ocean. As they got closer, Gedemer saw that the two brightest lights came from the life rafts.
“Let’s concentrate on the people as far away from the others as we can,” Schmitz said.
He could see three lights to the northwest that were off on their own. Those are probably the people who’ve been in the water the longest, Schmitz thought. That’s where we’ll begin. The pilots brought the 65 into a hover over a single strobe while flight mechanic Al Musgrave attached the basket to the hoist’s talon hook, and motioned for Heller to climb in.
“Basket at the door,” Musgrave said as he contracted the cable to pull the basket from the floor of the aircraft up and out of the helo. “Basket going down.” Within seconds, the compartment hit the swells below. Heller climbed out and swam toward the fisherman alone in the ocean.
“How’re you doing?” Heller yelled as he grabbed on to the man.
“Cold as fuck!” the fisherman screamed back.
All right, Heller thought. This one was probably going to be okay.
The swimmer had a small green chemical light attached to his mask, similar to the glow sticks sold to kids at country fairs. In dark conditions, it was common to use the light in place of simple hand signals to indicate ready for pickup. Heller pulled the light off his mask and waved it above his head to signal to Musgrave to drop the basket. It took just a couple of minutes for Heller to load the fisherman in and to give Musgrave the thumbs-up to raise the compartment.
As the flight mech began the hoist, Heller hung on to the bottom of the metal basket, helping to steady it and center it under the aircraft as the lift began. Once he’d been pulled a few feet clear of the water, Heller dropped back to the sea and watched the basket rise another fifty feet to the open door. Musgrave pulled it inside and dumped it sideways so the fisherman could crawl out. Then he sent the basket back down for Heller.
The rescue swimmer climbed in, the flight mech raised him up, and they moved on to the next light with the basket steadied right outside the open helo door. It was just one hundred or so yards away. That pickup went smoothly, as did the next rescue, but already the helo’s cabin seemed packed.
“I think I have room for one more,” Musgrave reported to the pilots.
“You’re gonna have to stack ’em up,” Schmitz said. “We’re going to stay on scene until we run out of gas, and we have to go back.”
The first man who’d been pulled into the helo had inexplicably started stripping off his survival suit. The second survivor followed his lead but got stuck. He was kicking, motioning for Musgrave to help him pull the suit off the lower half of his body. The flight mech thought it would be better if the fishermen just left their suits on, but there was no time to argue. He grabbed a webbing cutter from inside the doorframe and pulled it right through the zipper of the man’s suit. Musgrave sliced from the fisherman’s chest all the way down one leg, like he was opening up a fish. Then he threw the guy a wool blanket and directed both him and his buddy to the back of the cabin, where the rescue basket is normally stored.
The nose of the helo suddenly jerked upward.
“Holy shit! What’s going on back there?” Schmitz asked through the ICS.
“The guys are climbing in the back,” Musgrave answered.
“All right, put the next guy behind Greg, against the door,” Schmitz replied.
The men’s movement had affected the helo’s center of gravity, but at least they’d made room for more survivors. Heller was still in the basket against the open aircraft door as Schmitz circled around to the south toward a clump of lights in the water. The rescuers saw four men locked arm-in-arm, like a human chain. The two on the ends were waving their free hands. They looked like they were in pretty good shape.
Then Schmitz saw another strobe about a hundred yards away.
“There’s another survivor off the nose. Let’s go get him first,” the pilot said.
They only had room for a couple more people in the helicopter. Better to get those who were off on their own, Schmitz thought.
When they got closer, though, the pilot could see that it was two men tangled up in a bunch of netting and buoys with one strobe light between them. Jim Madruga was waving his arms; Byron Carrillo was just floating.
They came into a hover beside the net, and Musgrave placed Heller a good hundred feet from the debris pile. As the flight mech drew the empty basket back to the aircraft, Heller swam up to the net. Byron was lying limp in the water with the webbing all around him, his strobe light flickering in the darkness
“Take him first,” Jim yelled. “He’s in really bad shape.”
Byron was reaching for Heller, but the rescuer swam around behind him to get a safe grip. Heller wanted to avoid any struggle with the fisherman; controlling him from behind was the best way to avoid any problem. He asked Byron how he was doing.
With the rotor noise and the fisherman’s delirium, Heller couldn’t make out what he was saying. But the fact that he was speaking meant something.
Byron had his hand jammed under the net, and Heller struggled to pry open his fingers.
“You gotta let go!” Jim yelled. “You’ve got to let go!”
Finally, Heller broke Byron free, and began to drag him back out of the debris to a safe hoisting location.
In A School, Heller had been drilled in a method to clear rope, netting, or any other refuse from a submerged survivor. The swimmers were taught to go underwater, put their hands on the survivor’s spine, and then walk their hands all the way down the victim’s body, looking and feeling for debris. The technique was called a “spinal highway.”
Byron was clear, but as Heller dragged him away from the net, he could feel a piece of line snagged on his own fin. Heller used one hand to steady Byron as he reached down to clear off the debris. As the swimmer was working to free himself, a wave knocked the fisherman facedown in the water. Heller looked up to see that Byron wasn’t righting himself.
Crap, Heller thought. This guy is so far gone he’s not even capable of keeping his own face out of the water.
He grabbed onto Byron again, pulled him upright and swam with him away from the wreckage.
When Heller had the fisherman away from the debris field, he signaled for the basket, which was brought down in seconds.
At the sight of it, Byron seemed to snap to attention.
He knows what the basket is, Heller thought. The basket is life. He tried to maneuver Byron inside. He pushed him into the basket, but then Byron would change his position and end up crossways, with feet coming out one end, head coming out the other. Heller yanked him out and tried again. When he got Byron out of the basket, though, the fisherman wouldn’t let go of the metal bars. Heller was struggling to get the compartment upright again while Byron was pulling it sideways into the waves, flailing in a panic. Heller fought with the man for at least ten minutes.
Heller knew that a hypothermic person often becomes irrational and can have symptoms similar to being drunk—loss of bodily control, slurred words, inability to focus, or pay attention to instructions. It wasn’t the man’s fault, but it was still frustrating. Every second it took to wrestle this one person was a second the rescuers could have used to pull someone else out of the water.
Up in the cabin, Musgrave was watching Heller struggle with the fisherman. Since he’d dropped the swimmer into the water fifteen minutes earlier, the flight mech had lost sight of Heller three times. It was called “losing target,” and it was something the aircrew never wanted to happen. Disorienting snow squalls were blowing through the area and the waves were big and irregular. The swells kept pushing the swimmer and fisherman underneath the helicopter, which meant that Musgrave would have to instruct Schmitz to reposition the helo just so he could see what was going on.
Musgrave could hear the pilots talking about fuel. They were getting low, burning through their gas faster than usual. Hovering used up fuel a lot faster than forward flight did, especially with a full cabin like the one they had now.
Musgrave didn’t want to let out too much slack on the cable. He couldn’t risk getting it wrapped around someone’s leg or neck. He let out what he thought was necessary, but still the basket was jerked out of the water a few times. They’d been at it for so long.
Finally, Musgrave looked down to see Heller and Byron centered between swells. The basket was plumb beneath the helo. It looked like if he pulled the basket out of the water, the fisherman would drop down to the basket floor where he needed to be. Musgrave began the hoist.
Down below, Heller was still working to get Byron seated properly when, all of a sudden, the basket lifted above the surface and started rising. Heller hadn’t given the signal to lift the basket, but now it looked like Byron was in there pretty good. The swimmer felt relieved as he watched the basket rise toward the helo and saw Byron seem to slump down into the compartment.
The basket was fifteen feet above the waves when Heller turned and began swimming back toward the debris field, where Jim Madruga was waiting.
The older fisherman was still floating alongside the net. Finally, he thought, as Byron was pulled up out of the waves. Jim watched the basket rise about twenty feet above the surface, then spotted the rescue swimmer coming back toward him. It felt like it had been a long time since the Coast Guard swimmer pried Byron from the net. Now it was Jim’s turn.
From the open door of the helicopter, Musgrave saw Byron drop down a little bit inside the metal basket. Everything looked good. The flight mech watched his swimmer turn and start moving toward the next survivor.
He continued with the hoist.
“The survivor is in the basket,” Musgrave reported into the ICS. “The basket is out of the water. The basket is above the water.”
Halfway up, Musgrave saw that Byron seemed to have lifted himself onto the rail. He looked like he was actually sitting on a shorter edge of the rectangular basket; his butt was on one corner and his feet were hanging over the adjacent side. Byron had his arms wrapped around the bales. He wasn’t where he should be, but he still looked relatively stable.
But with the basket moving up, more than halfway there, Byron slipped. From above, it looked like the lower part of his body was now outside of the compartment.
“The survivor is hanging from the basket,” Musgrave announced.
“What?” Schmitz said.
“What did he say?” Gedemer asked.
Schmitz was confused, but from the right seat, he couldn’t see what was going on in back. The hoist was Musgrave’s show and he was the only one to see the basket reach the cabin door—with Byron hanging by his armpits from its side.
He seemed huge, as if he were seven and a half feet tall. Most of his body was outside the basket, with his legs hanging straight down below the bottom of the basket floor—and between the bottom of the basket and the helicopter. Byron’s position made it impossible for Musgrave to pull the basket into the cabin.
Instead, he brought the hoist in as far as he could without getting Byron wedged up against the aircraft. He started trying to haul Byron into the helicopter.
Musgrave had never been in a situation where he couldn’t manhandle somebody into the cabin, but he could barely budge Byron’s legs. Kneeling at the doorway, he was just about at eye level with him. Byron’s red neoprene hood was up, but quite a bit of black hair was hanging out. With the suit’s mouth flap fastened, all Musgrave could see of the fisherman was his eyes and the bridge of his nose. There was no point in trying to say anything over the roar of the rotors.
Musgrave looked into Byron’s eyes and saw that his face was frozen in terror.
All Byron had to do was move his legs a little bit, but he wasn’t helping at all. His suit is full of water, Musgrave realized. He probably weighs 500 pounds. Musgrave reached back for a knife that was attached to the side of the cabin. He’d slice open the neoprene legs and get the water out of the suit. Then he’d be able to pull the guy in.
The knife was just a couple feet away, but in the moment that Musgrave moved to grab it, Byron slipped again. When Musgrave turned back to the open door, the fisherman was hanging by his elbows from the edge of the basket. Musgrave grabbed him, and pulled as hard as he could. But it was only two or three seconds before Byron let go.
He slipped out of Musgrave’s arms, plunging into the sea forty feet below.
Moments later, Schmitz heard the mechanic’s voice.
“We lost him. We lost him,” Musgrave repeated.
“We lost who?” At first, Schmitz thought that Musgrave said, “We lost them.”
Though Schmitz and Gedemer couldn’t see what was going on back in the cabin, they’d known from Musgrave’s silence when the basket reached the helicopter that something wasn’t going right.
“The survivor,” Musgrave said. “He’s gone.”
Schmitz could see the man’s light blinking in the water below. For an instant, he thought he saw him move his arms in the waves.
“He’s okay! He’s moving,” the pilot said.
But seconds later a heart-wrenching reality set in: “Never mind. He’s facedown.”