Jayhawk pilots Brian McLaughlin and Steve Bonn scanned the waves. It was almost 5:00 A.M., but in Alaska in winter-time, 5:00 A.M. still looks like the middle of the night. Attached to their flight helmets, the men wore night vision goggles, heavy metal optics that gave the entire ocean the neon green glow of an old-school video game.
Finally, the helicopter broke out from a snow squall, and there it was—a light. Then two, three…five. The men saw what looked like a poorly lit runway, a ragged string of strobes flashing on and off over a mile-long stretch of ocean. They scanned the seas for a ship. But there was no sign of the Alaska Ranger.
The scene was unlike anything the four Coast Guard rescuers had ever faced in the past. McLaughlin stared down at the ocean one hundred feet below. To his left, to his right—everywhere he looked he saw more blinking strobes. There were at least two dozen individual lights spread about in the waves.
Oh my God, he thought. Where do we begin?
The men knew that the Munro was making its way toward the disaster site, racing on its turbine engines at close to 30 knots. Still, the ship was hours away. And given the sea conditions, McLaughlin thought the Munro most likely wouldn’t be able to launch its rescue helicopter.
His aircraft was it, the only hope for these people—at least for now. They just had to choose a spot and start getting people out of the water.
ERIC HAYNES HAD BEEN INSIDE THE LIFE RAFT for what seemed like an hour when he heard the rotors. The Coast Guard helicopter was overhead. Out the open flap of the life raft’s door, Eric noticed the full moon above. Thank God for that, Eric thought. It might help those guys in the water, and the Coasties here to save them.
The ten men in Eric’s raft had two handheld radios. Boatswain Chris Cossich had grabbed one of them right before he abandoned ship. Ever since he got situated in the raft, Chris had been repeating “Mayday, Mayday,” and waiting for a response. Now, he heard the Coast Guard calling over Channel 16.
“We see you,” McLaughlin told Chris. “Are you okay?”
“There’s ten of us,” Chris told the chopper pilot. “Some guys are cold, but we’re all right.”
“We’re going to start with the people in the water,” the Coastie said. “Bail out as much water as you can, stay close to each other, and try to stay warm. We’ll come back for you.”
BONN PULLED THE AIRCRAFT over the first light the Jayhawk reached. It was one guy, alone, but alive. The whole crew could see him waving. The pilot flew a lap over the scene. There were people everywhere. Everyone they could see was in a survival suit, and no one looked obviously worse off than anyone else. Not that that was an easy judgment to make from the air.
The aircrew had the dewatering pump with them; many times in the past, a pump had been enough to solve a crisis at sea. But there was nothing left to save. DeBolt and Starr-Hollow pitched the pump out the aircraft door to make more room in the cabin. They had also brought along one of the Coast Guard’s mass casualty life rafts, which was made to hold twenty people, the same number as the Alaska Ranger’s. There was a long line attached; a sharp tug should activate a CO2 cylinder to inflate the raft. It was best to hold the line, kick the raft out the aircraft door, then yank the rope when the raft hit the water. DeBolt and Starr-Hollow punched the life raft out the door, but the line had a knot, and ripped out of Starr-Hollow’s hands before the raft hit the surface. They’d chosen to drop it in a spot where an inflated raft might float downwind to some of the survivors. But now they couldn’t see it; they had no idea if it had inflated or not. The raft was gone.
Bonn pointed the helicopter back toward the first guy they’d seen. He was the farthest downwind; he’d probably been in the water the longest, the pilots guessed. They’d get him first.
UNTIL THIS WEEK AT ST. PAUL, the men in the Jayhawk had never before flown together as a four-man team. Most had worked with each of the others at some point in the past, though. Just a couple months before, McLaughlin and Starr-Hollow were both on duty in Kodiak when they got a call from a fishing boat that was taking on water with four people and a dog on board. When they got to the site in Shelikof Strait, on the far side of Kodiak Island from the air station, everyone had already abandoned ship into a life raft. Starr-Hollow descended into the water and brought them all up—the little dog, too. By the time everyone was safe inside the helicopter, the fishing boat had fully disappeared beneath the waves.
It had been daytime and the conditions were relatively calm, but it was still a big case. It’s rare to airlift so many people at once. McLaughlin had been grateful to have Starr-Hollow as his crew’s swimmer that day. All the rescue swimmers in Kodiak were in phenomenal shape, and obviously game for the job. If anything, McLaughlin had seen swimmers get pissed off when they flew on a case and then weren’t used. But even among an impressive crowd, Starr-Hollow’s intense calm and focus stood out. It was hard to imagine him running out of energy. If you were going to be out in the stink, O’Brien Starr-Hollow was the kind of guy you wanted to have out there with you.
The thirty-three-year-old rescue swimmer had requested Kodiak as his first assignment out of A School. He’d been there since 2003. He wasn’t the typical new swimmer. Most are in their early twenties, some as young as nineteen. Starr-Hollow didn’t join the Coast Guard until he was twenty-seven. He grew up in Helena, Montana, and was an alpine ski racer and soccer player in high school. After graduating in 1992, he enrolled at Oregon State University in Corvallis, where he rowed crew for all four years. He loved the total commitment and teamwork of being an oarsman. Starr-Hollow’s father had been a Navy SEAL, and early on, Starr-Hollow signed up for Navy ROTC. But the training conflicted with rowing, so he gave it up.
After college, Starr-Hollow worked as a ski coach and then started a geology grad program in Missoula. By the summer of 2000, he was in eastern Montana, working on water quality and riparian ecology research. There were a lot of wildfires that year and a lot of firemen around. It was backbreaking work they did, and Starr-Hollow found himself wishing he was doing something more like it. Though he was spending his days outside, there wasn’t much physical labor in his scientific work. He envied the camaraderie he saw among the firefighters and the pure physicality of their job. It was something he missed from his rowing days.
“The grass is always greener over the septic tank,” Starr-Hollow’s mom said when he told her he was thinking of joining the Coast Guard and becoming a rescue swimmer. It was one of her favorite expressions. Starr-Hollow figured he could always go back to science—he planned to, in fact. But at that point in his life he needed something different. In August 2001, Starr-Hollow showed up at boot camp in Cape May, New Jersey.
At twenty-seven, he was one of the oldest in his class. He was instructed in the basics of good seamanship, learned to march in formation—and was taught how to fold his socks. The method was to roll them up tightly and then flip the last little lip over so the ball had a smiley face in front. When socks were lined up the right way in a locker, there’d be a row of smiley faces. Starr-Hollow was given a map of how to organize his clothes. On the ships, in tight quarters, it was important to keep things neat and organized.
There wasn’t as much physical training in boot camp as he’d expected, although the discipline was intense. Starr-Hollow felt like he never got enough sleep or enough to eat. They were kept busy from six in the morning until ten at night. It was a trudge, but Starr-Hollow tried to make the best of it. He hadn’t played the saxophone since his sophomore year in high school, but he picked it up again to join the Coast Guard band. Some evenings they performed at the bandstand in downtown Cape May—marching songs for the town residents. He started going to church, mostly to have some time away from the drill sergeants.
Starr-Hollow had heard of guys getting stuck in port for a year or just patrolling tiny, monotonous regions aboard the Coast Guard’s 378-foot cutters. “The white needle of death,” guys called those boats. Instead, Starr-Hollow requested the icebreakers; he figured they would definitely travel. He was right. His first assignment out of boot camp was on the 399-foot Polar Star. In the next six months he saw Hawaii; Sydney, Australia; and Hobart, Tasmania. The ship spent a month breaking a route into McMurdo Station in Antarctica, the main support facility for American researchers at the bottom of the world. On the way home, they made port calls in Chile, Peru, Mexico, and San Diego before returning back to Washington State.
A month later Starr-Hollow started his airman program in Port Angeles, essentially an internship in the job of Aviation Survival Technician (AST), the official title that encompasses the job of rescue swimmer. Flying as the deployable aircrewman was only a tiny part of an AST’s responsibility, Starr-Hollow quickly learned. Ninety-eight percent of the job was about equipment and preparation. The ASTs were responsible for keeping all the helicopters’ emergency gear in serviceable condition and for preparing themselves for the 2 percent of the job that mattered most—saving lives. Starr-Hollow trained with the swimmers in Port Angeles for four months before heading to sixteen weeks of A School in Elizabeth City, North Carolina.
It’s an extremely competitive program. Almost half of the students who start rescue swimmer A School fail out. The physical standards are intense—and so are the psychological ones. For Starr-Hollow, the hardest part was the “bullpen.” The instructors are all in the deep end of the pool, while the students stand blindfolded at the shallow end. One by one, the students are called down to the deep water. There, they are circled by the instructors, who each take a turn wrestling each student down to the bottom of the pool. The student has to break free of each instructor, and bring him back up to the surface in a controlled carry. The goal is to prepare the would-be swimmer to handle a panicked survivor, and the instructors play the part, kicking and swinging punches at the young students. The students who can handle it, who don’t freak out, will likely be able to remain calm in even the most chaotic real-life rescue.
Starr-Hollow graduated from A School and was sent straight to the shop in Kodiak. The work was satisfying—and so was the lifestyle. In Alaska, he could backcountry ski for a good part of the year, surf when the swells grew large in the winter, and get in a little mountain biking when the trails weren’t a torrent of mud. He met his wife there. She had a young daughter, and they soon had another little girl together. In the winter and spring, he would wake up early before the girls were out of bed and ski Pyramid Mountain. In two and a half hours he could hike up the peak, ski down, and drive back home, “gassed” but happy.
RYAN FELT LIKE HE’D BEEN in the water for days. But it was still dark; it couldn’t have been more than a few hours. He was still thinking about unzipping his suit. When should he do it, how long should he wait? Then he saw a light way off on the horizon. A ship! he thought. The Warrior, maybe. He knew how long it took between when you spotted another ship in the distance and when you actually passed it side to side. He figured the boat was more than an hour away. But the light was growing closer quickly. No more than thirty seconds after seeing it, Ryan heard the rotors.
The chopper seemed to home in right on him. It approached like a missile, and stopped short just above him, maybe one hundred feet into the sky. A giant spotlight shone down. Ryan waved his arms. For a few seconds the orange machine hovered above him. Then it turned and flew away.
What the hell, Ryan thought, I know they saw me.
He kept his eyes on the helicopter as it made a giant lap over the ocean. Then thankfully, miraculously, it circled back and settled over him. The door swung open.
He was going to be saved.
AS BONN CAME INTO A HOVER over Ryan Shuck, Starr-Hollow clipped his Triton harness into a talon hook on the end of a metal cable that ran into a hoist hard-mounted to the outside of the Jayhawk. At DeBolt’s signal, Starr-Hollow slid forward to sit with his legs dangling over the edge of the open aircraft door and unclipped from his gunner’s belt.
“Ready for direct deployment of rescue swimmer to survivor,” flight mechanic DeBolt announced through the ICS. “Swimmer is at the door.” And then, using a mechanical control just inside the aircraft door, DeBolt retracted the hoist cable, drawing Starr-Hollow smoothly up and out of the aircraft.
“Swimmer is outside of the cabin,” DeBolt reported. “Swimmer going down.”
From the pilot’s seat, Bonn couldn’t see much of what was going on behind him in the cabin, or in the waves beneath the aircraft. Through the ICS, a Coast Guard flight mechanic paints a verbal picture of the scene below, constantly updating the pilots with the information necessary to keep the helo positioned safely above the swimmer and victims in the water. Standard procedure during a hoist operation is for the flying pilot to turn off his or her radio—about 7 percent of Coast Guard helicopter pilots are women—and to concentrate only on the flight operations and the instructions of the flight mech. Meanwhile, the copilot handles all communication with people outside the helicopter. As soon as the decision is made to lower a swimmer, the flight mechanic is running the show, feeding the rest of the crew a constant stream of commands.
The conversation is scripted, the language drilled into all aircrew members from the first days of their training. From the safety checklists that the crew collectively runs through every time the swimmer leaves the cabin, to the “conning”—or positioning—commands that keep the helo safely placed over breaking swells, the crews are speaking a custom-made language built on succinct, declarative sentences. In the middle of the night, in the Bering Sea, for even one member of a four-man helicopter crew to be confused about what’s happening is to put the entire crew in danger. Precision. Clarity. Those are the attributes, each Coast Guard rescuer had been taught, that allow even the most complicated or harrowing rescue to proceed smoothly and calmly.
Now that the swimmer was out the door, McLaughlin would be the second eyes on the helo’s altitude. He continually scanned the gauges that covered the panel in front of him, and called out the size and frequency of the incoming swells to help DeBolt manage the hoist. The strong wind was working in the rescuers’ favor. Often the Jayhawk’s 100 mph rotor wash overwhelms people in the water, but with the gusts off the nose blowing most of the rotor wash behind the helicopter, the rescuers were able to fly closer to the survivor than usual.
DeBolt was kneeling at the open cabin door, attached to the roof by a canvas gunner’s belt that would hold him to the helo even if he tumbled out the opening. It was DeBolt’s job to make sure the hoist cable didn’t become tangled around itself, in the aircraft’s landing gear, or around a person in the water. As he lowered Starr-Hollow toward the surface, DeBolt leaned out into the darkness, eyes glued to his swimmer’s neon yellow helmet.
“Swimmer going down. Swimmer halfway down,” he continued through the ICS.
From the waves, Ryan Shuck saw the bright light of the helicopter fifty feet above, and the outline of the rescue swimmer falling slowly toward the surface. Ryan started swimming as fast as he could toward the rescuer.
As Starr-Hollow sank toward the waves on the thin metal line, he could see the fisherman trying to swim for him. With his harness clipped into the talon hook at the end of the hoist line, the Coast Guard rescuer had both his hands free for swimming or to grab on to a survivor. But he wasn’t close enough. Starr-Hollow seemed to be bobbing up and down, twenty feet at a time, as the waves swelled and retreated beneath him. As the aircrew struggled to keep the helo stable, the rescue swimmer found himself skimming forty or fifty feet horizontally over the water. Meanwhile, Ryan, too, was pushed all over by the waves and was fighting to move toward Starr-Hollow.
Finally, DeBolt placed the rescue swimmer just feet from Ryan, who reached out toward Starr-Hollow as the swimmer called to him.
“Swimmer in the water,” the flight mech announced through the ICS as Starr-Hollow hit the waves.
Ryan watched as the rescuer hit the ocean waist-deep, and was carried right to him by the wind.
“Stop swimming!” Starr-Hollow yelled.
DeBolt fed out more cable and directed Bonn to back the aircraft away from the men in the water. Starr-Hollow would remain attached to the hoist; feeding out the extra cable would give him some more room to maneuver, while backing away would help ensure that the extra line didn’t get tangled in itself, or worse, around their swimmer or survivor. If the line suddenly became taut—from aircraft movement or from a large wave dropping out from under the men in the water—Starr-Hollow and the fisherman could be jerked violently out of the waves.
“Swimmer is at the survivor,” DeBolt announced as, forty feet below, Starr-Hollow grabbed on to Ryan’s arm.
Ryan could feel the swimmer’s strength instantly. He began to relax.
“How’re you doing?” Starr-Hollow yelled over the thud of the rotors above.
“Okay,” Ryan answered. “Okay.”
Starr-Hollow told Ryan his name, and asked if Ryan could keep his arms still, as tight as he could against his sides.
“Yes,” Ryan nodded, “I can do whatever you want me to do.”
Starr-Hollow had a simple harness, called a rescue strop, slung over his shoulder. It took him ten seconds to cinch it over Ryan’s chest and clip the tightened harness into the talon hook on the end of the hoist line. Then he gave DeBolt the thumbs-up, the signal to hoist them out of the water. The hook would carry the weight of both men as they were pulled up, Starr-Hollow holding Ryan’s head and torso steady between his own legs.
The harness felt tight around Ryan’s chest, but the ride was quick. Within fifteen seconds, he was crawling toward the back of the Jayhawk and Bonn was flying toward the next closest light, about one hundred yards away. They came into a hover, and again Starr-Hollow went down on the cable with the quick strop while Bonn maneuvered the helicopter in response to DeBolt, who was reporting the swimmer’s every movement, and McLaughlin, who was calling out the size and frequency of the incoming waves.
“I knew you guys would make it,” the second fisherman said to Starr-Hollow when the swimmer reached him in the breaking seas. It was hard to have much of a conversation above the noise of the helicopter. But again, Starr-Hollow secured the fisherman in the strop and explained to him that he had to keep his arms down, straight at his sides to prevent the simple device from slipping up and over his head. Then he gave DeBolt the thumbs-up.
IN THE FOUR YEARS HE’D BEEN in Kodiak, Starr-Hollow had twice been sent for a week of advanced training on the coast of Oregon. The Advanced Helicopter Rescue School, known as AHRS (pronounced “Arse”) is held eight times a year, in late fall and early winter. The course is timed to take advantage of the huge swells that form where the Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean on the border of Oregon and Washington. In five mornings of instruction, the students—eight swimmers, four mechanics, and four pilots—are schooled in advanced rescue techniques in a classroom in Astoria, Oregon. In the afternoons they fly and train in the Middle Grounds of the Columbia River Bar and on the cliffs near Cape Disappointment, Washington, where Lewis and Clark first saw the Pacific in 1805. Tourists and locals alike often gather on the beach to watch the helicopter teams pluck dummies from the crumbling cliffs.
All four men in the Jayhawk had been to the Astoria school, where they practiced conning commands in the massive offshore swells. Back in Kodiak, they flew training missions all the time. Every day of the week, at least a couple of the air station’s helos would be up, practicing for every possible scenario. They would simulate engine failures, fires in the cockpit, and anything else that could potentially go wrong with the aircraft. They practiced dropping their swimmer to small boats and into the water and hoisting him up again in different situations. They had standards to meet. Every six months, each crew member had to complete a set number of trainers to maintain their qualifications to fly.
The training at the Advanced Helicopter Rescue School, though, was a level beyond the norm. Even though Alaska has the most extreme flying in the country, the crews have Coast Guard–wide weather limits for training. At AHRS, these limits are lifted a bit and the crews have the chance to practice in conditions they rarely—if ever—encounter at their home stations.
Now that training was paying off. Normally, Bonn and McLaughlin would never drop their swimmer into seas as violent as these just for practice. But at AHRS, the waves had been pretty similar. They’d had the opportunity to see exactly how people in the water—people tethered to their aircraft with a potentially deadly cable—reacted to enormous seas. And they’d had a chance to practice the advanced communication skills needed to simultaneously manage a complicated hoist and difficult weather conditions.
After a while, the training at the Columbia River Bar had begun to feel like clockwork. Tonight, they would get into the same rhythm. Each member of the crew knew what to do. Now, methodically, step by step, they’d do it.
WITH TWO SURVIVORS SAFELY INSIDE THE HELICOPTER, Bonn piloted the helo over to a group of people who had linked arms in the water. The quick strop system is the fastest way to get a single, conscious, cooperative victim out of the ocean. Now the crew decided to switch from that harness to their metal rescue basket. The basket is generally considered a safer hoisting option for anyone having trouble breathing. The quick strop pulls tightly around a survivor’s chest, but there is no strap in the basket. The victim simply sits inside the high-walled box until it’s brought inside the helicopter. The basket is also faster for lifting multiple victims because the rescue swimmer stays in the water to prep the next person while the first person is lifted.
DeBolt lowered Starr-Hollow into the water on the hoist line, a few yards from the survivors. The swimmer unhooked his harness from the cable, and swam toward the group of fishermen. Meanwhile, DeBolt drew the cable back up to the aircraft door, grabbed the hook, and attached it to the top of the rescue basket’s metal bales.
Starr-Hollow quickly swam up and down the line of men. There were six of them, locked elbow to elbow. They were getting twisted and turned and washed over by the waves. The swimmer’s first task was to determine who was the worst off—who would go first.
The swimmer could tell that the fishermen had little mobility in the thick Gumby suits. Watching them struggle in the water was like watching someone trying to run a race in a sleeping bag, Starr-Hollow thought. Compared to the fishermen, he was competing in jeans and a T-shirt. The buoyancy of Starr-Hollow’s dry suit was almost neutral, making it relatively easy for the rescuer to swim among the swells. A Gumby suit, on the other hand, has a buoyancy of almost 40 pounds. Even a very strong man would have great difficulty diving down below a breaking wave while wearing one.
Starr-Hollow peeled the first survivor from the group, swam him over a few yards away from the other fishermen, and signaled for DeBolt to drop the basket. The mesh metal box has red floats on either end—each printed with the words “stay seated”—that prevent it from sinking. The basket is rated to hold up to 600 pounds, though in practice, it’s extremely rare to lift more than one person at a time. There’d been cases in which women and children, and very slight men dressed in street clothes, had been brought up two at a time. The typical fisherman? Even without a Gumby, he was going up alone.
As Starr-Hollow helped the first man into the basket, he held the excess cable away from the compartment to avoid tangling. When DeBolt began raising the basket, Starr-Hollow hung his weight onto the bottom. He used his body like an anchor until the last possible moment, preventing the basket, and its passenger, from swinging too wildly above the waves.
Forty feet above, DeBolt maneuvered the first man into the cabin as Starr-Hollow swam back to the group of fishermen. The bottom of the basket can be raised just above the edge of the aircraft floor. The flight mechanic grabs the basket, pulls it into the cabin, and tips it on its side to allow the passenger to climb out. The first couple of guys from the group of six easily crawled out of the basket and huddled into the growing mass of fishermen against the back wall of the Jayhawk. As each man emerged, he was embraced by those who’d come before—most of them still barely recognizable in their hooded suits. By the time the third man was up, each new arrival brought a round of cheering and high-fives.
Then DeBolt pulled a smaller-framed man into the cabin. The flight mech got the basket into the helicopter, but the fisherman inside was paralyzed with fear. This guy is obviously in shock, DeBolt thought. The fisherman wouldn’t budge from thebasket. He looked scared to death. Over the deafening thud of the rotors, DeBolt yelled for the men huddled to the side of the cabin to help him get their friend out of the basket. Several men grabbed onto the fisherman’s fingers, attempting to pry open his grip on the metal rails. It was Joey Galbreath, a processor from Washington State. When the others called his name he just stared straight ahead like he was in a trance and wouldn’t let go. It took several minutes, even with DeBolt and the fishermen working together, to pull Joey out of the basket and get it back out the door toward the next man in the water.
EVAN HOLMES WAS CONFIDENT that the helicopter had seen them. It had been directly overhead; the spotlight was right on them. He’d waved his arms.
“They know we’re here,” he told P. Ton and Kenny. “They see us. They’re coming back. We just have to hang in there.”
Evan was in the rear of the three-man chain. He was the only one who had his arms free, and he kept trying to steer the other guys so that the waves would hit them all in the back instead of the face. Each time they were pummeled from the front, water leaked down into their suits. It was so dark, though, that it was hard to see where the water was coming from. It was only every once in a while that a little sliver of moon poked through the clouds. When they rose up on the top of a swell, Evan could see the helicopter in the distance, hovering. Then they’d plunge back down, and the chopper would fall out of sight.
Finally, the light came back, and settled overhead. “No shit,” Evan said. “Thank you.” He watched the rescue swimmer drop down from the open door. “U.S. Coast Guard!” Starr-Hollow yelled as he reached the men in the waves.
Evan pointed to Kenny. The young processor was nearly unconscious. A few minutes before, he’d started drifting away from the other men. He couldn’t hold on to P. Ton’s legs anymore. Evan feared that Kenny was done.
“Hey, man,” Evan yelled at Starr-Hollow. He motioned toward Kenny. “This guy, he ain’t doing too well. Get him first.”
Starr-Hollow could tell on his own that Kenny was the worst off of the three men. He loaded him into the basket, gave DeBolt the thumbs-up, and then swam back toward Evan and P. Ton.
“How are you doing?” Starr-Hollow yelled.
“I’m okay,” Evan answered. “Well, I’m not okay. Look, I’m doing okay right this second. I don’t know how much longer, though.”
Evan had seen how long the helo had been out there picking people up, and he’d seen some movies. He knew P. Ton should go up next. “Shit, man, do you have room in that helicopter for me?” he yelled to the swimmer.
Starr-Hollow grabbed onto Evan and looked him right in the eyes. “I tell you what,” he said. “I’ve got room for you. You’re my last guy.”
IT HAD BEEN CLOSE TO AN HOUR since the 60 Jayhawk had arrived at the sinking site. They’d just kept moving from one light to another light and another. Now they had almost a dozen men in oversized, waterlogged suits piled on top of one another inside the helicopter. It was almost 6:00 A.M. For most of the past hour, the cabin door had been kept open. The metal floor was a sheet of ice. The last fishermen to be brought up had been more hypothermic than the first. Some of them couldn’t seem to hold themselves upright. Even though DeBolt had ordered two of the men to crowd onto the tiny console between the pilots, the back cabin was packed tight with bodies.
While he was operating the hoist, DeBolt focused his attention on what was going on outside the helicopter. But glancing over his shoulder now, the flight mech was alarmed by how cramped the cabin had become. One guy had his feet hanging partway out the open cabin door. There was water everywhere. Even one more body and there would be a risk of one of the survivors sliding out and ending up back in the Bering Sea.
“That’s it,” DeBolt told the pilots, as he pulled the basket into the helo with Evan Holmes inside. Never before in his career had DeBolt been in the position of even considering leaving anybody behind. Yet now he was sure that it wasn’t safe to lift a single person more. The flight mech got the fishermen packed in as well as he could, then lowered the hoist line one more time for Starr-Hollow, who was floating alone in the waves below.
IT WAS 6:00 A.M. WHEN BRIAN MCLAUGHLIN heard the C-130 break in over the radio.
“Coast Guard rescue 6007, this is rescue 1705.”
The Herc, McLaughlin realized with relief, must be overhead.
“1705, 6007. Good to hear from you,” McLaughlin answered. “How you doing?”
They were good, the C-130 crew member answered. He asked for the helo’s position.
“Roger,” McLaughlin replied. “We’re at 5, 3, 5, 3 north. 1, 6, 9, 5, 7 west. We’ve been keeping our guard with the Alaskan [sic] Warrior, they’re Good Sam en route right now.
“We presently have seventeen people on board including our rescue swimmer,” McLaughlin continued. “Or at this point, well, sixteen, we’re about to pick our rescue swimmer up now. Then we’re going to offload some of these passengers.”
“6007, rescue 1705. Good copy, you have guard with Alaska Warrior. We’ll relate to COMMSTA, and we will, we will take your guard at this time.”
From McLaughlin’s perspective, the back of the Jayhawk looked like a sea of red. The fishermen were so packed in, it was hard to tell where one body stopped and another began. Though the first few men they’d pulled up had been fairly energetic, the end of that big group included a couple guys who were severely hypothermic. Some of them needed to get warmed up right away.
McLaughlin knew from his earlier conversation with the Munro that District Command was recommending the helo bring their victims to Dutch Harbor. The search and rescue coordinators in Juneau had been in touch with personnel in the fishing port, who were ready to receive the survivors. McLaughlin’s crew would be able to refuel there, then return to the scene. It would be the safest option for the men they already had, and for the crew.
McLaughlin remembered a couple times when a Coast Guard aircrew had been told there’d be fuel in Dutch. And when they got there? No gas. The Coast Guard wasn’t supplying the fuel in the port; it was a civilian, a local guy. Sometimes he would say he’d be there. Then he wouldn’t. More important, though, Dutch was such a long trip—150 miles one way. To McLaughlin and the rest of the Jayhawk team the decision was obvious—Dutch was out. It was just too far. All around them individual lights were still beating in the waves.
“Roger,” McLaughlin answered to the Herc’s offer to take the Jayhawk’s guard.
“Can you guys find out where the Munro’s at?” McLaughlin asked. “We need to find out how far out they are. We have an option of dropping these survivors off to the Warrior but with these seas, it’s just—wherever we put them is going to be hairy.
“If the Munro’s close, it would be ideal to bring them [there], but I think they’re still going to be about sixty miles out.”
“Roger that, 6007. Good copy. We’ll…get that information for you.”
McLaughlin had already been in radio contact with the Alaska Warrior. The FCA trawler was less than ten miles away. The pilot knew that the Munro, which had both fuel and trained medical personnel, was much, much farther. The Jayhawk was too big to land on either vessel.
With a dozen lights still flashing below, and every minute reducing those men’s odds of survival, McLaughlin made a tough call: They’d attempt to lower their survivors to the Warrior.
THE CREW OF THE COAST GUARD’S fixed-wing airplane, the Hercules C-130, was at twenty thousand feet when they began their descent. Pilots Matt Duben and Tommy Wallin calculated that they would save fuel—and time—by using the acceleration created by their descent to reach the disaster site. There were two needles on the Herc’s airspeed indicator: a white one that displayed the plane’s current speed and a red one that pointed to the aircraft’s maximum allowable speed.
Duben and Wallin thought of themselves as good stewards of Coast Guard property. They weren’t going to push the aircraft to its limits unless there was a damn good reason. Now they had one. People were in the water. Wallin kept his eye on those red and white needles, letting them hover right over each other. It was a technique called “flying the barber pole.” Twenty thousand feet, ten thousand, five thousand. At three thousand feet they passed through the cloud layer—and into a snow squall. Tiny flakes pounded against the plane’s windshield. Then, more than two and a half hours after lifting off from Elmendorf, they saw it.
It was as if they were approaching a small city. More than a dozen tiny lights were pulsing eerily in the darkness. From fifteen hundred feet, the men couldn’t tell which lights were people and which were rafts. Was there a boat? All they could see were the blinking strobes, signaling what they hoped were people still clinging to life in the waves below.