Deadliest Sea: The Greatest Rescue in Coast Guard History

Deadliest Sea: The Greatest Rescue in Coast Guard HistoryTFT Exclusive Excerpt from the new book Deadliest Sea by author Kalee Thompson (National Geographic Adventure, Popular Science, Wired).

Coast Guard Jayhawk helicopter 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 four-man crew 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 the sinking ship. But there was no sign of the Alaska Ranger.

The scene was unlike anything the 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 Coast Guard Cutter 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 men–at least for now. They just had to choose a spot and start getting people out of the water.

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 bright-red neoprene survival suit, and no one looked obviously worse off than anyone else. Not that that was an easy judgment to make from the air.

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.

Ryan Shuck felt like he’d been in the ocean for days. But it was still dark; it couldn’t have been more than a few hours. The fisherman 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 Alaska 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 Steve Bonn came into a hover over Ryan Shuck, Coast Guard rescue swimmer O’Brien Starr-Hollow clipped his 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 the signal from flight mechanic Rob DeBolt, 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 helicopter’s internal communication system (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 helicopter 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 radio 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 aircraft 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 gale-force 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 aircraft even if he tumbled out the opening. It was his 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.

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, several stories 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 pull them out of the waves.

From the book Deadliest Sea: The Untold Story Behind the Greatest Rescue in Coast Guard History. Copyright (c) 2010 by Kalee Thompson. Published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins.

Kalee Thompson is a freelance writer focused on science, environmental, and outdoor stories. She  has worked as a senior editor at National Geographic Adventure and Popular Science magazines and has c ...read more

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