By Ms. Kalee Thompson
Before dawn on March 23, 2008, the Alaska Ranger, a large fishing vessel sank in the Bearing Sea, America’s deadliest waters. As 47 souls fought for survival, the Coast Guard launched one of the most dramatic rescues in history.
“Mayday, mayday, mayday. This is the Alaska Ranger. 5, 3, 5, 3 North, 1, 6, 9, 5, 8 West… We are flooding, taking on water in our rudder room.”
It was 2:52 am on March 23, Easter morning, when Coast Guard Station Kodiak picked up the distress call from a point almost 800 miles west, in Alaska’s frigid Bering Sea.
“Roger. Good copy on position… Request to know number onboard, over.”
After a static-filled pause, the answer came through loud and clear: “Number of persons: 47.”
Captain Peter Jacobsen was in the crowded wheelhouse of the 189-ft. fishing vessel. When the trawler’s emergency alarm had first sounded about an hour before, crew members descended below decks to see water rising fast in the ship’s stern compartments. They had pulled out a pump, but the effort soon looked futile. Now Jacobsen, 65, a veteran captain who had been fishing in the Bering Sea for 23 years, was making calls to his ship’s sister vessels, repeating the coordinates of the Ranger’s position 120 miles west of the Aleutian Island port of Dutch Harbor.
Two hundred and thirty miles to the north, pilot Steve Bonn was in the middle of a late-night Xbox duel when the phone rang in the Coast Guard’s tiny outpost on St. Paul Island. Bonn, 39, had served as an Army Blackhawk pilot before joining the Coast Guard eight years ago. He was now four days into a two-week shift at the isolated base, where squads of rescuers stand by for emergencies involving the nation’s largest—and most danger-plagued—fishing fleet. Bonn rushed to the barracks to wake his crew: co-pilot Brian McLaughlin, 30; flight mechanic Robert Debolt, 28; and rescue swimmer O’Brien Hollow, 33. Within minutes, they had loaded into SUVs, sped through 3-ft. snow drifts to the hangar and were fueling up a 14,500-pound HH-60 Jayhawk helicopter.
Craig Lloyd, 46, captain of the Coast Guard cutter Munro, was on patrol near the ice edge south of the barren Pribilof Islands when the mayday call came through. He ordered engineers to switch the 378-ft. cutter from its standard diesel engines to Pratt & Whitney FT4A engines, similar to the ones that power Boeing 707s. Several of the 160 crew members onboard were jarred awake in their bunks as the 18,000-hp turbines kicked in, and the Munro began to sprint toward the sinking ship at a speed of nearly 30 knots, or 35 mph.
David Hull struggled to pull a bright-red survival suit over the sweats he had been sleeping in minutes before. The thick, neoprene “Gumby” suit, which looks a little like a child’s footed pajamas, has a zipper up the front that is supposed to form a tight seal at the neck to keep the body dry. But as Hull stepped into the flopping legs of the oversize suit, he felt his thermal socks soak through. Inside, there was already standing water.
A 28-year-old who grew up in the Seattle suburbs, Hull had spent three years as a fish processor on the Alaska Ranger. The so-called head-and-guts vessel has a factory below decks where the catch is partially prepared for sale; it is roughly twice as long as the average king-crab boat the region is known for. Hull had been asleep on his “rack” in the bunk room that he shared with three fellow fishermen when another crew member opened the door: “Get your suits on. We’re flooding.” Like the rest of the crew, Hull had reported to a muster station near his designated life raft on the ship’s deck. Now the anxious men were cycling through 5-minute warmup shifts in the wheelhouse, where they could barely recognize each other in the bulky, hooded suits.
Outside, the deck was slick with ice, and waves were beginning to crest over the stern. The temperature was only 12 F. As Hull leaned against the front window of the wheelhouse, awaiting his turn, the Alaska Ranger went dark. Oddly, it seemed to shift into reverse. Then the trawler took a sudden, violent list to starboard. Hull lunged for an icy rail and held tight as crew members clinging to the rail below him gazed up in horror. “Don’t let go, don’t let go,” he heard someone yell. If he lost his grip, Hull would hurtle down the deck like a bowling ball, knocking the men into the sea.
Amid the chaos, the captain issued the order: Abandon ship. The men struggled to launch the ice-crusted life rafts. They had been told that they would lower ladders to board the rafts in an emergency. But because the Ranger was moving astern, the rafts shot toward the bow instead of floating in place near the side of the vessel. Hull watched them drift away. Then he jumped. He swam for the closest raft, hauled himself in, and then peered out of the tented shelter. All around, the lights attached to his friends’ survival suits were spreading out in the 32 F water, blinking in and out of view as the men bobbed up and down in the 20-ft. swells.
One of those lights belonged to Ryan Shuck, a soft-spoken 31-year-old from Spokane, Wash., who had joined the crew of the Alaska Ranger 10 months earlier. Shuck had been one of the first to jump. He’d leaped from the middle of the ship—and was quickly sucked under and beyond his raft. Now he was farther downwind than anyone else. Gazing back in the trawler’s direction, he could see the tiny, solitary beacons flickering among the waves and, by the light of the moon, the outline of the vessel bulging out from the ocean. Shuck watched as the bow of the Alaska Ranger turned up toward the sky. Eerily, the lights in the wheelhouse flickered on for a brief moment. And then, in a matter of seconds, the ship disappeared, sinking swiftly below the waves.
The Coast Guard regularly inspects fishing vessels out of Dutch Harbor; it knew the Ranger should have enough survival suits for everyone onboard. But even with the thick foam suits sealed properly, few can survive in the Bering Sea for more than 2 hours. When the Munro received reports that men had abandoned ship, its crew mobilized to deal with mass casualties. Chief Chuck Weiss took charge of transforming the mess hall into a triage center. He briefed several men on how to treat hypothermia, and they set to work gathering dozens of wool blankets that would be warmed in the ship’s industrial dryers and in ovens, set to 200 F.
Meanwhile, the cutter Monroe’s HH-65 Dolphin helicopter was hauled out of its hangar and rolled onto a honeycomb metal grid on deck. In 35-mph winds, the crew deployed the hydraulic probe that secures the 6000-pound machine tight to the platform. Then they waited. The Dolphin is a smaller helicopter than the Jayhawk and has a much shorter range. The cutter had to be within 80 miles of the disaster site in order to launch; otherwise, the crew might not have enough time to carry out their rescue and then return to the Munro before they used up their 1850 pounds of fuel.
It felt to Shuck as though he’d been in the water for hours. He could see a cluster of four or five lights a couple of hundred yards behind him, but it was too far to swim; he was already exhausted. Shuck thought about unzipping his suit. Maybe if he just let himself sink to the bottom, it would be easier. It would all be over much faster. He was so cold. Then he saw a light glaring down through the darkness and 30 seconds later heard the sound of propellers whipping through the wind.
Three hundred feet above the ocean, Steve Bonn and co-pilot Brian McLaughlin peered through night vision goggles as they scanned the waves below. It was just after 5 in the morning, but in Alaska in winter, that’s still pitch dark. Finally, the helicopter broke out from a snow squall, and there it was—a light. Then two, three … five. The crew saw what looked like a poorly lit runway, a string of strobes flashing on and off over almost a mile-long stretch of ocean. There was no sign of the Alaska Ranger.
When they set out from St. Paul, the crew had brought a de-watering pump, expecting to find the ship afloat and salvageable. Now, flight mechanic Rob Debolt pitched the pump into the sea. The scene that faced them was a disaster far more extreme than they—or anyone they knew—had responded to in the past. All four men had attended the Coast Guard’s prestigious Advanced Helicopter Rescue School in Oregon, where they’d practiced difficult maneuvers in the huge swells that form where the Colombia River meets the Pacific Ocean. This rescue, in driving snow and gusting winds, would test every aspect of their training.
McLaughlin was able to radio a crewman in one of the life rafts. They were all okay. The Jayhawk would start with the men in the water. Within minutes, the helicopter was hovering over Shuck. Rescue swimmer O’Brien Hollow hooked his harness into a cable controlled by a hoist hard-mounted to the Jayhawk, then stepped to the open door. He wore a Nomex drysuit, 7-millimeter neoprene gloves and a neoprene hood under his helmet—as well as a snorkel, lighted mask and fins. As he sank down into the darkness on the thin metal line, Hollow saw the man in the water reaching out, trying to swim toward him. Hollow told him to stop.
Then he hit the water waist-deep and the wind carried him right to Shuck. When Hollow grabbed his arm, Shuck says, he could feel how strong the rescue swimmer was, and he began to relax. Hollow asked if he could keep his arms solid at his sides. “Yes,” Shuck said, nodding. “I can do whatever you want me to do.” Hollow secured Shuck in a harness, then clipped him into his own hook. He gave Debolt the thumbs up—the signal to hoist both men out of the water.
Within 15 seconds, Shuck was crawling toward the back of the Jayhawk, and Bonn was piloting the machine to the next closest light. Again, Hollow went down on the cable as Bonn maneuvered the helicopter, following cues from Debolt, who was watching the rescue swimmer at every moment, and McLaughlin, who called out the size and frequency of the incoming waves. Then they came to a group of six men who had linked arms in the water.
The Coast Guard crew decided to switch from the harness, called a Strop system, to a rescue basket. The metal compartment is generally considered a safer hoisting option for anyone having trouble breathing. The harness pulls tightly around the chest, but there is no strap in the basket. The person simply sits inside the high-walled box until it is pulled into the helicopter. The basket is also faster for lifting people clustered together, because the rescue swimmer stays in the water, prepping the next man to be hoisted up.
Debolt again lowered Hollow into the water, and the rescue swimmer helped the men into the basket one by one. Then they moved on to another light and another. In less than an hour, they had a dozen men in oversize, waterlogged suits piled atop one another in the crowded cabin. The helicopter was at capacity. McLaughlin had been in radio contact with the Ranger’s sister ship, the Alaska Warrior. The trawler was less than 10 miles away; the cutter Munro, which had both fuel and trained medical personnel, was still 75 miles to the north. The Jayhawk was too big to land on either vessel. With a dozen lights still flashing below, McLaughlin, as the aircraft commander, made a tough call: They would attempt to save time by lowering their survivors to the Warrior.
At 5:57 the Jayhawk reached the fishing boat. One crewman was loaded into the rescue basket as the helicopter hovered above the vessel. Three times, the men tried to lower the survivor as the Warrior pitched and rolled violently in the waves. The deck was iced over and crowded with rigging. The gantry was a hazard in the rough seas. After about 15 minutes, McLaughlin made a second tough call. It was too dangerous; they’d offload onto the Munro instead.
Inside his life raft, David Hull sat in a circle with nine other men, their backs against the inflated wall. The raft’s floor was wet, and Hull was cold. His hands and feet were numb, and he’d spent the past hour being pounded by breaking waves. It felt like a roller coaster he couldn’t get off. But someone had managed to grab handheld radios before abandoning ship. They knew the Coast Guard had their location and that help was on the way.
The crew members of “Coast Guard Rescue 6007.” The photograph was taken at the conclusion of an eight and a half hour rescue mission, during which the crew battled darkness, snow storms, 30 knot winds and 20 foot seas while recovering 17 crew members of the Fishing Vessel Alaska Ranger. Crew, from left to right, LT Brian McLaughlin (Aircraft Commander), LT Steve Bonn (Co-Pilot), AST2 O’Brien Hollow (Rescue Swimmer), and AMT2 Robert Debolt (Flight Mechanic). U.S. Coast Guard photo by AST3 Byron Cross.
The 12 people inside the second life raft were no as lucky. Both rafts were the same make, designed for 20 people: They weren’t overloaded. But the second raft had filled with at least a foot of water and its pump wasn’t working. The raft’s survival pack had been ripped open, and now the rations, flares and other emergency tools were soaked. No one had a radio. And many of the dozen people inside had succumbed to seasickness. Among them was Gwen Rains, a biologist from Marshall, Ark., who had worked in Alaska as a fisheries observer for the past two years. Vessels the size of the Alaska Ranger are required by federal law to sail with observers, who are charged with ensuring real-world fishing practices are in line with regulations. Now Rains was in a flooded life raft with 11 strangers. Her one friend had stayed behind on the sinking ship. She had a GPS-enabled beacon that had been provided by her employer, but she couldn’t tell if it was working. And she was ill; Violently so. She wasn’t the only one: Most of the people in the raft were vomiting straight into the standing water. From above, they could hear the buzz of a helicopter. Rains knew that rescuers had to help the men in the water first, but she hoped they saw her raft as well
By 6 am, the coast guard cutter Munro had traveled close enough to launch its Dolphin helicopter. Pilot Timothy Schmitz and crew LT. Greg Gardener, AMT2 Al Musgrave and AST3 Abraham Heller, lifted off and headed toward the scene. He expected the Munro to keep heading south as well, shortening the return flight. But then the cutter got word that the Jayhawk had failed to unload its survivors on the Alaska Warrior. Now the Munro would have to stop and receive them.
By the time the Dolphin arrived at the scene, its crew knew every minute they spent hovering would consume fuel they might need for the return flight. Rescue swimmer Heller was lowered into the water. These fishermen were colder than those who had been airlifted by the Jayhawk an hour earlier—especially the fourth man Heller reached. The rescue swimmer spent at least 10 minutes struggling to get the burly fisherman to calm down and settle into the basket, as flight mechanic, Musgrave peered down from above. Finally, it looked as though Heller was signaling to hoist the basket—that the man was seated safely inside. But as the basket rose toward the Dolphin, the fisherman raised himself to the rail. Soon, his legs were hanging out the side, his body stiff as he clung to the basket’s upper triangle. He looked terrified.
With his survivor halfway out of the basket, Musgrave couldn’t pull it entirely inside the rig to unload. Instead, he boomed it in as close to the helicopter as possible and reached for his knife. The man’s survival suit had filled with water, adding as much as 100 pounds to his weight; Musgrave planned to slice the suit to let the water drain out. But in the second that he turned away to grab his knife, the fisherman slipped. When Musgrave turned back, the man was hanging by his elbows from the open door.
Musgrave desperately tried to haul him up, but the weight was too much. Within seconds, the man let go. “He’s gone, he’s gone,” Schmitz heard Musgrave repeat through his headset. Forty feet below in the water, Schmitz could see the fisherman’s light, still blinking. For an instant, he thought he saw the man move his arms in the waves. “He’s okay, he’s moving,” the pilot said. But then, a heart-wrenching reality set in: “Never mind. He’s face down.”
The Alaska Ranger sank, after reporting progressive flooding which began only hours earlier. Of the 47 on board, 42 were rescued. Of the five fatalities, four were recovered dead, and one was never found.
The rescue was carried out by a USCG HH-60 Jayhawk which was stationed on Saint Paul Island, AK and a HH-65 Dolphin which was attached to the USCGC Munro, which rescued 20 people, and 22 were rescued by Alaska Ranger’s sister ship FV Alaska Warrior. The ship sank 180 miles west of Dutch Harbor.
As the helicopter raced toward the cutter Munro, rescue swimmer Hollow treated the worst-off fishermen with sternum rubs—a noogie-like technique for keeping hypothermic patients alert. Meanwhile, engineers switched the cutter back to its diesel engines and changed course, steering the vessel into the wind to provide the helicopter with more stable conditions for what they knew would be a lengthy hover. The Munro’s crew had set up an assembly line to get the fishermen out of the basket, across the deck, out of their suits, and down to the mess hall below. They knew that the longer it took to get the Jayhawk emptied, refueled and back to the scene, the longer a dozen more men would be alone, slowly freezing to death in the icy water.
Shuck watched his fellow crew members disappear from the edge of the helicopter one by one. Then it was his turn. As he huddled inside the swaying metal basket, a crewman reached up with a hook, called a “deadman’s stick,” and grounded the dangerous static charge that builds up from a helicopter’s rotors. Then Shuck was rushed from the deck. His suit was stripped off and his vital signs checked; soon he was wrapped in warm blankets and drinking hot cider As the Jayhawk raced. His temperature on arrival was 94 F. He would be one of the lucky ones.
Outside, the Jayhawk had lowered its last survivor and was gassing up using an emergency method known as HIFR (helicopter in-flight refueling). Hovering the helicopter above the cutter, the crew used the hoist hook to draw up a fuel hose carefully snaked out on deck, then moved about 30 ft. off the side of the ship to refuel. The helicopter team had practiced the tricky maneuver during training with the crew of the Munro just days before. But that exercise had been in daylight and in relatively calm conditions. Still, everything was going smoothly; the Jayhawk was more than two-thirds of the way to its 6460-pound fuel capacity when the call came in from the Dolphin. The smaller helicopter was dangerously short on fuel, still 20 minutes from the cutter with only 36 minutes to “splash.” The Jayhawk crew cut the HIFR short to get out of its way and sped to pick up five more men—including Heller, the Dolphin’s rescue swimmer, who had stayed behind to make more room for survivors.
David Hull had been in his raft for nearly 3 hours. He was sitting in a shallow puddle of freezing water. The bottom of his suit was flooded. But his main concern had turned from his own life to the safety of those who had stayed longest on the sinking ship—especially the man known to the crew as Captain Pete. The captain was the first officer Hull had worked for when he’d signed up with the Ranger’s parent company, the Fishing Company of Alaska, a few years before. He liked and respected the captain, a peace-making, humble man who, despite his rank, would often lend a hand with chores, or head down to the factory to help the newbies pack fish. Hull knew that Captain Pete would consider it his duty to stay with the vessel until the very end.
Finally, the men saw a ship’s light a couple of hundred yards away. Before long, the Alaska Warrior had pulled up alongside the raft. While the Warrior’s crew used its crane to lift some people from the water, Hull struggled to swim to the vessel and pull himself up a ladder on the starboard side. The dozen people in the second raft were recovered soon after. The Alaska Warrior’s crew gave the survivors blankets and microwaved potatoes to hold in their armpits. And then, as they sat warming themselves, the crew started pulling bodies out of the water. Hull saw the deckhands bring an unresponsive man down to the galley and lay him out on a table. Hull watched as the crew checked his vital signs and began CPR. It was too late. Captain Pete was dead.
Minutes later, another man was pulled from the waves. There was vomit on his face. His eyes were glazed over. Hull began CPR on the fisherman, whom he recognized as Byron Carrillo, a 36-year-old from the Los Angeles area who had only been on the crew for a week. It was just days ago that Hull had noticed that the greenhorn, while a hard worker, was having trouble distinguishing different types of fish on the processing table. Hull had pulled him aside, given him some pointers. Now he was pumping water out of the poor guy’s body. Hull did 30 chest compressions, then mouth to mouth. Over and over. The other men were telling him to stop, but Hull didn’t want to give up. Finally, the Warrior’s first mate ordered him to end it. There was no hope.
Back onboard the Munro, Ryan Shuck had heard that some men hadn’t made it—but he didn’t know who. With the help of Coast Guard aircraft, the Munro was methodically searching the ocean for one crewman who was still missing. The airlifted men would remain onboard the cutter—camped out until the search was concluded.
On Monday, Lloyd, the Munro’s captain, gathered the Alaska Ranger’s crew to give them the news. Four bodies had been recovered. First Mate David Silveira had been unresponsive, the hood of his survival suit pulled back off his head when he was lifted from the water by the Jayhawk on its return trip to the rescue scene. The Alaska Warrior had recovered the bodies of chief engineer Daniel Cook, fish processor Byron Carrillo and Capt. Pete Jacobsen. Satoshi Konno, the vessel’s Japanese fishmaster, who was responsible for directing the trawler to the best fishing grounds, was still missing. That evening, the search was suspended; it was impossible that the man could have lasted more than 40 hours in the Bering Sea in only his survival suit. It was almost inconceivable that so many had lived for even 2 hours.
Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine awarded its 2009 Aviation Week Heroism Award to the U.S. Coast Guard Rescue Team involved in this rescue operation, stating: “The two helicopter crews displayed exceptional risk mitigation and airmanship in fighting time, distance and weather – including snow squalls, a −24°F wind chill, 15 ft seas and 30 knot winds – to rescue survivors. The USCG deems the operation the largest cold-water rescue in its history.”
[This account of the Alaska Ranger Rescue was taken from a story in Popular Mechanics Magazine. It was written by Kalee Thompson. Several Coast Guard photos were added. Both Ms. Kalee and popular Mechanics Magazine graciously gave permission to use the story]
For the full account of this rescue, pick up Kalee Thompson’s latest book, Deadliest Sea: The Untold Story Behind the Greatest Rescue in Coast Guard History.