Out of the Cold

After the Jayhawk’s failed attempt to lower their survivor to the Alaska Warrior, there was no doubt in Brian McLaughlin’s mind that the next best course of action was to bring their cabin-load of fishermen to the Munro. The aircraft commander kept thinking about those blinking lights. They needed to get back to the people they’d left behind. The Munro and its crew were reliable, and they were right there. It was a more complicated, more dangerous approach than delivering the survivors to Dutch Harbor, but there were lives at stake. Many lives. As they got closer to the cutter, McLaughlin got Combat on the radio.

“Cutter Munro, 6007,” McLaughlin said. “We are en route to you with thirteen survivors on board. That’s thirteen POB.”

In the back of the Jayhawk, steam was rolling off the fishermen’s bodies, water still draining out of their Gumby suits. Nobody said much. Rescue swimmer O’Brien Starr-Hollow was kneeling on the aircraft floor, trying to move around among the pig-piled fishermen. A couple of guys were clearly worse off than the rest.

One was the man flight mechanic Rob DeBolt had had such a hard time prying out of the basket an hour before. The guy was shivering violently. So were several of the others.

As Starr-Hollow assessed each fisherman, he held his hand against the man’s head or chest, and tried to look him right in the eyes as he spoke. Starr-Hollow had recently read a book by Jane Goodall, the primate researcher who spent decades studying chimpanzees in the African jungle. The book had impressed upon him how powerful touch and eye contact can be for helping people connect and relax.

All Coast Guard rescue swimmers are trained as emergency medical technicians (EMTs). Part of Starr-Hollow’s job was to provide medical care for the survivors—at least until someone more qualified could take over. He knew morale was key to survival. Feeling happier can help someone feel warmer. Starr-Hollow once read that when people lose faith in their ability to survive, their body temperature drops. He knew it was critically important to keep the men awake and alert. On some of the worst-off fishermen, Starr-Hollow used a technique he learned in EMT school, the sternum rub, more or less a medically sanctioned noogie. He made a fist and rubbed hard with his knuckles against the bony part of the central chest. It was painful, but it would keep them awake.

It was about 6:40 A.M. and still dark when the crew on the Munro’s bridge spotted the orange-and-white-striped aircraft on the horizon. At the captain’s “Tallyho!” the ship’s engineers brought the Munro down off the turbines and turned her back into the swells. Now they’d be chugging away on their diesels once again, steaming slowly north, away from the wreck. (Originally yelled by hunters to excite their hounds at the sight of a fox, “Tallyho” is also used by pilots and ground controllers to indicate that another aircraft or target is in sight).

The Munro’s landing signal officer was outside the hangar door on the flight deck. Outfitted in a neon orange vest and helmet, the LSO held a fluorescent light wand, the same type used by runway technicians at commercial airports. While holding a hover, helicopter pilots can’t easily see what’s going on beneath them on deck. Instead, they rely on their flight mechanic and the ship’s LSO to keep track of the hoists.

The 60 Jayhawk settled into a hover above the flight deck. It had taken the crew forty minutes to fly from the Warrior to the Munro. The whole time, Evan Holmes remained huddled inside the rescue basket. He had been expecting the chopper to land on the ship. But now he realized that wasn’t the way it was gonna go.

Evan wasn’t eager to repeat his harrowing ride above the Warrior. As flight mechanic DeBolt slid open the aircraft door, Evan looked down toward the stern of the massive ship. At least it doesn’t look like there’s much to hit, he thought as he was lifted out the cabin door and lowered slowly down toward the flight deck. Evan had been parachuting once. This felt similar. The landing was so smooth, he could barely distinguish the moment the basket touched the deck.

BACK AT THE RESCUE SITE, Dolphin aircraft commander TJ Schmitz moved the helo back and to the left so he could see his rescue swimmer, Abe Heller, and the fallen fisherman, who was probably sixty yards away.

Schmitz flashed the helo’s landing light, and Heller looked up, but there was no easy way to communicate why they were trying to get his attention. The pilot panned his light out to where Byron was floating, but in the heavy swells, Heller didn’t have an easy line of sight across the water. Besides, he was already working on the next survivor.

Schmitz stared down into the waves. The fisherman was still facedown in the ocean.

The pilot was worried about his flight mechanic. He understood that Musgrave wanted to go back to try to get the man they’d lost. It was an emotional response, and an understandable one. But to Schmitz it didn’t make the most sense given the circumstances.

Both he and Greg Gedemer had heard Musgrave grunting and struggling to pull the fisherman into the cabin. Musgrave had seemed to have been at it for at least a minute—an eternity of silence in the middle of a hoist. Musgrave was as strong as an ox, and that’s exactly why Schmitz had chosen him that morning. Another ALPAT flight mechanic, Logan Cole, had been scheduled to fly, but Schmitz wanted Musgrave instead. It was unusual for a pilot to hand-pick a mechanic for a specific case, but Schmitz knew Cole was newly qualified. The aircraft commander wanted the strongest, most experienced man available. In his opinion, that man was Al Musgrave.

If Musgrave couldn’t have gotten that guy into the helo, well, it was hard to imagine anyone could have.

“We have to move on,” Schmitz told his crew. “We have to save the ones we can.” He heard a faint “Yes, sir” from the back.

“Are you ready to continue?” Schmitz asked.

Again, a quiet but clear “Yes, sir.”

“All right.”

“Rescue checklist part two for basket delivery to the survivor,” Gedemer announced.

The crew went through the script once again, and then Musgrave had the basket back out the door and moving toward Heller and the fisherman bobbing next to him in the waves.

The basket hit the water and Heller steadied it as Jim climbed in. Thirty seconds later, the engineer tumbled out onto the slippery metal floor of the chopper. He felt like a fish out of water as he tried to move around in his suit. He was shaking badly.

I wouldn’t have lasted much longer out there, Jim thought as he pulled himself upright inside the cabin. He could see a few other men pushed up in a ball in the back of the helicopter, some of them all but completely covered up with wool blankets. He scanned the cabin of the tiny copter. Where the hell was Byron?

“Where’s the guy that just came up?” he yelled to one of the fishermen next to him.

“There was nobody came up,” the man answered. “You were the only one.”

Musgrave got Jim Madruga situated and sent the basket back down for Abe Heller. For the first time since they’d arrived at the disaster site, Musgrave pulled Heller all the way into the cabin and slid the door shut.

Schmitz laid out the plan: They’d go back to the group of four who had linked arms in the water, take one, and leave Heller on scene with the rest. With four survivors and two crew in the back, the tiny cabin was already packed full. Leaving the swimmer would make space for one more person.

Heller still had his swimming helmet on, so Musgrave relayed the plan to him. Heller nodded a yes, then grabbed Musgrave’s microphone to talk to the pilots up front.

“Leave a raft!” he yelled into the mic.

“We’re not gonna leave you without a friggin’ raft,” Schmitz answered as he brought the helo into a hover over the four men. “There’s no way.”

Once again, Heller was lowered to the water in the basket. Then Musgrave conned Schmitz about forty yards upwind of the survivors. He pulled out the Dolphin’s raft, popped its inflation handle, and kicked it out the open door. The six-man model was the crew’s own emergency craft. If the helo crashed, this raft was their best chance at survival, but there was no hesitation over leaving it behind. The raft landed within fifteen feet of the fishermen below. It hit the water upside down, but, as designed, it self-righted when the canopy’s support tubes inflated.

Schmitz was impressed with Musgrave’s focus. The flight mechanic’s conning had been perfect. In these conditions, it would have been so easy to throw the raft too far downwind and for it to blow away from the survivors instead of straight into them. But it was right there.

Down in the waves, Heller had already reached the chain of survivors. He’d sized up their conditions, and pulled the weakest man out of the line. Julio Morales saw the Coast Guard swimmer coming toward him. He felt the man’s arms circle his chest. The rescuer was wearing a mask and a snorkel; a small light was attached to his helmet. “You’ll be okay. U.S. Coast Guard,” the swimmer said.

Julio couldn’t believe it. This guy must be crazy to voluntarily jump in the water in these conditions, he thought.

Heller grabbed onto Julio and steered him away from the other men. Heller had the Guatemalan man by the arm when all of a sudden the raft was drifting right toward him. The swimmer hadn’t seen it coming.

“Change of plan,” the swimmer yelled to Julio.

It would be too difficult for Heller to hold onto the raft while he simultaneously tried to get Julio into the basket. Instead, he loaded Julio straight into the raft, then swam back toward the remaining trio. Heller grabbed the next man he reached. He’d be the one in the basket. The lucky one.

APPROXIMATELY SEVENTY MILES TO THE NORTH, the 60 Jayhawk hovered above the Munro. As DeBolt waited for Evan Holmes to climb out of the basket, Starr-Hollow readied the next fisherman. Many of the worst-off men were closest to the cabin door. They’d been the last to be rescued. Now they’d be the first to get out.

As soon as Evan hit the deck, two Munro crew members grabbed him steady by the shoulders and told him to stay low. Seconds later, another duo grabbed him and pulled him up. Still in his sopping survival suit, Evan was led across the flight deck and along the outside of the hangar to a door that led to a vestibule, where an EMT team supervised by the Munro’s corpsman, “Doc” Chuck Weiss, was waiting.

“We’re going to take your suit off and get you out of your wet clothes,” Evan was told.

“Everything?” he asked.

There were some females there, too. Great. First I’m in freezing water for several hours and now I gotta get butt naked in front of guys and girls? Evan thought. But he was so happy, he didn’t really care.

“Just give me something warm,” he said.

The medical crew already had out the trauma shears designed to cut through zippers and other tough material. They quickly stripped off Evan’s survival suit and the wet clothes underneath. He was wrapped in warmed blankets that had just been pulled out of the clothes dryer, then walked a level down to the makeshift triage center on the Munro’s mess deck.

As the 60 pilots maintained a stable forty-foot hover, the fishermen were loaded into the basket one by one and then lowered to the ship. Each time the Jayhawk’s basket left the cabin, there were crew members ready on the flight deck. One of them held a metal “grounding wand” with a clip on one end that attached to the ship. As the basket neared the deck, the crewman would reach out with the wand and touch the metal box, effectively grounding the dangerous static charge that builds up in the basket from the helicopter rotors. With the boat pitching, the Munro crew members held the basket and hoist line steady as each survivor reached the deck. They worked systematically, taking each hypothermic fisherman from the basket and handing him off to their crewmates like workers on an assembly line.

As soon as they’d been alerted of the emergency, the Munro’s crew had started gathering supplies, especially extra blankets and towels. The dense, gray wool blankets are standard-issue bedding on the 378, and they were loaded into the Munro’s eight industrial dryers in armfuls. Two decks up in the kitchen, the crew set the ovens to 160 degrees. They rolled up terrycloth towels and lined them up on industrial-size baking sheets until they came out at about 110 degrees, just cool enough not to scald the skin. They’d be held in the victims’ armpits and groins, warming the blood that flows through the axillary and iliac arteries.

When Evan reached the dining room, a Munro team was ready with emergency medical treatment. They took his temperature and checked his blood pressure. Now Evan watched from beneath a blanket as each of his coworkers got the same treatment. It was pretty cool, what good care they were getting, Evan thought as he wrapped his numb fingers around a hot drink.

Soon the room was full of wet fishermen being checked on by groups of Munro crew. Of the men lowered from the Jayhawk, just three were so weak that they had to be put on stretchers before they were brought down the narrow stairway to the mess deck. One of them was Kenny Smith.

The twenty-two-year-old from Pasco, Washington, couldn’t stand on his own when the Munro crew pulled him out of the rescue basket. He’d tried to get out but felt paralyzed. Inside the vestibule, the medics stripped off his clothes, secured him onto a padded stretcher, and lowered him carefully down to the next level of the ship.

Kenny was a slight guy, but the maneuver was still tricky. The crew brought him into the dining area, laid him on a table, and started taking his vitals. His core temperature was only 90°F—dangerously low.

Should they move him to the sick bay? the EMTs wondered.

“No. You don’t want to jostle the body; it can cause the heart to go into a quiver,” Doc Chuck Weiss told the crew. “We shouldn’t move him again.”

Weiss ordered the crew to grab the thermal recovery capsule, a sleeping bag–like sack designed for rewarming hypothermia victims. The bag is made of a thick, fuzzy wool covered with heavy nylon. Back in Kodiak, just over a week earlier, one of the techs at the medical clinic had offered the rewarming bag to Weiss. It was an extra that had been carried on board one of the helicopters for a while. It had cost close to $3,000.

“Sure, I’ll take it,” Weiss had said. He didn’t imagine he’d ever need it. Now the Munro’s Doc wished he had several more of the specialized sacks.

The medical crew was constantly monitoring Kenny’s temperature. By the time they had him zipped into the rewarming bag with a dozen of the warmed, rolled towels nestled around his body, the young man’s temperature was 91°F. Only his face was exposed and the ice was finally melting from his orange-brown mustache and goatee. The Munro’s crew was talking to him, but Kenny didn’t seem to be responding. Weiss was worried. The fisherman had a look that the medic thought of as the thousand-yard stare. Occasionally, when they called his name, Kenny would glance over, but mostly his eyes were just wandering. He seemed like he was in a fog, slipping back and forth over the line of consciousness.

DOLPHIN COPILOT GREG GEDEMER was keeping an eye on the fuel. When Abe Heller had been inside the cabin with their four survivors, the helo had exceeded its maximum gross weight: 9,200 pounds. The good news was that the more fuel they burned, the quicker they’d get back within limits. The bad news was that the fuel situation was already tight.

Luckily, the wind had been to their advantage. They’d had a tailwind on the flight to the scene and they’d had 30 knots off the nose for most of the hoists. The wind made it easier to hold a hover at a higher weight. Without it, the tiny aircraft may have had to jettison fuel to keep picking up fishermen. Now it was looking like they’d need every drop available.

Right before takeoff, the pilots had programmed the aircraft’s computer to calculate a return trip to the same position. It had seemed like a conservative approach at the time. Once they were up, the Munro would continue toward the sinking site, perhaps again at close to 30 knots. The Dolphin crew was under the impression that the 60 Jayhawk was dropping their survivors onto the Alaska Warrior—or maybe bringing them to Dutch Harbor. Long before they’d reached the rescue scene, the crew of the smaller helo knew the Jayhawk crew had changed their plans and were intending to lower their survivors to the Munro. Still, the Dolphin rescuers thought, that course of action wouldn’t take anything close to the amount of time their own crew would be away from the ship.

As Heller worked with the four fishermen below in the waves, Gedemer got the Hercules C-130 on comms. The Herc had taken the 65’s guard when they first arrived on scene and now the 65 would rely on the C-130 crew to help them double-check the details of their return flight to the Munro.

“Where is the ship right now?” Gedemer asked Herc pilot Matt Duben.

Duben fed Gedemer the numbers. It was just after 7:00 A.M. and the Munro was still conducting hoisting operations with the 60 Jayhawk in nearly the same position the Dolphin launched from about seventy miles to the northwest. If the larger helicopter also needed to refuel, the Munro would continue moving steadily away from the Dolphin’s position.

Helicopter pilots generally fly with a set turnaround in mind. They call it their “bingo”—the point at which they have to head back if they want to arrive with enough fuel for a safe landing. A missed bingo can lead to “splash,” a crash of the helo into water. When Gedemer programmed the aircraft’s computer at takeoff, he’d calculated a bingo with 400 pounds (59 gallons) of fuel remaining, a fairly typical load that meant they’d land with about forty minutes of flying time left. When the Dolphin got on scene, though, Gedemer bet the Munro would be closing some of the distance between their launch point and the disaster site, and he reset the computer back to a bingo of 200 pounds. There were so many people in the water that cutting it closer seemed warranted.

Up in the C-130, the crew went over Gedemer’s calculations. There was no question that given the Munro’s current location, it was past time for the Dolphin to head back to the ship—the only possible landing point in the middle of the Bering Sea.

“Coast Guard 6566, this is rescue 1705,” Duben’s cooing Southern accent broke in over the radio. “You should depart scene as soon as possible, over.” Duben was alarmed at how little fuel the helo had, but he didn’t show it.

The Alabaman’s calm, pillow-talk voice was a comfort to the 65 pilots. Still, they knew the situation was growing serious. They’d pushed the limits and now they had to do every single thing right if they wanted to get their survivors—and themselves—safely back to that tiny patch of blacktop on the stern of the Munro.

“Roger, 1705,” Gedemer answered. “This is our last guy.”

Gedemer was relieved when the basket reached the cabin door and Musgrave quickly pulled it in and unloaded the man inside. With six people in the back, the flight mechanic couldn’t fit the metal compartment in sideways and still close the aircraft door. Instead, he propped the basket upright in the space that—until a few minutes before—had held the crew’s emergency raft. Then he closed up the cabin as Schmitz began to orbit the tiny, six-man raft below.

The pilot wanted to be sure the fishermen and his swimmer were safe. He asked Musgrave to pull the Dolphin’s bright orange data marker buoy from the aircraft wall. The buoyant, arrow-shaped device sends a satellite signal that allows rescuers to relocate a point in the ocean and track the drifting of debris in the water.

Musgrave dropped the marker out the door. The Jayhawk would get back to the scene first. When they did, they would be able to pinpoint the buoy and hopefully find the raft—with four men safe inside—nearby.

BACK UP ABOVE THE MUNRO’S FLIGHT DECK, Brian McLaughlin was also updating his fuel calculations. If they didn’t refuel now, the aircraft commander realized, they’d have only ten minutes on-scene before they had to turn around again. By the time the last couple of men were being lowered to the ship, the crew knew they’d need to HIFR—now.

Helicopter In-Flight Refueling is a maneuver that all Coast Guard helicopter pilots are well aware of. McLaughlin knew the procedures—even though his training with the Munro a couple of days before was the only time in his career he’d actually practiced the refueling technique.

It was 7:10 A.M. when the last hoist to the flight deck was complete. DeBolt pulled the basket back up, and the Jayhawk moved off to the side of the ship. The Munro kept heading north into the swells. It was dangerous to be up on turbines during the refueling sequence because the turbines’ exhaust could create a “burble,” a pocket of hot air that might jostle the helicopter out of the sky. The ship would have to continue at the slow, stable speed they’d used during the hoist—plowing into the waves and moving away from the rescue site.

Down on the flight deck, the LSO signaled to the pilots to keep off to the side of the ship while the HIFR rig was prepared. Like the flight crews, the LSO wore night vision goggles, which lit up the deck in a neon green light.

Meanwhile, the blue-clad tie-downs began to lay out the fuel hose in a big S pattern. They called it “faking out” the hose. One of the crew attached a special nozzle that weighed nearly 100 pounds to the hose’s end. At the LSO’s signal, the 60 moved back over the flight deck and lowered its hoist line with the talon hook on the end, and the “blueberries” attached the nozzle on the fuel hose to the hook.

Mechanic Rob DeBolt had removed a couple of panels to access the interior fuel port, used exclusively for in-flight refueling. The Jayhawk was about thirty feet above the level of the flight deck as DeBolt hoisted the nozzle, with hose attached, all the way up. The hose hung from the hook outside the cabin door as Bonn slid the helo off the side of the ship. Keeping clear of the deck would allow the pilot a better view of what was going on below. The position would also be safer if the fueling hose fell from the aircraft in an emergency. Any spilled gas would fall straight into the ocean rather than onto the deck of the moving ship.

The higher the Jayhawk hovered, the harder the Munro’s pumps had to work against gravity to get the fuel up into the aircraft. Forty feet above the surface, though, was about as low as they could be and still stay safely clear of the breaking waves. DeBolt pulled the hose inside the cabin and inserted the heavy metal nozzle into the fuel port.

Like the pilots, DeBolt had limited experience with the HIFR maneuver, and all the experience he did have was in daylight. It was a tricky operation no matter what; attempting it in the dark made it orders of magnitude more difficult. The procedure was sort of like trying to gas up a car with both the vehicle and the gas station moving—along a rutted dirt road. The flight mech kept an eye on the moving ship as he inserted the nozzle into the side of the helicopter. The numbers on the Jayhawk’s fuel gauge began to rise steadily. The crew wanted a full tank: 5,500 pounds of fuel.

Meanwhile, Bonn was piloting by the commands of the LSO officer below on the Munro’s deck, which was lined with little light-reflecting chiplets that helped Bonn identify the contours of the ship’s platform. Every so often, staticky chatter from the 65 Dolphin was audible over the radio.

At 7:28 A.M., just a few minutes after the 60 Jayhawk began in-flight refueling, the crew of the smaller 65 Dolphin reported to the Herc that they had recovered five survivors and left their rescue swimmer—along with their crew life raft—on scene withthree more fishermen. A few minutes later, the 65 crew relayed the same message to the Munro.

“We have five survivors on board. We left our rescue swimmer on scene,” the 60 crew overheard 65 pilot Gedemer report. “We are twenty minutes out and have thirty-six minutes to splash.”

Moments later, the Munro’s fuel pumps shut down. The 60 was still more than 1,000 pounds shy of a full tank, but there was no time to keep going. Flight mechanic DeBolt removed the nozzle and hooked it back onto the hoist. They repositioned over the deck and lowered the hose back to the ship.

With enough fuel for another three to four hours of flight, the Jayhawk sped south while the massive ship swung back around in the same direction. Down in the engine room, the crew fired up the Munro’s turbines once again, hoping to close the gap between their location and the fuel-critical Dolphin.

THROUGH THE SMALL PORTHOLES on the mess deck, some of the crew assigned to medical duty noticed the ship changing its course, turning to the south, the same direction as the crashing waves. A couple minutes later, the massive cutter jolted forward as the engineers brought her up on the birds one more time.

Processor Kenny Smith was in the rewarming capsule and laid out on top of one of the mess deck’s tables, which was covered with the heated, wool blankets. The Munro’s EMTs were constantly monitoring him. Some of the other Alaska Ranger crew members started wandering over as well.

“Hey, bro,” one guy said.

“Come on, Kenny, you’re gonna be okay, man.”

Doc Weiss encouraged the fishermen to keep talking to their friend. The worst thing would be for Kenny to fall asleep and slip away.

Almost all of the rescued men were able to sit up now. Once they had dried off, they had been given “dummy suits,” lightweight Tyvek coveralls that are most often used to clothe illegal migrants intercepted in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. Despite their improved appearances, Weiss noticed that most of the fisherman still looked a little stunned. A few were complaining about sore throats. They’d sucked in a lot of salt water, and some of the Ranger’s diesel fuel along with it. Some men could still taste it. A few complained of nausea, headaches, or congestion. There had been a few cuts to treat, minor scrapes and abrasions. Overall, though, Weiss thought the men seemed to be doing remarkably well.

Even Kenny—the worst off of all of them—had improved. After ten minutes in the rewarming bag, his core body temperature had risen almost five degrees. He was responding to his friends, smiling, and talking a little. He was going to be okay, Weiss realized with relief. If he had come in even one or two degrees colder, he probably wouldn’t have made it.

Within an hour or so, some of the rescued fishermen started leaving the mess deck. The Munro’s crew had set up a couple of the ship’s TV rooms, the “rec decks” they called them, for the survivors. The fishermen could relax in there, watch a movie, and get their minds off of things.

Meanwhile, Weiss and his team started preparing for the next delivery.

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