It was just before 3:00 A.M. and Coast Guard pilots Steve Bonn and Shawn Tripp were sprawled out in the tiny pilots’ lounge on St. Paul Island, locked in a late-night Xbox battle of Call of Duty 4. The men were on a barren, five-by-seven-mile speck of rock in the middle of the Bering Sea, the largest of five tiny islands collectively known as the Pribilofs. Outside, the wind whipped across the tundra, building a wall of snow against the room’s single, narrow window.
During the winter crab fishing season, the Coast Guard pre-deploys helicopter rescue teams—two four-man crews comprised of a pilot, a copilot, a flight mechanic, and a rescue swimmer—to the island for two weeks at a stretch. Coast Guard command implemented the predeployment program more than a decade ago in response to a sky-high fatality rate among crab fishermen. The rescuers are on standby to respond to emergencies in the fleet, which plies the 32°F waters near the islands in search of opilio crab, a spindly, pale orange crustacean whose sweet meat is often marketed with the restaurant-friendly name “snow crab.”
Commercial fishing is the most dangerous job in the United States. In 2008 the annual fatality rate among all U.S. fishermen was thirty-six times higher than for all U.S workers (128.9 and 3.6 deaths per 100,000 workers, respectively, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health). In the 1990s, the rate was even higher for Bering Sea crab fishermen. Between 1990 and 1999, seventy-three people died in the crab fishery, a number that translates to 768 annual fatalities per 100,000 full-time workers.
The gear is a major culprit: The crab are caught in rectangular metal traps, or pots, which are baited with herring and left to soak for up to two days at a time. Each pot can weigh 800 pounds and is launched into the ocean attached to a long line that connects the trap, which rests on the ocean floor, to a buoy on the surface. It’s not unusual for a crewman—especially a newbie, or greenhorn—to be pulled overboard after getting an ankle or a loose piece of clothing wrapped up in a line.
When not in use, the pots are piled high atop slippery decks. Crewmen climb on the unstable stacks to tie down the pots and can easily fall several stories to the deck, or worse, into the ocean. The piled pots also diminish a boat’s stability. Crab pots on deck make a ship top-heavy, which makes it roll more easily and right itself more slowly—if it rights itself at all. During the 1990s, twelve crab boats capsized and sank in the Bering, at least eight of them while traveling to or from the crab grounds with pots loaded high on deck.
Location also adds to the danger. The Pribilof Islands hug the 57th parallel, more than two hundred miles north of Dutch Harbor and seven hundred miles west from the Coast Guard air station in Kodiak, one of two Alaskan bases equipped with HH-60 rescue helicopters. The Coast Guard’s second air station is in Sitka, six hundred miles south in the Gulf of Alaska. Together, the two stations cover an area half the size of the continental United States. Even if the Coast Guard instantly got the call for vessel in distress or man overboard, it would take at least six hours for a helicopter to reach St. Paul from Kodiak. The HH-60 (also called the Jayhawk) is the Coast Guard’s long-range helicopter, but it still wouldn’t be able to make the trip without stopping to refuel at Cold Bay or Dutch Harbor, or some other Bering Sea outpost almost as far-flung as St. Paul. Six hours is too long in the Bering Sea. And so, from January through March, Coast Guard rescuers rotate through winter duty on St. Paul, sleeping, eating, and, often, looking for ways to pass the time in the barracks of the Coast Guard’s LORAN station.
LORAN IS AN ACRONYM for “long range navigation.” Like the Coast Guard’s manned, high-frequency radio communication station, the LORAN facility was a relic of an earlier age. To most modern ocean-going vessels, it operated a technology that was as outdated as the sextant. The St. Paul LORAN station was built in the 1940s and was in 2008 one of about fifty remaining LORAN stations worldwide, each supporting a massive antenna that broadcasted a low-frequency radio signal hundreds, sometimes thousands, of miles in every direction. It takes at least three stations to provide the triangulated data needed to determine an exact position in the open ocean. The technology also requires a LORAN box, a piece of electronics that was ripped out of most vessels at least a decade ago.
St. Paul’s LORAN station was the largest of six in Alaska, the state’s “master” station. Like all the LORAN stations in the United States, Alaska’s facilities were run at considerable cost by the Coast Guard. The military justified the expense by arguing that LORAN was a backup to GPS. If the United States’ entire system of orbiting satellites were shot out of the sky, LORAN would be the fallback. In the meantime, the remote, multimillion-dollar facilities were kept operating to serve the odd old-time fisherman who avoided dropping a few hundred dollars on a GPS in favor of antiquated electronics that served him just as well.
The staff of thirteen full-time Coast Guard personnel on St. Paul called themselves the “permanent party,” and they didn’t dwell on who was or wasn’t using their broadcast. Their mission was simply to keep the one-megawatt signal always on air, day and night. The conditions sometimes made it difficult. In the summer, St. Paul sees highs in the low sixties. But in the winter, sub-zero temperatures are the norm. Thirty-five-mile-per-hour winds are nothing special and once or twice a season gusts in the sixties are virtually guaranteed. It’s easy to get snowed in for days at a time. The LORAN crew was responsible for keeping the station and, most important, the 625-foot LORAN tower clear of snow. They had a full-size backhoe, some smaller snow-movers, and an eight-man snowcat to assist with the job.
The tower rose a few hundred yards behind the single-story building where the permanent party lived during the year-long assignment. St. Paul was a hardship post; each Coastie came alone—no spouses, no kids. For each month of the tour, a Coast Guard member earned an extra 2.5 days of vacation time and a $150 hardship bonus. The single best thing about the billet was that after a year at St. Paul, Coasties were virtually guaranteed their number-one choice for their next assignment. In the meantime, they lived like college students: working, sleeping, and eating at set mealtimes. The rooms were dorm-size, the furniture straight out of a 1990s-style freshman suite. Signs in the communal bathrooms reminded people to wipe the stainless steel sink after brushing their teeth.
There had been efforts to make the LORAN station a friendly place. There was a pool table and a foosball game, a TV room decorated with palm fronds known as the “Tundra Dome” where Coasties could pay 40 cents for a Coke or 89 cents for a Bud Light and watch a movie selected from one of dozens of new releases provided through the military’s “morale” program. The adjacent building had a gym with treadmills and weights and a couple of old mountain bikes that staff might use to ride into town in warmer weather. The port’s there, as well as a small museum, and the island’s only store, which sells groceries and bathroom supplies and knock-off Deadliest Catch sweatshirts. You can buy an ATV there, or a bunk bed, or a $9 bag of Doritos. Sometimes the Coasties went there just to look, just for somewhere to go.
Despite their shared isolation, the LORAN staff usually didn’t get to know many of St. Paul’s full-time residents. In 2001, the commanding officer of the station was brutally beaten in his room with the butt of a gun, and then dragged outside the station and shot to death. The crime was the result of an apparent love-triangle—the murderer was the estranged husband of a local woman who was allegedly involved with the senior-level Coastie. The lurid details of the murder were among the very few facts new arrivals to the station might know about the place. The event didn’t improve the already-cool relationship between the Coast Guard and the local community.
ZACHAROF. LESTENKOF. MERCULIEF. MELOVIDOV. Like in many of Alaska’s native communities, the surnames on St. Paul are Russian, even though 85 percent of the island’s residents have Aleutian ancestry. With a population of 450, St. Paul is the largest Aleut village in the state. Russian traders first “discovered” the Pribilof Islands in 1786. Aleut history holds that the foreign sailors were led to the chain by a native hunter. For centuries, the most striking thing about the place has been its fecund population of northern fur seals: Each summer, hundreds of thousands of the sweet-faced mammals gather on the islands’ shores. The number used to be in the millions.
The Russians already had established settlements in Dutch Harbor and on Kodiak Island in the 1790s when they began forcibly relocating Aleut people from the Aleutian Chain north to St. Paul and the nearby island of St. George. On the Pribilofs, the Aleuts were forced to hunt and skin seals for the Chinese market. Over the years, many of the Aleut women married Russian men, and virtually all of the native Alaskans joined the Russian Orthodox religion, whose onion-domed churches remain the most distinctive buildings in St. Paul, St. George, and many other small Alaskan communities.
St. Paul residents still hunt fur seal. The “harvest” is for subsistence only, and is subject to strict government regulation. About sixteen hundred sub-adult males can be taken each summer. Only Aleuts can participate in the hunt, and only they can eat the meat. Not only it is illegal to sell the lean, bloody steaks, it’s against the law for hunters to share the seal meat with outsiders, even over their own dinner tables.
Traditionally, Aleut men hunted fur seals with a harpoon, from a kayak. The animals rarely come ashore near their Aleutian Chain villages. In the Pribilofs, a more efficient method was, and still is, used: The animals are herded from the beach into a pen, much like cattle. Then, one hunter clubs the seal on the head to stun it, while a second hunter stabs the animal through the heart. The process was designed to avoid damaging the seals’ valuable fur. Today, that fur is discarded—it, too, is illegal to sell, and both the equipment and skills that St. Paul hunters once used to dry and preserve the pelts have been lost.
Most of the money that comes into the St. Paul community comes through fishing. Aleut fishermen spend a good part of the summer trolling for halibut, a high-value white fish whose harvest is managed through quotas that are largely reserved for native communities. There are two fish processing plants in town: the Trident Seafoods factory on St. Paul Harbor, and the Arctic Star, a floating processor owned by Icicle Seafoods. In the warmer months, the island supports a small tourist trade of extreme bird watchers. More than 240 avian species have been spotted on the island, including some exotic Asian specimens.
In the winter there isn’t any tourism and almost no activity in town. For many Coasties, the best thing about the place is the caribou (reindeer, technically) that were imported as an alternative food source when the seal population plummeted in the early 1900s. Today, a herd of about five hundred roams the island, which is more than the land can comfortably support. The local tribal council happily allowed the Coasties to buy a $50 tag and do some culling. They dressed and packaged the meat in an old metal storage container behind the LORAN station, then packed it in coolers for the flight back to Kodiak.
When hunting season was over, there was still hiking. Many of the “airdales” would pack snowshoes and trekking poles and walk along the ice at the edge of the beach. Inside, they played poker, Scrabble, Trivial Pursuit, and Xbox games. They tried to stay out of the way of the full-time LORAN staff.
The air crews’ shifts were twenty-four hours on, twenty-four hours off, from 5:00 P.M. to 5:00 P.M. One crew was always ready to go should a call come in. In recent years, there’d been an average of half a dozen search and rescue cases each winter.
The crews flew training missions when they could. The Coast Guard has strict safety standards for training: a five-hundred-foot ceiling and two miles of visibility at takeoff, and maximum winds of 35 knots. When the weather was clear, they’d take familiarization flights around the islands or work on stick and rudder skills over the runway, practicing takeoffs and landings. There was no crash crew at the airport in St. Paul, and no second Coast Guard aircraft. Without the backup, the crew couldn’t practice many of the drills that filled much of their time in Kodiak: simulating engine or systems failures, or practicing hoisting their rescue swimmer and rescue basket out of the ocean.
But like cops on a beat, the air crews could fly fisheries patrols. Sometimes, they’d use Coast Guard intel or a tip from the National Marine Fisheries Service to target a specific vessel suspected of fishing in a closed area or using illegal gear. More often, they were just checking up on ships from above, letting them know the Coast Guard was there if needed.
Occasionally, the crews conducted drills with a Coast Guard cutter. Earlier in the week, both Shawn Tripp’s and Steve Bonn’s helicopter crews had been scheduled to practice a maneuver known as HIFR (helicopter in-flight refueling) with the Munro, a 378-foot cutter on winter patrol in the Bering Sea. The ship is big enough to carry its own search and rescue aircraft, the French-made HH-65 Dolphin, which is stored in a snug hangar on the stern of the ship. The day Tripp and his crew were scheduled to train with theMunro, the weather was crummy. The next day, though, was clear and calm, a perfect training day for Bonn’s helicopter crew.
They came into a hover forty feet over the Munro’s deck. Thirty-year-old lieutenant Brian McLaughlin was at the controls; Bonn, a former Army pilot from Northampton, Pennsylvania, who’d been in Alaska for four years, was his copilot. The ship’s seamen had laid out a fuel hose in a wide S-like shape. The flight mechanic in the rear of the Jayhawk lowered the helicopter’s external hoist line—a steel cable one-fifth of an inch in diameter with a talon hook on the end—and the ship’s crew attached their hose to the hook. The line was raised, and the pilots backed the bird off the side of the ship. The flight mechanic inserted the gas nozzle into their internal fuel tank and began refueling. The seas were calm and the winds were low, and Bonn could see the shadow of the helicopter on the cutter’s deck. Each member of the crew had studied every step in an HIFR, but neither of the pilots had ever actually practiced the skill. It was satisfying to drill with the Munro and they were grateful for the opportunity to do it.
“ALASKA RANGER, THIS IS COMMSTA.” It was 2:49 A.M., just a couple minutes after the fishing trawler’s initial Mayday call. Inside the Alaska Ranger’s wheelhouse, First Mate David Silveira was handling communications with the Coast Guard, while Captain Pete Jacobsen consulted with the Alaska Ranger’s engineers. Meanwhile, the Japanese crew was sitting in a circle on the floor near the back of the wheelhouse, smoking cigarettes.
“Understand not able to keep up with the flooding and all your crew members have their survival suits on and are standing by at this time, over,” watchstander David Seidl confirmed with the mate.
“That’s a roger,” Silveira answered.
“Alaska Ranger, this is COMMSTA. Request that you turn your EPIRB [emergency position-indicating radio beacon] on immediately and keep it with you, over.”
“Roger that. Roger that.”
“Alaska Ranger, this is COMMSTA. Request to know what type of survival gear and flotation devices you have on board, over.”
Silveira replied that the boat was equipped with immersion suits for everyone on board, and with three twenty-man life rafts.
“Alaska Ranger, this is COMMSTA. Understand, twenty-man life rafts…. Request to know if you are able to give me on-scene weather, over?”
“On-scene weather is northwest winds about three, five knots, northwest about thirty-five knots,” Silveira reported to the Coastie: gale-force winds of just over 40 miles per hour. “We’ve lost our steering, uh, we don’t have any steering. We haven’t lost power yet, the engines are still on.”
At 2:55 A.M. COMMSTA Kodiak issued the first Urgent Marine Broadcast alerting all Bering Sea traffic about the foundering ship. Like the standardized maritime distress call—the thrice repeated “Mayday,” which comes from the French m’aidez, or “help me”—at-sea alerts begin with an anglicized version of a French word, panne, or “breakdown.”
“Pan, pan. Pan, pan. Pan, pan. Hello all stations. This is United States Coast Guard, Kodiak, Alaska, Communications Station. United States Coast Guard, Kodiak, Alaska, Communications Station. The factory trawler Alaska Ranger is taking on water in position 5, 3, 5, 3.4 north, 1, 6, 9, 5, 8.4 west. There are forty-seven persons on board, and it is one hundred and eighty-four feet with black hull and white trim. All vessels in the vicinity are requested to retain a sharp lookout, assist if possible, and report all sightings to the United States Coast Guard. United States Coast Guard, Kodiak, Alaska Communications Station. Out.”
The officers in the Ranger’s own wheelhouse heard the chilling announcement over HF channel 2182. It was unlikely, they knew, that an unknown Good Samaritan vessel was close by.
The most likely “Good Sams” in the vicinity were the other Fishing Company of Alaska trawlers. The closest was the Alaska Warrior, which was more than forty miles away.
“Alaska Ranger, this is COMMSTA Kodiak. At this time, we’d like to put you on a zero-five minute communication schedule,” Seidl radioed at 3:00 A.M. “We’ll contact you every five minutes for updates on your status, over.”
“Roger,” First Mate David Silveira answered.
A few minutes later, Seidl called to ask for an update on the flooding.
“Well, it’s over our, uh, we call it the ramp room. Our rudder room was flooding, coming up the ramp room. We’ve shut the watertight doors,” Silveira reported. “We got out of the area.” Heavy static distorted the second half of the transmission, but it sounded like Silveira was saying that the Alaska Ranger’s chief engineer was recommending they abandon ship.
“Alaska Ranger, this is COMMSTA,” Seidl radioed back to the boat. “Understand above the rudder room and to your ramp room. You shut the watertight doors, got out of the area, and donned your survival suits, over.”
“That’s a roger.”
“Alaska Ranger, this is COMMSTA. Nothing further. Talk to you in five minutes, over.”
“Roger,” Silveira answered.
OUTSIDE ON THE DECK, SEVERAL PROCESSORS were leaned up against the rail. Among them was David Hull, a twenty-six-year-old from Seattle who had been working on the Ranger on and off for the past five years. David was well known as the ship’s health nut. He kept a blender in his room, along with supplies to make smoothies, and a large collection of vitamins.
It was after the muster, and things seemed pretty quiet. David looked around. He was thinking about the valuables he’d left behind in his room. He felt like things were calm enough that no one would notice if he was gone for a few minutes. He ran as fast as he could in his suit, down two flights to his bunk room, where he grabbed his laptop bag and started stuffing a bunch of vitamins inside. Before long, boatswain Chris Cossich—who was in charge of David’s muster group—was at the door. “Heh! Get out of here,” he yelled. Chris was furious.
“Fuck you! You’re fired!” he yelled at David when the two men got safely back up on deck. “What the hell were you thinking? You are off this boat!” David felt terrible. He realized he’d made a stupid move. He tried to apologize, but Chris wasn’t having it. It was pretty obvious to everyone who heard the commotion that descending into a sinking ship to get a computer bag was about as smart as running into a burning building.
PILOT SHAWN TRIPP WAS TIRED. He had landed back in St. Paul just a few hours before, after a four-and-a-half-hour medevac flight to Dutch Harbor and back. A forty-nine-year-old man in Dutch had needed an emergency blood transfusion. The simplest thing would have been to put him on a plane directly to Anchorage, which has the state’s best-equipped hospital. But Dutch Harbor’s tiny airport was completely socked in. A plane couldn’t land. But a helicopter could. The helo in St. Paul—Coasties prefer the shortened term to “chopper” or “copter”—was the closest available aircraft.
In the Lower 48, the Coast Guard rarely performs medevacs, except in civic emergencies, like Hurricane Katrina, when the Coast Guard transferred more than nine thousand patients out of battered New Orleans hospitals and nursing homes. An additional twenty-four thousand civilians were rescued by the Coast Guard from rooftops, floating debris, and even tree branches in the days following the storm. The Katrina tragedy was a shining moment for the Coast Guard. It showcased the strength and flexibility of the service’s real-time planning and response capabilities, and allowed the Coast Guard to demonstrate its willingness to step up and deal with problems that technically fall under other agencies’ purviews. In Alaska, that sort of stepping up happens every day.
Alaska is bigger than four Californias put together—and has a population of just 650,000 people—less than the city of Columbus, Ohio. It’s unsurprising, then, that so many of Alaska’s communities are cut off from the rest of the world. Only in the heart of the state, branching out from Anchorage, where half the population lives, do maintained roads connect communities on a year-round basis. In many areas the only way to move between towns is by boat or plane. Many remote towns don’t have a real hospital. And even those that do often aren’t equipped to handle high-risk procedures. Or even low-risk ones: There’s only been one baby born on St. Paul Island in twenty years, a little girl who arrived prematurely. At eight months, expectant mothers are ordered to Anchorage.
The isolation means that medevacs are high on the Coast Guard’s list of calls. In the summertime, it’s cruise-ship passengers from the massive boats that trace the Kenai Peninsula, or the smaller vessels that come into Kodiak and very occasionally visit the Aleutian Chain. Hunters, hikers, four-wheelers, and snowmobilers routinely get themselves into trouble in Alaska’s unforgiving mountains. The massive shipping fleet whose routes ply the Bering Sea are regular customers as well. It isn’t unusual for a rescue crew to be sent out beyond Adak, a former military base two thousand miles west of Kodiak, to lift an injured worker off a four- or five-hundred-foot container ship.
This medevac had been fairly routine, even though the bad weather and treacherous flying left Tripp wired as he arrived back at the LORAN station. The night vision goggles he and his crew wore in the helo made the Bering look like the opening credits of Star Trek—the snowflakes were like a universe of stars hurtling toward him at light speed. Tripp had sixteen hours left on his shift. He’d pass a couple hours with Call of Duty. He’d had an ongoing competition with pilot Steve Bonn. They were well matched in the game: equally terrible.
The phone rang a couple minutes before 3:00 A.M., just after the men had finished a final face-off. Tripp figured it was the on-duty officer at the operations center in Kodiak, Todd Troup, calling to point out some mistake Tripp had made in his medevac paperwork. It was the ops center, all right, but Troup wasn’t concerned about paperwork. A fishing trawler was taking on water, some two hundred miles south of the island. The 60 Jayhawk in the St. Paul hangar was the Coast Guard’s closest asset.
Tripp did the calculations. The ship was at least an hour-and-a-half flight away. His crew had already had four and a half hours of flying time. A crew is “bagged,” or grounded, after six hours in the air. Of course, if they were in the middle of a rescue, they would keep going until it was over, but in this case, Tripp’s crew would have close to six hours on them before they even reached the troubled ship. Tripp knew it didn’t make sense for his crew to respond, and Troup had reached the same conclusion.
Tripp held out the phone for Bonn: “It’s for you.”
Minutes later, Bonn was knocking on doors to wake the rest of his crew: pilot Brian McLaughlin, flight mechanic Rob DeBolt, and rescue swimmer O’Brien Starr-Hollow. Though at thirty-nine, Bonn was older than McLaughlin and had more years of flying experience, McLaughlin outranked him in the Coast Guard.
The younger pilot was tall, six foot four, and lanky, with pale skin and sharp features. He had enrolled in the Coast Guard Academy right out of high school in Hanson, Massachusetts. As a kid, McLaughlin had been in the Civil Air Patrol, a sort of military Boy Scouts. In eighth grade, he attended a Civil Air Patrol camp that included a visit to the Coast Guard Air Station on Cape Cod. He left with a new goal in life: to become a Coast Guard pilot. He decided his best route was the Coast Guard Academy. It was one of the most difficult schools to get into in the country. The tuition was free, and the academic standards were high. McLaughlin was a trumpet player, a self-declared band geek, and the Academy had a band, of course. The school wasn’t far from his home, just a couple of hours away in New London, Connecticut. He applied, and got in.
It wasn’t a typical college experience. McLaughlin reported to New London in July 1995, for Swab Summer, a six-week basic training program for new cadets. There, he learned to sprint through obstacle courses, to fire an M-16, and to recite the Academy’s cadet mission statement: “To graduate young men and women with sound bodies, stout hearts, and alert minds, with a liking for the sea and its lore, and with that high sense of honor, loyalty, and obedience which goes with trained initiative and leadership; well grounded in seamanship, the sciences, and amenities, and strong in the resolve to be worthy of the traditions of commissioned officers in the United States Coast Guard in the service of their country and humanity.”
Along with about 240 other first-year cadets, McLaughlin spent his freshman year in New London walking silently in the hallways and greeting any upperclassman he encountered by name. In the embarrassing instances when he couldn’t recall a name, he had to greet the older student with “sir” or “ma’am.” Glancing down at the name tags embroidered on the upperclassmen’s uniforms was forbidden—new cadets were required to keep their chins up and their gaze straight ahead at all times. At meals, the freshmen sat together under strict silence in the cafeteria—the “ward room” they called it, just like the officer’s dining room on a ship. McLaughlin was instructed to sit straight up, with a fist’s distance between his back and the back of his chair. He was taught to “square his meals,” by raising a fork straight up from the plate to a few inches in front of his face before bringing it forward into his mouth.
The students were forbidden from closing their dorm-room door any time there was a cadet of a different year, or of the opposite sex, in their room. Freshmen were allowed to date only within their own class, and upperclassmen could date only one year in either direction (no senior/sophomore relationships allowed). Romance rules weren’t relevant to McLaughlin, who had started dating Amy Lundrigan, from the neighboring town of Whitman, at the end of high school. They went together to their senior prom and decided they’d stay together when McLaughlin left for the Academy that summer.
There were no phones in the dorm rooms, but the couple scheduled pay phone calls. Amy would sometimes drive down on weekends and stay with a friend nearby. McLaughlin could spend weekends with her, but he had to be back for curfew: 10:00P.M. on Saturday and 6:00 P.M. on Sunday. They stayed together for four years and got married a few months after McLaughlin graduated from the Academy. After the requisite year and a half afloat on the 270-foot Coast Guard cutter Tahoma (he and Amy called it theTahoma Neverhoma), McLaughlin was accepted to flight school in Pensacola, Florida.
All Academy graduates are committed to at least five years of Coast Guard service and they are an elite group among the ranks. There are currently just over forty thousand active-duty Coast Guard members. Of those, 11 percent are Academy graduates. Among pilots, the number is close to 39 percent. Upon graduation, a twenty-one-year-old Coastie is already a junior-grade lieutenant, outranking enlisted officers who’ve been in the Coast Guard for decades. McLaughlin got his wings at twenty-four and became an aircraft commander at twenty-six. He’d been stationed in Kodiak since July 2006. It was his second assignment as a pilot after Clearwater, Florida.
Clearwater was an excellent post for new pilots; conditions were almost always good for flying, which made it easy to rack up a lot of hours. The air station had diverse missions: migrant operations, hurricane response, search and rescue, and, always, recreational boaters who found creative ways of getting into trouble. There were also a high number of false alarms. “Condo Commandos” was the term the pilots used to describe the overzealous Floridians who called in flare sightings from the balconies of their beachside second homes. What they’d usually seen was an odd firework. Still, the Coast Guard dutifully went out to search. There was a lot of flying, but there often wasn’t a lot of true action.
Alaska was a different story. There weren’t as many search and rescue cases. Sometimes a week would go by without an incident. More typically, the ops center at Kodiak would get three or four calls a week. But in Alaska there were few false alarms and few small, no-big-deal kind of cases. Almost every time McLaughlin flew, he was dealing with long distances, icy conditions, turbulence, and high seas. Down in Clearwater, ten-foot seas usually meant a tropical storm was coming in. In Kodiak, ten-foot seas were the norm. In less than two years in Kodiak, McLaughlin had already been on two major rescues that involved pulling multiple people from the ocean, as well as a handful of more typical medevacs and missing hunter calls.
After being woken up by Bonn, he changed into his thermal underwear and orange dry suit. He’d gone to bed just a couple hours before, around 1:00 A.M. He’d been awake when Shawn Tripp returned from his medevac, and he had heard Tripp and his copilot talk about the “snotty” weather farther south. Too bad for you, McLaughlin had thought to himself. Those guys were on duty until the next afternoon.
Now, things had changed.
It didn’t take McLaughlin long to pull together his gear. Coast Guard rescuers are encouraged to compile their own custom survival kits for the emergency conditions they may face in the region. McLaughlin carried a hunting knife, a compass, two space blankets, a lighter, waterproof matches, and a snapshot of Amy with their two kids.
Their daughter, Sagan, had been less than a year old when they made the trip from Florida to Kodiak. They spent the whole summer at it, crossing the continental United States and then making their way up the Alaska Highway in a twenty-three-foot RV they’d bought before leaving Florida. It was just them, the baby, and their two Australian Shepherd mixes, Sadie and Roxie.
McLaughlin had talked to his wife on Saturday evening. Their son, Cole, had been born just a month before, and McLaughlin’s mom had come from Massachusetts to help out. The women were planning an Easter dinner and getting Sagan’s basket ready for the morning. Amy told her husband about how there was an egg hunt, and pictures with the Easter Bunny, at the air station that day. There were lots of activities for families at the base, and lots of families with little kids. Amy had worked as a massage therapist in Florida, but she’d been a full-time mom since moving to Kodiak. She’d bring her daughter swimming at the air station’s indoor pool and to the small aquarium run by the National Marine Fisheries Service, where Sagan loved to stick her tiny hands in the freezing touch tank and run her fingers over the prickly starfish and tissuelike sea anemones.
A couple of nights a week, McLaughlin would be on duty, sleeping at the base. It was the two-week deployments to the remote outposts that were hard, though. Each season was a new place: St. Paul in the winter, Cordova in the summer, Cold Bay in the fall. Amy didn’t worry too much. Brian’s father was a Massachusetts state trooper, and her mother-in-law had taught her that “You can’t worry every time they walk out the door. You’ll drive yourself crazy if you do.”
Amy called the deployments “man camp.” Eat, sleep, movies, video games. She didn’t feel so bad for her husband. He’d already been gone a week and half. By the end of the month he’d be home.
THE TEMPERATURE OUTSIDE WAS –11°F with windchill as the men loaded into the SUVs and headed toward the hangar. It was squalling, with 30-knot winds, and the two vehicles backed off from each other when they reached several large snowdrifts that had blown over the road. One by one they gunned it, barreling through the heavy drifts and spinning and sliding the rest of the way down to the airport.
As the pilots got their gear in order, flight mechanic Rob DeBolt helped the line crew move the 14,500-pound helo from the hangar onto the icy tarmac. DeBolt was twenty-eight years old and had grown up in Walla Walla, Washington. He’d been enlisted in the Coast Guard for eight years. He hadn’t seen that many cases, though. Just a couple of easy medevacs. And lots of training. The mechanics secured the Jayhawk’s front wheel to a tow bar, and then the aircraft was tugged out of the shelter with a golf-cart-size vehicle known as a mule.
On the drive to the hangar, the pilots had told the rest of the crew what little they knew of the case. The boat was big, almost two hundred feet, and the ops center had said there were forty-seven people on board. They should bring a mass casualty raft, McLaughlin thought. It was 100 pounds and would take up quite a bit of room in the cabin. But it could hold twenty people. They’d also bring a dewatering pump, which they could drop to the deck of the fishing boat with their hoist cable. The pump was also heavy: 88 pounds, protected by a hard plastic case.
From nose to tail, the Sikorsky helicopter is sixty-five feet long. The cabin, though, isn’t any bigger than the inside of a typical SUV. The extra gear would take up considerable space. McLaughlin thought about his earlier rescues. The biggest one had been five people in the cabin, in addition to the aircrew. That had been damned crowded. They’d bring the extra equipment, though. If they needed to, they could ditch it in the ocean.
McLaughlin climbed into the helicopter and punched the Alaska Ranger’s coordinates into the aircraft’s computer. The ship was 197 miles south of St. Paul. There was a tailwind. Still, they’d load the aircraft with the maximum fuel allowance. When the crew got to the hangar, the helicopter was already gassed up with 5,000 pounds of jet fuel (736 gallons), the normal load for a take-off from St. Paul. The crew added another 1,200 pounds—the aircraft’s “max gas”—which would give them an extra hour of flying time. McLaughlin was in the left seat, Bonn in the right. The Jayhawk can be flown from either seat, though the flying pilot usually sits to the right. If needed, McLaughlin could jump in at any time to take control of the aircraft from Bonn.
It was just before 4:00 A.M., with sunrise more than five hours away, when the crew slammed shut the helo’s doors. DeBolt and Starr-Hollow buckled themselves into jump seats in the back, and the helicopter lifted off into the black night.