Ryan Shuck stood at the starboard rail, near the empty canister that had held the number three life raft. The guys in charge of his muster group, Evan Holmes and Eric Haynes, were telling people to go, that they had to get off the boat and try to swim for the raft.
Indio Sol, a Thai crewman everyone called by his nickname, “Rasta,” went first.
“I guess I’m going in,” he said.
Then just like that he climbed over the rail and descended the Jacob’s Ladder into the water. A young processor named Kenny Smith went next.
Ryan watched each man hit the waves and take off—two red dots drifting fast toward the boat’s bow. The two starboard life rafts were tethered to the moving ship with their painter lines. The lines were pulled taut and the rafts were a good distancebeyond the bow. Ryan watched as his two crewmates drifted past the end of the ship, then beyond the rafts. He couldn’t tell if his friends saw the life rafts—or if they were even trying to swim at all. They were already just tiny specks, powerless under the strength of the waves.
Ryan climbed down onto the ladder and tried to launch himself farther away from the side of the ship. He surfaced quickly and started swimming on his stomach, pushing hard for the nearest raft. It seemed like his strategy was working. The raft was ten feet away, then three. He was there. He hit the dead center of the tented structure and tried to grab on. But with his hands wrapped in the thick neoprene he couldn’t get a good hold on the slick rubber raft. It was like trying to grab and climb onto a giant inner tube that was rushing by in white water. Ryan was up against the side of the raft. Then he was sucked underneath it. He couldn’t see. He couldn’t breathe. And then he surfaced—with the raft behind him.
ERIC HAYNES BALANCED ON THE EDGE of the deck, staring down toward the waves. He could see the two starboard-side life rafts bobbing out beyond the Ranger’s bow. Then both rafts seemed to disappear. It was so chaotic that it was hard to tell what was happening. Most people were already off the ship, but Eric didn’t know if any of them had made it to the rafts. Then all of a sudden the rafts were in view again. Eric was shocked to see that they’d somehow swung all the way around the boat and were bolting back up the starboard side. The Ranger was still at a severe list. The drop from deck to water that normally would have been a fifteen-foot plunge was only a few feet. It felt almost like stepping off the end of a dock into the water.
Eric sank under and swallowed a mouthful of seawater. When he bobbed back up, he saw the raft’s painter line—which had broken off from the ship—right in front of him. He reached out, wrapped his hand around the line, and was immediately jerked under. He fought his way up and dragged himself along the line to the raft. He’d almost reached the shelter when he saw someone a few yards away. The man was floating spread-eagled, facedown in the water.
Eric reached the raft and then maneuvered around it, pulling himself closer to the floating body using the ropes built into the sides of the shelter. He grabbed on to the floating man’s leg and turned his head up out of the water. It was Joshua Esa, a processor from Anchorage.
Eric couldn’t tell if Joshua was alive as he struggled to pull him back around to the raft’s entrance. He wasn’t responsive.
I just need to get him in the raft, Eric told himself. If I can’t, I’ll just have to stay with him in the water.
Eric pulled Joshua around to the entrance of the shelter. David Hull was in the opening. He’d have to get himself in first, Eric realized. With David’s help, Eric kicked and pulled his way in, finally collapsing like a huge gaffed fish on the soft floor of the raft.
It took a minute for Eric to pull himself up from the raft’s floor. Every time he moved, he seemed to sink deeper into the collapsible plastic. By the time Eric got back to the raft’s entrance, David had lost his grip on Joshua, who was now drifting away.
Then Eric saw Joshua kicking his feet. He was alive.
Seconds later, Boatswain Chris Cossich floated into view next to Joshua. Chris grabbed onto Joshua, and within seconds the two were at the door of the raft. Eric yelled for the other men in the raft to help, but the five or six people inside just sat there. Maybe they’re in shock, Eric thought as he grasped onto Joshua and tried to pull him into the shelter.
It was no use. Without Joshua’s cooperation, it was like trying to lift a bag of cement over a high railing. Then Eric had an idea. He yelled to Chris to lift Joshua’s legs into the doorway. Eric leaned out of the raft and hooked one arm under Joshua’s knee and the other around Joshua’s shoulder. He’d pull while Chris pushed. They struggled for a few moments, and then Eric and Joshua tumbled back into the raft. Chris and a few other guys climbed in after.
After catching his breath, Eric stared out the open doorway. He couldn’t see anyone else. Lots of guys didn’t make it into the rafts, he thought. They’re out there, and we have to look for them.
“This is what we’re going to do,” Eric told the group. “We’ll take turns keeping a lookout for those guys. We need to keep yelling to let them know we’re out here.”
For more than an hour they screamed almost constantly. Nobody yelled back. It seemed like the weather was getting worse. With the door open, water splashed inside the raft, making people even colder. Joshua was awake, but he didn’t look good. He was zoned out. Several of the guys were shivering. Finally, Eric zipped up the door and leaned back against the side of the jolting raft.
FACTORY MANAGER EVAN HOLMES was bobbing in the swells. Back on the ship, he’d been standing next to a friend of his, a small-framed Laotian guy named Phouthone Thanphilom whom everyone called P. Ton. The men were holding on to each other as they balanced on the listing deck.
“Hey, Holmes, you’ll take care of me, right?” P. Ton asked Evan back on the boat.
Evan thought of P. Ton as his little buddy on the ship.
“Yeah, I’ll take care of you,” he said.
He was relieved when they found each other again after just a few minutes in the water. Evan could immediately see that P. Ton was panicking, trying to swim on his stomach in his enormous suit. The Laotian man couldn’t have weighed much more than 100 pounds.
“Get on your back!” Evan yelled as he helped to roll P. Ton over in the waves. He noticed that his friend’s strobe light was off, and turned it on.
“Grab my legs,” Evan told P. Ton as they linked together in the swells.
KENNY SMITH FELT LIKE HE’D BEEN in the water for a long time. He had been one of the first to jump off the boat, and was carried right past the raft. For a while after he hit, he felt all right. It was probably the adrenaline keeping him warm. But water was slowly leaking into his suit. The fishing gig was pretty much Kenny’s first real job. He was twenty-two and had been on the Ranger for about nine months. Before Alaska, he’d worked as a newspaper delivery boy. And he’d spent some time in jail after the police found stolen goods in his apartment. He was storing the stuff for a friend. Just a few weeks before, he’d called his girlfriend back home in eastern Washington. It was her birthday, and it cost him thirty bucks for a twenty-minute call on the ship’s SAT phone. She told Kenny she was pregnant.
By half an hour after he abandoned ship, Kenny was freezing. The waves were crashing right over his head. He felt like the water in his suit was dragging him down. He didn’t want to swim anymore. He felt like he couldn’t hang on. Screw it, I’m going to die, Kenny thought.
COAST GUARD JAYHAWK PILOTS Brian McLaughlin and Steve Bonn stared out into the dark night. It was flurrying on and off, with wind gusts up to 35 miles per hour. The only thing between St. Paul and the spot they’d programmed into the aircraft’s computer was the inky blackness of open ocean.
The time spent approaching a rescue scene is a chance for an aircrew to talk out scenarios—to discuss what they might find, what actions they’ll feel comfortable with, and how much risk they’re willing to take. The Jayhawk crew had already heard from the Coast Guard cutter Munro that at least two fishermen from the Alaska Ranger had gone overboard without getting into a life raft. It sounded like the flooding was advancing fast.
The aircrew hashed out their options. Obviously, they couldn’t airlift a forty-seven-person crew in one load. If the ship couldn’t be saved, they’d most likely be making multiple trips. Even half a dozen people would be cramped in the helo’s cabin, especially if they were wearing Gumby suits. If necessary, though, they might be able to squeeze in twice that many.
The men had calculated the distance from the Ranger’s last known position to the Dutch Harbor airport, the nearest landing spot. Given the poor weather conditions, they’d have to circle around the north coast of the island and approach the airport from the east, which would make the total trip close to 150 miles. If they needed to return to the sinking site, the crew agreed, it would make the most sense to lower the survivors to the Munro.
McLaughlin had been communicating with Operations Specialist Erin Lopez. Now he heard another voice break through over the radio.
“Rescue 6007, this is cutter Munro.” It was the ship’s commanding officer, Captain Craig Lloyd.
“Sir, we think we’d like to bring any survivors straight to you,” the pilot reported.
“That seems like the best plan,” Lloyd agreed. “We’ll be ready to work with you in any way necessary.”
Steve Bonn was in the right seat, flying the helo. The thirty-nine-year-old pilot had just a few months left in his Alaska tour. In early summer, he was scheduled to transfer down to Elizabeth City, North Carolina. Earlier in the week, McLaughlin had decided that if his crew got a search and rescue case during this St. Paul deployment, Bonn would take the reins. McLaughlin wanted to give Bonn the chance to go out with a bang. He certainly hadn’t imagined anything like this—though he was more than happy to have the more experienced pilot in the right seat. Like more than a few Coast Guard pilots, Bonn was former Army. For ten years, he’d flown the military’s Blackhawk, the platform from which the Coast Guard’s search and rescue Jayhawk had been designed. “Sikorsky made the 60 to get shot at and keep on flying,” Jayhawk pilots often boasted of their aircraft. The same was said of the Army pilots: They could take just about anything.
About fifty miles out from the sinking site, McLaughlin was able to reach the Alaska Ranger on the VHF radio. First Mate David Silveira told him the situation had deteriorated significantly in the last half hour. Only seven people were still on board, and the 184-foot fishing vessel was listing to 45 degrees. It looked like it might capsize at any minute. Most of the crew had already abandoned ship, the officer said. Some of them had made it into life rafts. Others hadn’t. He didn’t know how many.
FOR A FEW MINUTES AFTER HE was sucked under the life raft, Ryan Shuck struggled against the breaking swells, trying to make it back to the circular shelter. But it was pointless. He was too far away and already exhausted. He lay back in the water, letting his head rest against the inflatable pillow at the neck of his survival suit. His heart was pounding.
Ryan tried to concentrate on how his suit supported him in the water and how best to avoid being pummeled by the swells. He did his best to position himself with his back to the breaking waves. He looked up at the moon, skipping in and out of view in the black sky. In the distance, he could hear someone yelling: “I can’t swim, I can’t swim. I don’t know what to do!”
Ryan tried to talk himself into calming down.
Every time he rose up on a crest, he could see lights spread out behind him in the water. It seemed like he was farther downwind than anyone else. There was a small cluster of lights about two hundred yards away. For a few minutes, Ryan tried to swim toward it, but the waves kept turning him around. He couldn’t even keep the lights in sight, with the way the water was flipping him around. He decided it would be better if he just stayed still.
Gazing back toward the ship, Ryan could see at least half a dozen tiny, solitary beacons flickering among the waves. There was just enough moonlight to make out the outline of the Alaska Ranger bulging from the ocean. The ship was dark, just a shadow, really. Ryan watched as her bow turned slowly up, finally pointing straight toward the sky. The wheelhouse was at the waterline when, eerily, the lights inside flickered on for a moment.
There’s still some power, Ryan thought. Maybe she’ll right herself. But then, in a matter of seconds, the ship plunged straight down, swallowed whole by the dark sea.
IT HAD TAKEN RYAN TWO YEARS to get a job on a fishing boat—two years working even crappier jobs for much crappier money. He’d grown up in Libby, Montana. When he was thirteen, his family moved to Juneau, Alaska’s tiny capital city. His dad had heard about work at a new mine up there. Ryan went to middle school in Juneau while his dad hauled rubble out of the excavation site. But it was only a year before the work dried up, and the family packed for the ride back to Montana.
After high school Ryan worked in logging for a while. Eventually he found himself in Great Falls, where he got a job cleaning exhaust hoods for restaurants. He was traveling all over the West, making $12 an hour—not bad for Montana. But he kept thinking about Alaska.
In 2005, he saw an ad in the Great Falls newspaper. He went to a meeting at the local Best Western. The cannery hired pretty much everybody, provided you passed the drug and alcohol test. Ryan got the job and was soon in Dutch Harbor, working twelve hours a day on an assembly line in a fish processing plant. They did everything: crab, cod, pollack. He tried to talk to people about getting on a fishing boat, but those jobs were tough to get if you didn’t have experience. And it was impossible to get experience if you couldn’t get on a boat. The next year, he got another cannery job, this time in Kodiak. In the late spring of 2007, he started making phone calls to Seattle fishing companies.
Ryan had seen a lot of little boats at the Kodiak docks. He hoped to get on one of the bigger ships, which he knew mostly had owners in Washington State. He thought a larger boat would be a smoother ride and a little nicer to work on. For the most part, Ryan got answering machines. But at the Fishing Company of Alaska, someone picked up. He was told they could put him on a boat if he could get himself to Seattle by Friday. It was Tuesday. Ryan bought the ticket and showed up at the FCA’s Seattle office a couple days later.
He filled out some paperwork and watched a video of processors working in the factory of an FCA boat and of a ship under way in rough seas. The company didn’t try to sugarcoat it. He’d probably get seasick. He’d definitely be sleep-deprived. He’d most likely dream about fish, about kicking fish and slicing the heads off fish and wading day after day after day in a river of thousands of dead or almost-dead fish. If you don’t think you can handle it, leave now, the recruiter told Ryan and the other hopefuls in the conference room. It’s not too late to back out. The job’s not for everybody. No one will think less of you if you don’t want to do it.
There was no chance in hell Ryan was backing out. When the orientation was over, he walked to a nearby health clinic and pissed in a cup. A few hours later, he got a phone call: Be at the Seattle airport at 6:30 the next morning. The ticket would be waiting.
The job sucked, and so did the pay: fifty bucks a day to start. But turnover was high. A bunch of guys quit after his first trip on the Alaska Ranger. Ryan didn’t. He got promoted to tally-man, one of three men on board responsible for keeping track of the number of cases of fish loaded into the freezer during each six-hour shift. The new job came with a $30 a day raise, plus an offload bonus of five cents per case. Ryan had only been working for the company for two weeks.
Back in the fish-processing plants, Ryan had heard from the older guys that if you’re still young, you’re better off working on the ships, where there’s more money to be made—provided you’re strong enough to do the work. Ryan was making more money. But the work was unpleasant and dangerous. It wasn’t uncommon for men to lose fingers. The catch was sometimes hauled up covered with muck and he’d seen fish accidentally coated with hydraulic oil processed and frozen along with the rest. The job made him never want to eat fish again.
He always felt ready to go home. In between stints in Alaska he went back to Spokane, where he’d moved from Great Falls with his girlfriend, Kami, soon after he got that first cannery job. He’d be so tired, so sick of fish. The smell would have coated all his clothes and penetrated his skin. After a few months in Alaska, his hands were swollen and chapped from being in salt water all day. But once Ryan was back at home, he’d think about the boat and his friends from the Ranger. Sometimes they talked on the phone, retelling funny stories from the fishing season. They mostly remembered the good stuff. The practical jokes, the nights in the bar. It was never, “Hey, remember when your back hurt so bad you couldn’t get your boots on?”
The first couple of times, Ryan felt like going back up to Alaska when the time came around. After a couple months at home, he and Kami often had trouble getting along. Even she said it was better for their relationship when they spent time apart. He liked intense jobs. All the free time made him restless. Sometimes he drank too much and got into fights. But when Ryan got back to Spokane in late 2007 he felt like things were going to be different. He had a lead on another job, cleaning restaurant exhaust hoods again, this time in Washington State. He said no when the FCA called in December, asking him if he’d come back for the winter A season. He thought he was done with Alaska and with fishing. But on January 2, there was another call with an offer of more money. The FCA didn’t have many experienced guys coming back to the Ranger. They said they needed him. Ryan’s other job still wasn’t a done deal. A few days later, he was on the plane. One more three-month contract in Alaska, Ryan figured. Then he’d call it good.
LIKE MOST NEW PROCESSORS, RYAN DIDN’T ask questions about the company’s safety record. His priority was getting a job—and a paycheck. In fact, his boat would be the second ship lost by the Fishing Company of Alaska.
Ten years earlier, on February, 11, 1998, a 198-foot long-liner named the Alaska 1 sank after colliding with a freighter thirty miles north of Dutch Harbor. It wasn’t a fair fight. The container ship, the Korean-operated, Panamanian-flagged Hanjin Barcelona, was almost five times the length of the Alaska 1. After the collision, against the wishes of local authorities, the foreign vessel continued on its planned route toward Taiwan. If any repairs were necessary, the ship’s crew evidently felt confident that they could cross a few thousand miles of Pacific Ocean before tending to them.
No one was seriously injured in the incident. Most of the Alaska 1’s crew of thirty-three were sleeping when the collision occurred, at close to 11:00 P.M. All of them abandoned ship into two life rafts and were quickly rescued by a Good Samaritan vessel. The successful evacuation was seen as a validation of the 1988 law that required safety gear and training on commercial fishing boats, though there were a couple of serious fumbles. One large crew member couldn’t fit into the only remaining survival suit and ended up abandoning ship without a suit. And once the rafts were in the water, the crew couldn’t find the cutters supplied to sever the painter lines and free the rafts from the boat. Luckily, there was enough time for a crew member still on board to run down to the ship’s store and grab a couple of knives to cut the lines.
The Alaska 1 was at fault in the crash. When the courses of two vessels cross each other and there is a risk of collision, the ship that has the other on its port side has the right of way. In this case, that ship was the Hanjin Barcelona. However, the Coast Guard investigation concluded more was at play than just a confused traffic rule. A preliminary drug test administered soon after the sinking indicated that the Alaska 1’s on-duty officer, First Mate Randy McFarland, had cocaine in his system at the time of the crash. He’d also had just eight total hours of fragmented sleep in the previous thirty-six to forty-eight hours. Due to a problem with the size of McFarland’s urine sample, the Coast Guard was ultimately unable to include the drug test results in evidence. Several months later, though, McFarland was arrested in Seward, Alaska, on charges of selling cocaine. (He served time in jail, and now works for a sports fishing company that caters to tourists on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula and runs a local lodge named the Fish Whisperer.)
The Alaska 1, meanwhile, was never salvaged from the ocean floor. It took less than an hour for the vessel to disappear below the surface and sink to the bottom, in eighteen hundred feet of water.
Just a few years before, the FCA had suffered still another major casualty—this one far more tragic. On May 27, 1995, the trawler Alaska Spirit was moored near a dock in Seward when a fire that began in a stateroom burned much of the interior of the boat and killed the ship’s captain.
A National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation ultimately determined that the fire was most likely started by an electric rice cooker in a room normally inhabited by the boat’s assistant fish master. The ship had no sprinkler system and no smoke detectors. Its fire hoses were incompatible with available hydrants, and the crew had little firefighting training.
The blaze began about 2:00 A.M. and wasn’t entirely extinguished until 11:00 the next morning. An autopsy determined that the captain, who was overcome by the fire while asleep in his stateroom, was intoxicated at the time of the incident. The damage to the ship was estimated at $3 million.
The NTSB concluded that the lack of fire-safety standards for commercial fishing vessels contributed to the damage and loss of life on the Spirit. The incident prompted the board to issue a series of recommendations on improving fire safety in the fishing fleet. None of them, however, ever resulted in a change of law.
RYAN’S MIND WAS RACING. He was pretty sure he’d heard the ship’s officers talking to the Warrior. The other FCA boat would be on its way, but would they have relayed a message to the Coast Guard? If they did, the Coasties would be coming all the way from Kodiak, Ryan thought. That was so far, hundreds of miles away. It was still dark. Would it be easier to spot him at night, or during the day? he wondered. Maybe at night. His strobe light was still flashing. He thought about how he’d look from the sky. Would they see the suit, the light? Jesus Christ, how long could he stay like this?
The waves were huge: twenty-footers, Ryan guessed. From the deck of the ship, seas this size wouldn’t be any sort of spectacle. It was a different story when you were submerged in the goddamn things. He couldn’t keep the freezing spray out of his nose and eyes, the only parts of his body that weren’t protected by the suit. What if no one was coming?
Ryan thought about unzipping his suit. He could lie there and freeze to death, or he could make it quick. Just get it over with.
The water was 35°F and the air temperature about 15°F. Even in water as warm as 75°F, the summertime temperature in Hawaii, immersion hypothermia is common after prolonged exposure. Body heat transfer is one hundred times greater in water than in air of the same temperature, according to Wilderness Medicine, the academic tome of survival in extreme conditions. Ocean temperature has to reach the low nineties before a naked person in the water has neutral heat loss. In cold seas, with little protective clothing, it takes just a couple of minutes for the first stages of hypothermia to set in.
When a person first hits frigid water, his or her body has a “cold-shock” response. The colder the water and the more sudden the exposure, the more extreme the response. Survival experts advise that, if possible, it is better to enter cold water gradually, rather than in a sudden, full-body plunge. The rapid cooling of skin that comes with sudden immersion can cause a gasp reflex, which itself can cause drowning, especially in rough seas. It also causes a tendency to hyperventilate. Normally, that hyperventilation will begin to diminish within seconds, though extreme emotional stress or panic can cause it to increase instead. Uncontrolled hyperventilation can lead to muscle weakness, numbness, and even fainting—all of which can lead to drowning. Some cold-water immersion victims don’t survive the first two minutes.
Survival school instructors often teach the 1-10-1 rule of cold water immersion. You have one minute after you’re submerged to gain control of your breathing: That’s the first “1.” Don’t immediately start struggling to get out or swim to safety. Instead, focus only on your breathing for those first sixty seconds. Gain control by taking slow, deep, conscious breaths. Think to yourself: I won’t panic.
Now you have approximately ten minutes before the cooling of your extremities will seriously impact mobility, especially in the hands, where blood circulation is negligible. Finger stiffness, loss of coordination, and compromised motor control will soon make it difficult, if not impossible, to carry out survival efforts, such as grasping a rescue line, according to Alan Steinman, M.D., an expert in cold-water survival and a retired Coast Guard Admiral. Do you have any survival tools (whistle, flares, strobe lights) that will help rescuers find you in the water? Make sure they’re operating and accessible now.
Survival instructors advise using these ten minutes to take stock of your situation and attempt to improve it. Hoods should be raised and drawstrings tightened, which will increase insulation and reduce water circulation. Do everything you can to keep your head out of the water. Is there a life raft or other form of flotation close by? If so, expend the strength to reach it now. Being inside a life raft is always better than being exposed in the open ocean. Absent a raft, any sort of flotation that can be used to prop at least some of your body out of the water—buoys, life rings, coolers, or other debris—should be used. It may not seem like it will make a difference, but even a small amount of flotation is better than nothing. The more of your body is out of the water, the better your chances for survival.
If no flotation is available, survival experts recommend a position known as HELP (for heat escape lessening position). Assume a fetal position in the water, with your arms pulled up against your chest and your legs raised up, and pressed together. Heat loss is highest from the groin, the lower torso, and the neck—areas of the body with a relatively thin layer of soft tissue and a relatively high rate of blood flow. If possible, huddling together with other survivors is also a good survival strategy. It will help retain heat and often improves morale.
Almost all cold-water immersion victims who do not have survival suits lose consciousness within an hour. This is the final “1” of the “1-10-1.” That’s loss of consciousness—not death. Even if you aren’t rescued within an hour, you can increase your chances of survival by trying to position your head so that it doesn’t fall underwater when you pass out.
There are many documented cases of victims being revived even after losing all vital signs, a phenomenon that’s more common in cold water than warm (and more common among children than adults). A cold-water near-drowning victim may appear dead: unconscious, with bluish-gray skin, dilated pupils, no pulse, and no heartbeat. Still, according to Steinman and other cold-water survival experts, rescuers should attempt CPR. It is possible for some cold-water victims to be revived, without brain damage, even an hour after they’ve lost consciousness.
The Alaska Ranger was one of seven ships owned by the Fishing Company of Alaska (FCA). The boat was originally built as an oil-rig supply vessel in the early 1970s. In the late 1980s, it was converted to a factory fishing trawler. Photograph by Ed Cook
To catch fish, the trawlers lower a huge net off the stern and drag it across the ocean floor for miles at a time. Then the fishermen behead, gut, and freeze the fish in a factory one level below the ship’s trawl deck. Photograph by Ed Cook
The view from the deck of the Alaska Ranger in February 2008, as the ship fished in ice near the Pribilof Islands. Photograph by David Hull
The crew of the Coast Guard’s 6007 Jayhawk helicopter was the first to reach the sinking site on the morning of March 23, 2008. (Left to right:) Aircraft Commander Brian McLaughlin, pilot Steve Bonn, rescue swimmer O’Brien Starr-Hollow, and flight mechanic Rob DeBolt. Photograph by Byron Cross/USCG
The Coast Guard’s Hercules C-130 number 1705 took off from Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage within half an hour of getting the report of the sinking ship. It would take the search plane several hours to reach the disaster site. Photograph by Evan Isenstein-Brand
The Coast Guard’s 378-foot cutter Munro raced toward the Alaska Ranger on its turbine engines at close to 30 knots. Photograph by Kurt Fredrickson/USCG
Like all Coast Guard air crew members operating over cold water, Jayhawk pilot Brian McLaughlin wore an orange drysuit with a snug rubber seal at the neck and a lightweight personal floatation device (PFD), which inflates with the tug of a drawstring. The pilot’s helmet is equipped with night-vision goggles and an audio system that allows the rescuers to communicate over the deafening thud of the helicopter rotors. Photograph by Henry Leutwyler
Helicopter crews can use a metal rescue basket to pull up victims from the water. Though the basket is rated to 600 pounds, it is extremely rare to lift more than one person at a time. Photograph by Henry Leutwyler
Rescue swimmer O’Brien Starr-Hollow saved the lives of more than a dozen of the Alaska Ranger’s crew members. He wore a neoprene hoodie under his reflective helmet, as well as a mask, snorkel, and fins. The yellow arms and reflective tape on his drysuit allowed Starr-Hollow to communicate in the dark with his flight mechanic in the helicopter above. Photograph by Henry Leutwyler
Captain Eric Peter Jacobsen had been working for the FCA since the mid-1980s, but he had only been the captain of the Alaska Ranger for a few weeks. Photograph courtesy of Karen Jacobsen
Like all FCA ships, the Alaska Ranger had a Japanese fish master, Satoshi Konno, whose official job was to direct the trawler to the best fishing grounds. Photograph courtesy of Richard Canty
Federal fisheries observer Gwen Rains was the only woman of the forty-seven people aboard the Alaska Ranger on March 23, 2008. She boarded the ship for the first time just four days before the disaster occurred. Photograph courtesy of Gwen Rains
Alaska Ranger processor Julio Morales (far left) and his younger cousin Byron Carrillo (far right) were raised together by their grandmother in Guatemala after their mothers both left for the United States. Neither man had ever worked on a fishing boat before they joined the crew of the Alaska Ranger in March 2008. Photograph courtesy of Julio Morales
David Silveira normally sailed as the captain of one of the FCA’s long-liners, the Alaska Pioneer. He’d agreed to step in—temporarily—as the Alaska Ranger’s first mate. Photograph courtesy of Celeste Silveira
Chief Engineer Dan Cook had been working on fishing boats since he was fourteen years old, but had only been on the Alaska Ranger for a couple of months. Photograph courtesy of Ed and Cindy Cook
Bering Sea fishing boats are required by law to carry a neoprene survival suit for each man on board. If the “Gumby” suit is a good fit and worn properly, very little water should leak inside. Photograph by Henry Leutwyler
Just hours before being called to rescue the men on the Alaska Ranger, several of the air crew members aboard the Coast Guard’s cutter Munro participated in an eating contest. (Left:) Rescue swimmer Abram Heller. (Center:) Pilot Greg Gedemer gulps down a spoonful of cold baked beans. Photograph by Greg Beck/USCG
As part of their training, federal fisheries observers practice swimming in their survival suits in a pool in Anchorage. They are taught how to link together in the water and form a “pinwheel” to signal to a potential search plane overhead. Photograph courtesy of the author
The Coast Guard’s 6566 Dolphin helicopter was deployed on board the Munro during the ship’s March 2008 Bering Sea patrol. Here, the forty-five-foot aircraft lands on the flight deck on the morning of the rescue. Photograph courtesy of cutter Munro /USCG
The ship’s corpsman, “Doc” Chuck Weiss, displays the litter used to carry some of the Alaska Ranger’s crew members down onto the Munro’s mess deck, which became a temporary infirmary. Photograph courtesy of the author
The crew of the 6566 Dolphin pilot Greg Gedemer, Aircraft Commander TJ Schmitz, flight mechanic Al Musgrave, and rescue swimmer Abram Heller (being held). Photograph courtesy of USCG
Julio Morales is helped across Munro’s deck after being lowered in the rescue basket from the 60 Jayhawk. The larger helicopter is too big to land on the ship’s deck. Photograph courtesy of cutter Munro/USCG
The 60 Jayhawk used a method known as helicopter in-flight refueling (HIFR) to gas up from the cutter Munro. Photograph courtesy of cutter Munro/USCG
A Coast Guard rescue swimmer examines an empty life raft from the Alaska Ranger on the afternoon of March 23, 2008. The swimmer punctured and sank the raft so that it would not offer false hope to fellow searchers. Photograph by Dan Lytle/USCG
This photograph was taken from inside the 60 Jayhawk as it hovered beside the Munro during HIFR. Photograph by Byron Cross/USCG
The Munro’s commander, Captain Craig Lloyd, at the Coast Guard dock in Dutch Harbor. Photograph by Charles Homans/AP
The FCA trawler Alaska Warrior at dock in Dutch Harbor. Photograph by Ed Cook
Members of the Marine Board of Investigation, which was convened to determine the cause of the sinking of the Alaska Ranger, were led on a tour of the Warrior a few days after the disaster. Pictured here are Coast Guard Captain Mike Rand (left) and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Investigator Liam LaRue (second from right). Photograph by Sara Francis/USCG
The Alaska Ranger’s used survival suits were laid out for examination by the Marine Board members. Photograph by Sara Francis/USCG
The investigators examine the Warrior’s trawl deck, which is crowded with fishing nets, lines, and buoys. Photograph by Sara Francis/USCG
Captain Pete Jacobsen’s daughter, Karen, and the Alaska Ranger’s long-time cook, Eric Haynes, at the Seattle Fishermen’s Memorial on Easter morning, 2009. Photograph courtesy of the author
Alaska Warrior Chief Engineer Ed Cook photographed one of the Warrior’s watertight doors tied open at sea on April 29, 2008—just over a month after the Alaska Ranger tragedy. A plaque bolted to the door reads “Keep Closed at Sea.” Photograph by Ed Cook
Most deaths that occur within the first half hour of cold-water immersion are not true hypothermia. Rather, they are due to panic and the subsequent problems associated with people’s inability to control their breathing or their thinking. Even in the coldest waters, hypothermia usually takes at least half an hour to kill. Nonetheless the majority of drowning deaths in cold water are in fact a consequence of hypothermia. A victim goes through the states of hypothermia to the point of losing consciousness, then drowns because he can’t keep his head out of the water.
Regardless of survival equipment, some people are inherently more apt to survive than others. Both anecdotal and laboratory evidence supports the thesis that increased body weight boosts the likelihood of survival. It makes intuitive sense that, as Steinman writes, “smaller adults generally cool faster than larger adults and tall, lanky individuals cool faster than short, stout individuals…. Fat is a very efficient insulator against heat loss.”
Some of the most-repeated “miracle” stories of long-term survival in Alaskan waters involve individuals who were heavier than average, and a 1985 study found that the effect is, in fact, significant. Very thin subjects in the tenth percentile of skinfold thickness (a measure of subcutaneous fat) wearing light clothing in 41°F water were found to cool at nine times the rate of their portliest peers (those in the ninetieth percentile of skinfold thickness).
EVERY TIME HE ROSE UP TO THE TOP of a wave, Evan Holmes could see other lights spread out in the ocean. He could hear people yelling. Then he would sink down into another trough and whoosh, the yells would disappear along with the lights. The crashing waves were so loud, they blocked it all out. Evan was on top of a swell when he saw his ship for the last time. The Alaska Ranger was stern-down in the sea, the bow pointed straight toward the sky. Whoosh, Evan plunged down with a wave. The next time he rose up, theRanger was gone.
Evan had been in the water for maybe an hour when he saw someone floating toward him and P. Ton, who was still holding on to Evan’s legs. When the guy got closer, Evan could see that it was Kenny Smith.
“Kenny! Come on, let’s make a chain!” Evan yelled over the crash of the waves.
The factory manager knew that the other guys hadn’t been to the safety course in Seattle like he had. Now, the lessons he learned there were paying off. Evan showed Kenny how to link together, with one man’s legs wrapped around the other’s waist.
Both Kenny and P. Ton were smaller than Evan. They both seemed colder and in worse spirits. “We’re not gonna make it,” Kenny kept saying.
“Keep calm!” Evan yelled. “If you don’t shut up, I’m gonna give you overtime!”
After a while, the men saw someone else floating toward them in the water. Kenny grabbed the man’s suit.
“Evan, man. Evan! This guy is dead. He’s dead, he’s gone,” Kenny screamed.
Evan touched the body for a second. It was lifeless. “Oh my God,” he said. “Shit.”
Kenny couldn’t tell who the guy was. Someone small. Evan let go, and the body floated quickly away.
IT WAS FREEZING INSIDE THE JAYHAWK HELICOPTER. In the more than an hour since the crew had taken off from St. Paul, they hadn’t been able to turn on the heat inside the aircraft. The helo’s heating system and its deicing system both use the same hot air off the engines. The night was cold enough that all the heat had to be used to keep the engines on anti-ice.
Under normal conditions, the Jayhawk burns about 1,000 pounds of fuel an hour (the equivalent of 150 gallons) and the deicer increases that to 1,100, 1,200, even 1,300 pounds depending on weather conditions. To run the heat and the deicer at the same time, they would have had to bring in another generator, which would burn fuel even faster. Heat was a luxury they couldn’t afford.
Luckily, the men were warmly dressed. All four of them wore bright orange, fire-retardant dry suits, the required uniform for Coast Guard helicopter crews operating over waters colder than 70°F. With snug rubber seals at the neck and wrists, the suits are designed to keep rescuers dry, even if they end up completely submerged. The material, though, breathes just enough to keep the wearer from feeling swampy after the inevitable hours in the air. Rescue swimmer O’Brien Starr-Hollow wore an extra layer of synthetic long johns beneath his dry suit. He was the only one of the four men, after all, who planned to be getting in the water.
As they neared the scene, Starr-Hollow disconnected his flight helmet from the Jayhawk’s Internal Communication System (ICS) and started to gear up. He checked the seals on his wrists and neck, making sure there wasn’t any fabric breaking the secure bond between suit and skin. He pulled on his 7mm-thick neoprene hood and a neon yellow helmet, similar to those worn by white water kayakers. He checked that the rest of his gear was ready to go. Right before entering the water, he’d replace his fire-retardant flight gloves with neoprene hyper-stretch wet gloves and pull his fins on over his work boots, which he wore over the dry suit’s built-in booties. Last would be his mask, with a mini dive light attached, and snorkel.
During flight, the rescue swimmer was responsible for backing up the pilots by keeping a constant eye on the radar and fuel burn, and for running the radios from the back of the plane. There was a guard established over the HF radio. Every fifteen minutes, Starr-Hollow would check in with COMMSTA Kodiak, which would record the helo’s GPS position, direction, and speed. If the aircraft went down, COMMSTA would have a reasonably good idea of where to search for survivors. Starr-Hollow was also responsible for backing up the pilots on altitude—if they started descending, he’d be calling out the altitude over the ICS. It was a life-or-death job in whiteout conditions with twenty-foot breaking waves.
THE RESCUERS ALL KNEW THE STORIES of aircraft that had been taken out by a rogue wave. It had happened in the Bering Sea just a few years before, during a rescue attempt off a grounded Malaysian cargo ship, the Selendang Ayu. A Coast Guard aircrew and a helicopter full of survivors was batted out of the sky by a monster swell, unseen until it was too late. The flight crew had all been wearing helmets and dry suits. Most important, they’d been trained to escape a submerged capsule.
It’s part of the standard training for every Coast Guard airman. The Navy has eight facilities around the country equipped with “helo-dunkers,” mock helicopter pods suspended on a crane above the deep end of a pool. During their initial training, andevery six years afterward, each member of a Coast Guard flight crew is sent to one of the Navy facilities to practice escaping a downed chopper. The crane lowers the dunker to the surface of the pool, and the rescuers, dressed in full flight gear, climb inside and buckle themselves in. Then, the dunker is raised above the water, dropped—and spun. A helicopter’s rotors and gears make the machine top-heavy; in a crash into water, the aircraft is likely to flip upside down. The rescuers are trained to open the aircraft doors and push out the windows before the helo hits water, if possible. Once they’re under, they learn to unbuckle themselves from an inverted position and pull out a tiny scuba tank known as the HEED, for helicopter emergency egress device (all members of the crew fly with the soda-can-size air bottle in a pocket).
The crew members’ most crucial lesson is to keep constant contact with a reference point on the inside of the submerged aircraft, and to travel hand-over-hand to get themselves out a window or door and up to the surface. Let go and all sense of up and down is lost, Coasties are taught. After mastering escape with the air bottle, the crew learns to escape while wearing blacked-out goggles. Finally, they do it with blacked-out goggles and without supplemental air. They practice holding their breath for longer than they thought possible. They learn not to panic when the worst happens. And when it does, they sometimes survive.
In that December 2004 Selendang Ayu disaster, the training worked: Each member of the helicopter crew got out safely. Six of the seven sailors they’d just plucked off the seven-hundred-foot freighter were killed in the crash.
EVAN HOLMES HAD BEEN SHAKEN UP by the dead body. He was cold, and he had a little water in his suit. When he lifted his arm, he could feel a trickle of icy water run down toward his chest. Evan was worried about hypothermia setting in. Crap, we’ve been floating around for quite a while, he thought. He couldn’t stop shivering. The other guys seemed just as bad—maybe worse.
Kenny and P. Ton had been real quiet ever since they saw the body. Evan tried to think of a song to sing. He should try to keep them all occupied with something other than the fact that they didn’t know if they were going to make it out of the Bering Sea. But for the life of him, he could not think of single song.
“Hey, Holmes, I’m not gonna make it,” Kenny was saying.
“Yeah, you are,” Evan told him. “You are.”
Evan wasn’t a religious guy. To him, it seemed a little selfish to start praying just for his own life at a time like this. He looked up into the dark sky. Here’s the deal, God, Evan bartered. Give us one more sunrise. We want to see the sun one more time. If I’m going to be floating around in this ocean like a Popsicle, I want to see the sun rise just once more.