>Historic Bering Sea rescue defies all odds, saves 42

>By PA3 Richard Brahm

“Mayday, mayday, mayday. United States Coast Guard, this is the Alaska Ranger! Our position is 5-3-5-3 decimal 4 north, 1-6-9-5-8 west. We are flooding, taking on water in our rudder room.”

As this mayday call raced across the Bering Sea on Easter morning bound for the radio room of any Coast Guard rescue center within reach, 47 fishermen on the Alaska Ranger were donning their survival gear for what would play out as one of the largest and most dramatic rescue cases the Coast Guard has ever responded to.

The Coast Guard Cutter Munro, a 378-foot high endurance cutter was on patrol near the fishing fleet in the Bering Sea. With the wind at its back, the Munro was strategically positioned to quickly respond to any vessels in distress.

The Alaska Ranger was 120 miles west of Dutch Harbor and enduring blistering gale force winds, temperatures below freezing and swelling seas between 10 and 20 feet. No one had any idea the Alaska Ranger was crashing through pack ice and would soon begin to sink.

Without warning frigid water began rushing into the ships rudder room, quickly filling adjoining spaces, disabling the ship. The Alaska Ranger had lost all steering and power and was now at the mercy of the unforgiving Bering Sea.

The captain of the Alaska Ranger made two calls that would help save the lives of nearly everyone aboard. The first call was for the crew to get into their survival suits, deploy as many life rafts as they could and abandon ship. The second was the mayday call to the Coast Guard.

On the Munro it was just after 3 a.m. Most of the crew were sound asleep as the Bering Sea rocked their cutter in some of the same waves and howling winds the Alaska Ranger was enduring. Red lights illuminated the hallways. The hum of the diesel engines created a soothing lullaby for those aboard.

The calm was abruptly broken by the crackle of the intercom system as the booming voice of the commanding officer, Capt. Craig Lloyd, rang out among the empty halls and quiet rooms. The crew quickly began to roll out of their racks, listening intently as Lloyd explained the situation to them.

As soon as the Munro got the mayday from the Alaska Ranger they immediately pointed the ship toward their position. The officer of the deck called down to the engine room to get both turbines on-line and started plotting the fastest course toward the Alaska Rangers position, 120 miles west of Dutch Harbor.

Soon crew members were rushing about the cutter, scurrying through tight corridors, going up and down ladder wells. All of them trying to get to their assigned areas, as well as trying to prepare for what was to come.

The crew kicked into action and began making preparations for taking on survivors by converting the mess deck to a treatment center, heating blankets in ovens, breaking out survival gear, and getting the flight deck ready to launch their HH-65 Dolphin helicopter. The crew would also prepare to recover survivors from both the Dolphin and the HH-60 Jayhawk stationed on St. Paul, a small island in the middle of the Bering Sea.

The crew down in the engine room had already started tweaking the engines pushing them for everything they had. The Munro would soon reach speeds unheard of aboard a Coast Guard high-endurance cutter.

Meanwhile, hundreds of miles away in the opposite direction, the air crew from St. Paul awoke to the sound of a ringing phone. Pilots and crew bolted to the locker rooms to get dressed-out in all of their survival gear. Ground support jumped in vehicles and sped over to the hanger where they started prepping the helicopter for flight.

The air crew got as much last minute information as they could before getting into a truck and driving over to the hanger.

Once the Jayhawk was airborne, the crew in the back, consisting of Petty Officer 2nd Class Robert DeBolt and Petty Officer 2nd Class Obrien Hollow, began reaching out on their radio to the Alaska Ranger crew. The two pilots, Lt. Brian McLaughlin and Lt. Steve Bonn both slide their night vision goggles into place from on top of their helmets.

The night was pitch black, the only thing visible for the small helicopter crew, between the barrages of snow, was the inky blackness of the vast ocean

“As the helicopter approached the Alaska Ranger, before it had sunk, we were able to reach them on the radio about 30 miles north of their position,” said McLaughlin. “The concern in the voice on the other end of the radio was palpable and filled our aircraft with the looming dread that what we were heading for was very real. The good news was that everyone had been able to don their survival suits before abandoning ship. They stated there were only seven people left aboard and they were getting ready to get into the rafts”.

At first, as the air crew approached the scene, they saw a few strobe lights blinking on the distant horizon and figured those were the rafts. As they got a little closer and there was a fourth light, fifth, sixth, and so on, it quickly became apparent that there were dozens of people in the water.

The first set of strobe lights they flew over was a pair of survivors in survival suits waving at them. As the pilots flew overhead they tried to get a look at the whole situation and as they climbed a little higher they saw the ocean flashing at them over a mile-long stretch, yet the Alaska Ranger was nowhere to be found.

The crew made some split second decisions and decided to hoist the people that were not in rafts first.

“We just picked a spot and began hoisting,” said McLaughlin. “I called the one raft that had a handheld radio and explained to them what we were doing while the rest of my crew was busy getting the rescue swimmer out the door.”
That’s were Hollow’s job with the air crew really came into play. One of Hollow’s responsibilities as a rescue swimmer was to go down into the freezing water, beneath the unrelenting rotor wash and sea swells to pluck people out of the cold, unforgiving Bering Sea.

Hollow slid up to the edge of the helicopter’s open door as snow and sea spray swirled around him. DeBolt and Hollow had done this many times. They had practiced constantly and today was the day all that training came to fruition.
DeBolt checked Hollow’s gear one last time before lowering him down to the freezing waters below.

Hollow knew that it would take to long to get each hypothermic survivor into a basket so he decided to grab each survivor without disconnecting from the helicopter.

“In the next 50 minutes or so, we would pick 12 people out of the water and stack them in the cabin, while trying to coordinate an offload with their sister ship, the Alaskan Warrior, as it was only five miles away,” McLaughlin said.
The crew of the helicopter had planned on dropping the survivors on the Alaska Warrior, but there was a problem. The crew of the helicopter was unaware of all of the Alaska Warriors fishing gear and rigging on the decks when they coordinated the original drop off. Once the helicopter made it to the Alaska Warrior they knew they wouldn’t be able to get the survivors safely down to the boat.

The crew also had another problem. They were running low on fuel and would soon reach their limit.

They had two choices. Turn around and fly to Dutch Harbor, drop off the survivors and hope they could get fuel there or they could fly to the Coast Guard Cutter Munro.

Not only could they drop the survivors off on the Munro, where they could be cared for, but the Munro could also do an in-flight helicopter refuel for them.

The crew made the call. They would fly to the Munro, drop off the survivors and refuel and head straight back out to save more lives.

The corpsmen aboard the Munro and a huge team of people had been working hard for the last couple of hours to turn the mess deck in to a triage and hypothermia treatment center for the survivors in preparation for the rescued survivors. This was all done on top of launching the Munro’s helicopter just shortly after the Jayhawk crew picked up their last survivor.

About 20 minutes later McLaughlin’s crew arrived at the Munro and began lowering the survivors down to the deck as fast as they could.

The crewmembers of the Munro watched and listened in the early dawn, with barely enough light to see, as the whir of the hoist cable lowered the survivor’s down one at a time. The crew knew the longer it took them to get these people inside, the longer the other survivors in the water had to wait.

One by one the survivors were led into the make-shift triage center where they were given heated blankets and some of the Munro crews own personal clothes.

“The speed and safety with which the Munro’s crew transferred the survivors out of the basket and got ready for the next one was phenomenal, said McLaughlin. “During the hoisting, I ran through some fuel calculations and realized if we didn’t fuel at that time, our on-scene time would have been about 10 minutes at best”.

The crew of the Munro quickly switched from grabbing survivors to beginning the in-flight refueling operations.

DeBolt lowered the hoist cable to the awaiting crew of the Munro. They quickly attached a fuel line and watched as it was hoisted back into the helicopter and attached.

Meanwhile the crew of the Dolphin helicopter was starting to find survivors and pick them up. The Dolphin is much smaller than its Jayhawk counter-part and with its crew of four; there isn’t a lot of room.

The crew of the Dolphin realized they could only fit four survivors in addition to the crew. Rescue swimmer Petty Officer 3rd Class Abram Heller knew what he had to do.

The survivors had been in the water for hours and almost all of them were suffering from varied stages of hypothermia. The longer they stayed in the water the worse off they would be.

Heller was lowered down into the water where he quickly began to untangle five survivors from floating debris and nets. One by one they were hoisted up to the helicopter by Petty Officer 2nd Class Alfred Musgrave, the flight mechanic for the Dolphin. Musgrave realized that they could only fit one more survivor or Heller into the helicopter.

Heller knew the situation was dangerous. The seas still swelled to a massive 20 feet and the wind was still whipping freezing cold ocean spray in excess of 30 miles per hour. Heller decided to stay in the water with the remaining survivors and provide support to any other survivors.

As Musgrave hoisted another survivor into the helicopter the crew knew they had to go back to the Munro and re-fuel. If they didn’t hurry they wouldn’t have enough fuel to make it back to the Munro.

Back on the Munro, the Jayhawk was just a little over halfway through re-fueling, when the Dolphin crew called the Munro and told them they were returning and critically low on fuel. It would take almost 20 minutes to get to the Munro and they only had 36 minutes until they ran out of fuel…completely.

McLaughlin and Bonn both knew what was at stake and did some quick calculations aboard the helicopter. They had enough fuel to go back on scene and search for more survivors, which would also allow the Dolphin crew to come in and get the fuel they needed so badly.

DeBolt disconnected the fuel line, reattached it to the hoist cable and lowered it back down to crewmen on the deck of the Munro.

The crew of the Munro watched as the crew from the Jayhawk sped away into the darkness toward the remaining survivors.

As Bonn navigated back out into the endless night heading toward the scene he couldn’t help but think about the survivors left out in the unforgiving ocean’s eerie darkness and how they could be their only hope.

The Alaska Ranger’s sister ship, the Alaska Warrior, had picked up 22 survivors by the time the Jayhawk got back on scene.

The crew of the Jayhawk recovered an additional four crewmembers, as well as Heller.

They continued to search until they were getting low on fuel. Bonn turned the helicopter back toward the Munro to offload the survivors and refuel one last time for the flight back to St. Paul Island.

The crew of the Jayhawk, Dolphin and Munro said it was by far the most large-scale Coast Guard operation that they have ever been involved with, employing five aircraft, seven crews, a Coast Guard cutter and good Samaritans.

The Coast Guard helped save 42 lives that night and although the Alaska Ranger had many complex situations, that is how the Coast Guard trains.

Even though the Alaska Ranger was a once in a life time case for the Coast Guard, it’s not expected to be the last. For that reason the Coast Guard stands ready to help those in need who venture into the Bering or any sea.