On the Edge of Survival
A Shipwreck, a Raging Storm, and the Harrowing Alaskan Rescue That Became a Legend
By Spike Walker
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2010 Spike Walker
All rights reserved.
Slammed right and left by battering, 60 mph wind gusts, blinded by snow squalls at the leading edge of an Arctic storm, search and rescue pilot Lieutenant David Neel was doing his best, early on that cold December morning in 2004, to shake off the sudden bouts of vertigo and keep his H-60 helicopter on course and in the air. Flying along over the gray and white, foam-streaked waters of the Bering Sea, Neel maintained an altitude of just three hundred feet, and no more, to prevent icing as the tall, clutching storm waves lumbered past below. He and his crew had been ordered to Dutch Harbor, where they would refuel and prepare to launch out on an emerging crisis: The Selendang Ayu, a giant of a freighter, a 738foot-long cargo ship bound for China with over 60,000 metric tons of Pacific Northwest soybeans, had apparently lost her engine while following the Great Circle route across those same, intractable waters 170 miles northwest of Dutch Harbor. With some 455,000 gallons of bulk oil stored in her tanks, and twenty-six sailors trapped aboard her, the freighter was now drifting on a collision course with the hull-crushing shores of the Aleutian Islands.
If no one was able to alter her freewheeling advance, and efforts either to restart her engine or pass a towline to her failed, the freighter would soon be driven onto the rocks of Unalaska Island inside the largest maritime seabird nesting area in all of North America. Should an oil spill ensue — a distinct possibility, given the furious, wind-driven seas now propelling the ship along — the impact on those vulnerable creatures could be disastrous, the damage to the environment largely irreparable.
The Panamax-class vessel, the largest of the bulk freighters whose hull could still fit through the Panama Canal, was said to be drifting beam-to the pummeling waves. Some of the prodigious breakers slamming into her and driving her toward shore were reportedly as large as freight train boxcars. At times, the wayward vessel was rolling so wildly from side to side, that the six hundred or so feet of her massive deck was tilting almost vertically.
The weather reports, too, were equally alarming. A storm packing blizzard snows with peak wind gusts approaching hurricane force was currently drafting down out of Russia's Siberian Arctic. Accelerating as it came, the cold front had marched down over the polar ice pack, and was now racing unhindered across the vast, open reaches of the Bering Sea.
Dave Neel was certain, however, that well before the peak of the storm reached them, he and his crew would be sent to the scene with orders to hoist as many of the sailors as possible off the Selendang Ayu's deck before she sank, ran aground, or rolled over. But he also knew that plucking survivors off the heaving deck of a freighter careening through high seas wouldn't be easy; and that doing so in as little time as possible would be absolutely imperative.
Born and raised in Vian, Oklahoma — a town of just 1,200 people, surrounded by farmland — Dave Neel grew up hunting and fishing, was a fifth-generation Oklahoman, and the son of a bricklayer. His people worked in the construction trade. Dirt moving. Concrete pouring. Home building. His parents raised him and his brothers in a traditional, God-fearing, Baptist belief system, one centered around hard work, honest living, and fair play.
Neel knew the H-60 Jayhawk helicopter well. He'd flown them for years in the army, and also on a tour for the Coast Guard (CG) out of Clearwater, Florida. But the base outside Kodiak was this aviator's ultimate destination, a place reserved for the Coast Guard's most trusted and experienced pilots. Only second-tour aviators or better were sent there. In fact, famed Alaskan chopper pilot Russ Zullick was one of Dave Neel's best friends.
Just twelve hours before, Neel and his crew had been sitting in the cargo hold of a C-130, crossing the Shumagin Islands, when Commander (Cdr.) Bill Deal called him forward into the aircraft's cockpit and told him of the crisis building in the Bering Sea. Their C-130 was being diverted to Cold Bay. An H-60 would be waiting. Neel and his crew needed to start planning the rescue.
Recognizing a true crisis in the making, Coast Guard officials had also ordered the cutter Alex Haley, to the scene. In addition, they'd dispatched several tugboats, including the oceangoing tug Sidney Foss and the harbor tug James Dunlap to try to intercept the drifting giant before it ran aground, scattering fuel, cargo, and bodies along the wild, inhospitable shores of Unalaska Island.
Cdr. Matt Bell, the captain on the Coast Guard cutter Alex Haley, was about 150 miles away, monitoring the actions of a fleet of codfish longliners, when he received word of the errant freighter's path and location. Bell and his crew were just winding down from fifty or so days of patroling the westernmost reaches of the Bering Sea along the U.S./Russia border, and were about to stand down and steam back to Kodiak for a well-deserved bit of R & R. But now Bell was ordered to locate the vessel, and to assess the situation.
Riding a quartering sea, and moving in the direction of the freighter with all possible urgency, Cdr. Bell set out in hot pursuit of the freighter. However, because the seas were rough, the Alex Haley could only move at ten knots (11 mph), and it would be a number of hours before they would catch up with the Selendang Ayu. But with half a dozen engineers reportedly among the vessel's crew, Cdr. Bell thought the Ayu's crew might get their engine back up and running before he even caught sight of her.
Standing six feet tall, and weighing a lean 170 pounds, Cdr. Bell was well suited for the duty at hand. Raised in Georgia by family-oriented parents, he was taught the fundamentals of discipline, work, and academic achievement, a lifestyle that was also accompanied by robust outdoor living.
As a small boy, his first exposure to the sea was while camping and fishing for Spanish mackerel at the water's edge of Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina. During those impressionable years, the Coast Guard bug bit him hard, for he often observed the gleaming white patrol boats cruising the inlets and passageways that wind their way through the beautiful archipelago of islands that make up that seaboard region.
"Our summer house was on the inland waterways there," he recalls. "You had to take the pass down through all the back bays to get to the jetty before you could get out to the ocean."
Bell's father, a Marine formerly stationed on Okinawa, was a "hunter-camper-fisher," says Bell. "I think he was handed a fishing pole to hold before he could even walk." Along with four brothers and one sister, Matt Bell took naturally to the outdoors. Never bothered by seasickness, he loved fishing with his father, and joined him every chance he got.
"I don't know if I could even name a more patriotic guy than my father," he says. "Pledge of Allegiance. Love of God and country. My dad believed that serving one's country was both a duty and an honor."
In 1985, Matt Bell joined the Coast Guard. In a very real sense, it seems Cdr. Bell had been headed into the military from the get-go. Surviving boot camp, he was quickly scooped up and sent to Officer Candidate School (OCS). Steady promotions followed solid tours of duty out of the port cities of New Orleans and San Francisco. One of Cdr. Bell's first SAR (search and rescue) cases was picking up debris off the Florida coast after the space shuttle Challenger exploded, and its entire crew was killed.
In 1987, Cdr. Bell and his family were assigned to the base in Kodiak, Alaska. At that time he began serving on board Coast Guard cutter patrols in the Bering Sea. Now, some seventeen years later, and a veteran at navigating those untamed waters, Cdr. Bell pointed the Alex Haley in the direction of the disabled freighter, and gave chase.
Eventually, as the Alex Haley began to close in on the drifting hulk, Cdr. Bell's officer of the deck (OD) was able to make radio contact with the skipper of the Selendang Ayu. It was still dark out when they finally caught up with her. Cdr. Bell and his executive officer (X/O), Lieutenant Commander (LCDR) Phil Thorne, stepped out on the flying bridge for a better look.
"Wow! She's a big one!" said Bell, peering at the long, well-lighted wheelhouse and wave-thrashed deck through his powerful field glasses. "We're sure going to need those tugs."
Inside the C-130 being diverted to Cold Bay, Dave Neel returned to the cargo area, grabbed his maps, and gave fellow co-pilot Lt. Doug Watson the "quick skinny" on the situation. Next, he presented the news to flight mechanic Petty Officer 2nd Class Brian Lickfield, and rescue swimmer Petty Officer 3rd Class Aaron Bean. Then, he sat and did some brainstorming: "How much gas would it take to reach the scene? How long will I be able to remain there? How many people can I carry in the H-60 in a single load?"
Initially, Neel calculated that he could carry nine of the stranded sailors per load. Flying the H-60 helicopter directly to the scene — its call sign CG6020 — they'd gather them up and take them immediately to Dutch Harbor, top off the fuel tanks again, and rush back for more of the Selendang Ayu's crew. He and his flight crew would make the turnaround in Dutch Harbor in record time.
Meanwhile, Cdr. Doug Cameron, the officer in charge of CG6021, the other H60 Jayhawk, would hoist the second load of nine off the freighter. That would be eighteen saved, leaving just eight, including the ship's captain, to go. Neel and Watson would race back then, hover in close and, if all went well, load up the last of the survivors in as little as fifteen minutes, and they'd be out of there.
But if things should go sideways on them, there were certain realities to consider. For one, the edge of the polar ice pack was now floating just north of the Pribilof Islands, which meant that the waters of the Bering Sea, at that time of the year, would be only a couple of degrees above freezing. In addition, their mission would draw them out over those wind-ravaged waters at about the same time the heart of the storm reached them.
The moment their C-130 touched down in Cold Bay, Dave Neel called Kodiak and spoke with Cdr. Bob Phillips, his ops officer. He wanted to get a better picture of what, exactly, was happening. Phillips told him to stand down on launching the H-60 and await further instructions.
"Hold tight there in Cold Bay," said Phillips. "We're sending another H-60 down. It'll be there later tonight. So far, it looks like you guys might not have to go out, because the oceangoing tugboat Sidney Foss is responding. So just stand fast for now."
It was well after dark when the second H-60 arrived from its base on Kodiak Island. Pilots Guy "Yogi" Pierce and Larry Quedado (since deceased) had flown over with it. But with no room left inside the hangar, they were forced to park it outside on the snow-covered runway.
Born and raised in Cranford, New Jersey, fellow pilot Doug Watson was five foot ten, weighed 180 pounds, had sandy blond hair, and was widely recognized as a superb helicopter pilot. He had earned a bachelor's degree in aeronautical science from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida. Trained, initially, to be a professional or corporate pilot, Watson was also a certified flight instructor.
Signing on with the Coast Guard was an unusual move for someone with his background. He'd attended Officer Candidate School for eighteen months in Pensacola, Florida, then spent another six weeks in Mobile, Alabama, learning to fly the legendary H-60 Jayhawk helicopter. For the next four years he flew missions out of Air Station Clearwater on the Florida coast, before joining the exceptional band of flyboys at Air Station Kodiak.
As a seasoned pilot, now several years into his Alaskan tour, Doug Watson had, of course, been in some very tight spots of his own. Should they need him to fly on such an icy, windswept night, he felt fully up to the challenge.
While outside an arctic wind raked the frozen ground, inside Bill and Mary Cochran's hospitable Cold Bay Lodge, Dave Neel, Doug Watson, Aaron Bean, and Brian Lickfield — and their Coast Guard brothers — sat themselves down to a hearty Alaskan meal of steak and king crab, with all the trimmings.
After dinner, Dave Neel and Doug Watson had withdrawn to their respective rooms and were fast asleep when word of the developing drama reached them. It was flight mechanic Joe Metzler who delivered the news: They were to launch their H-60 as soon as possible.
Outside, it was pitch dark. Numbing winds driving a blizzard snow were howling across the runway and throughout the Aleutian Islands, creating an aviator's nightmare over much of the Bering Sea. The tugboat Sidney Foss's efforts to take the huge ship in tow had ultimately failed. Metzler informed them that they were to preposition themselves in Dutch Harbor, where they would stand by and await further orders.
Long on experience in Alaskan search and rescue missions, thirty-eight-year-old flight mechanic (hoist operator, or winchman, in laymen's terms) Brian Lickfield felt uneasy about the situation. After partaking of that hearty Alaskan dinner, he went to bed sporting a knot in the pit of his stomach, one that refused to go away. It proved to be a restless night for Lickfield. A worrisome voice in his head kept telling him, "It's not over yet. It's not near over. They may still need us out there."
With fourteen years of experience hoisting survivors off boats, and plucking the lost and imperiled out of various predicaments, Lickfield had Alaska in his bones and was aware of the primitive unpredictability of the place. So he was not overly surprised when, late that same night, he received word that everything had "gone to hell" during the salvage operation under way in the Bering Sea. It was Dave Neel who shook him awake.
"Suit up, Brian," he said. "We're going."
Raised in a sports-oriented family in Silverthorne, Colorado, located in the mountains outside of Denver, rescue swimmer Aaron Bean had aspirations, as a little boy, of one day becoming an Olympic competitor. He began swimming laps in a pool when he was just an adolescent, eventually covering as much as three miles of water in a single practice at the ten-thousand-foot-high training facilites in the ski resort village of Breckenridge.
Always in superb physical condition, Aaron was not quite twenty-one years old when, having completed the Coast Guard's boot camp in Cape May, New Jersey, and another year as a physical fitness instructor there, he entered the five-month airman training program at Atlantic City. The instructors put him and his fellow aspiring rescue swimmers through such physical and emotional extremes that nearly half of his classmates eventually quit, or were eliminated.
But "Bean," as his friends often call him, was better prepared than most, and could perform as many as 2,500 push-ups in a single workout. He was just twenty-two when, in the spring of 2004, he arrived in Kodiak, and began his tour of duty there as a fully trained and certified rescue swimmer. Now, on this cold, blustery Alaskan night, Aaron Bean was about to embark on a rescue mission to the Bering Sea, the intensity of which would forever mark his life.
By eight P.M. on the same evening that he and his crewmates arrived in Cold Bay, they took possession of the fully fueled H-60 Jayhawk helicopter waiting for them. Word had it that somehow, in the fifty-knot (57 mph) winds and twenty-five-foot seas, the crew of the tugboat Sidney Foss had managed to get a hauser line on the giant freighter and take her in tow. "We're not going anywhere tonight," Bean was informed. "Unless their towline breaks. And if that happens, this could become the mother of all SAR cases."
After inhaling the sumptuous meal, Bean had retired to the soft comfort of his bunk when, in the black of night, a hand shook him awake. It was Dave Neel, his flight commander.
"Bean, get your gear," he said matter-of-factly. "The towline has parted." (Continues...)
Excerpted from On the Edge of Survival by Spike Walker. Copyright © 2010 Spike Walker. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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