Rescuer fought wild water

Waves kept pulling life raft away from him

October 25, 2008 

From the helicopter hovering above the gray seas, U.S. Coast Guard rescue swimmer Dave Coats could clearly see what a dying, but still potent, North Pacific typhoon was doing to the water below.

Swells in the ocean were topping two stories, the gale-force winds blasting spray off their tops as they whipped violently and chaotically.

Somewhere down below, 11 fishermen were in it, and the petty officer and the chopper crew were part of a massive search effort under way for fishermen who had been aboard the vessel Katmai, a catcher-processor that went down early Wednesday near Amchitka Pass about 100 miles west of Adak.

Roughly 15 hours had passed since an emergency locator beacon aboard the Katmai had gone off and alerted the Coast Guard. One body had already been pulled from the churning sea, and debris, including a partially deflated life raft and an empty survival suit, had been spotted.

"We knew that there was a body that the EMS was dealing with, so in my mind it was more of a recovery mission," Coats said.

Then the Jayhawk's flight mechanic spotted a life raft being tossed in the waves with four figures on it. The figures started waving.

There were survivors.

AT FIRST, LITTLE HOPE

The Coast Guard had been on the case since it picked up a distress signal at about 1:30 a.m. Wednesday.

Because of the area's remoteness, it was hours before they could get aircraft on the scene. A Jayhawk helicopter from Cold Bay was dispatched, said Lt. Mike Woodrum, rescue mission coordinator. A C-130, piloted by Lt. Steve McKechnie, launched from Kodiak as well. It arrived on scene at about 7:30 a.m., while the sea was still black with night.

"It was dark, so we saw three strobes and that was it," McKechnie said. "We dropped a total of four rafts, but it was basically dropping to just strobes in the night."

After daylight broke, searchers coming back around found those rafts empty. After hours of searching without finding any sign of debris, the vessel or its crew, searchers on a Jayhawk found the first body at about 1 p.m.

IN THE WATER

It wasn't until about 4:30 p.m. that Coats' aircraft spotted the raft with survivors. A rescue swimmer with 22 years under his belt, Coats grabbed his gloves, mask and flippers and descended into the 43-degree water. Below, the men in the raft -- including two Anchorage residents -- huddled together for protection against the raging sea.

As the swimmer struggled against the Pacific, his own survival suit wasn't enough to keep him warm, but his adrenaline was pumping.

"I wasn't making much headway. I don't know how long I was in the water trying to swim to it," Coats said in describing the rescue for reporters. "I finally got up to the guys on the life raft. I would swim up to it, get a little bit closer and they would try to grab me, and a swell would come out and take them about five feet away from me again."

When he did reach the raft, Coats found the men, faces beaten red from the stinging salt water, huddled together and shivering in spite of their survival suits. They had only one message: "Thank God you're here."

Three of them pointed to a fourth and told Coats to take him first because he was in the worst shape. Coats brought one man into the water -- he wasn't sure of the order in which he took them -- and placed him in a basket lowered by the helicopter.

The petty officer turned to swim back to the raft and saw it had already drifted about 200 yards away. The helicopter lowered its basket again to haul him downcurrent of the raft to let it drift to him. The crew repeated that process three more times, getting all four survivors aboard about 30 minutes after they had been spotted.

STILL SEARCHING

With the last man in the chopper, pilot Lt. Zach Koehler said, he was planning to fly them to Adak, where a flight surgeon had been posted to wait for survivors. The men, though, said they didn't need it. They didn't want to waste the searchers' time as they hunted for their friends.

"Once we determined they didn't need any immediate medical attention, we determined it would be better for us to stay on scene and attempt to locate any further survivors rather than transit back to Adak, which is an hour transit one way," Koehler said.

After searching for several more hours, the crew was unable to locate others. The chopper returned to Adak and the four survivors were taken to Anchorage, where they were interviewed by Coast Guard investigators Friday as the investigation into the cause of the sinking got under way.

"The life raft saved their lives," Coats said. "The gumby suits made them sustainable through that, but, in my opinion, it's their will to survive to get through that situation."

In the days since the rescue, no other survivors have been found. The bodies of five men have been recovered, and two crewmen, Carlos Zabala of Helena, Mont., and Robert Davis of Deming, Wash., remain missing.

The search for the two missing men was expected to resume at first light today.

The crew of the Katmai managed to get off a message in the minutes before it went down -- relayed to the Coast Guard through another fishing vessel -- that describes losing steering and taking on water in its stern. What exactly happened remains under investigation, said Coast Guard Capt. Mark Hamilton, the sector commander.

The vessel's captain, Henry Blake III of Worcester, Mass., is among the survivors. He reported that the entire crew was able to put on survival suits before landing in the water, Hamilton said.


Find James Halpin online at adn.com/contact/jhalpin or call him at 257-4589.

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