Coming Back Alive

The True Story of the Most Harrowing Search and Rescue Mission Ever Attempted on Alaska's High Seas

Spike Walker

St. Martin's Griffin

COMING BACK ALIVE
Book I
Flyboys and Fishermen
Prologue
As he steered his speeding twenty-six-foot gillnet boat Marlene out across the Copper River Delta in Alaska's Prince William Sound on a gray, windblown afternoon in 1981, Skip Holden could not have known that within hours he would be engaged in a hellish struggle just to survive, nor could he have imagined how many lives would be so profoundly affected by the outcome.
Bold and enterprising, but never reckless, "Holden," as his friends like to call him, was looking forward to doing what he did best, and that was to net salmon.
Eight years earlier, Skip Holden and his wife, Marlene, had set out from San Leandro, California, to hitchhike to Alaska. They headed north, holding a sign that read ALASKA OR BUST! They arrived in Cordova nearly broke, found work together in a local cannery, and, in a month, managed to save twelve hundred dollars. They bought a twenty-foot boat for exactly that amount. They lived on it, fished off of it, and used a bucket for a toilet.
It was a romantic, albeit bare-bones, beginning in the rugged little fishing village located in a wind, sprawling land bursting with boomtown opportunity and colorful characters. There was a local stripper namedTequilla, whose writhing style of dancing naked was known to cause almost a riot as lonely, affection-starved fishermen trampled one another for a closer look.
Then there was Machine Gun Betty. She was a large Indian woman who worked as a bartender at a local watering hole. Her way of dealing with a rowdy crowd of drunken fishermen (who refused to leave at quitting time) was to pull out a Thompson submachine gun, level it on her rambunctious patrons, and order them off the premises. "It's closing time! Get the hell out!" she'd say as the bar emptied.
During those eight years of hard work as a commercial fisherman, Skip Holden had seen some sights--such as the time the Fish and Game Department opened the season up in the fjord near Coghill Point, and he and his fishing pals had netted one million sockeye salmon in a single week of red-hot fishing.
Named after Skip's wife, the F/V Marlene was known in fishing circles as a Snowball bow-picker. She had a six-foot-high reel mounted in the center of her foredeck. This spool-like contraption was designed to feed the one-thousand-foot-long gillnet off her bow and reel it back aboard via the same route.
Along the way, Skip had learned a few things about the nature of successful fishermen, too. Foremost, he had learned not to try to be like anybody else: The best fishermen fished according to the dictates of their own personalities.
As a rule, Holden worked alone. More of a hunter-type person himself, he liked to motor past the main sandbars (where most of his more conservative fellow gillnetters chose to make their "drifts") and out through the surf. He enjoyed fishing the deep waters of the open ocean. When possible, he liked to intercept the fish well before they reached the main branch of the river, something at which he was quite adept, now having the self-assurance of a seasoned fisherman, one who had paid his dues and acquired a fair amount of fishing savvy along the way.
Armed with little more than a compass and a Fathometer, he roamed as far as ten miles out from the wild and ever-changing sixty-mile-wide delta of sandbars and tidelands known as the Copper RiverFlats, fishing the salmon-rich waters as far out as Cape Hinchinbrook.
Some fishermen didn't like the stress of making "sets," laying out their gillnets and fishing out in the open ocean. They generally fished the inside waters. They didn't seem to mind fighting the crowds, or having to pull their gillnets back aboard every few minutes, then run back up the line, lay them out again, and start from scratch. By contrast, Skip Holden liked to fish the deep, outside waters. He liked the sight of free, open spaces and uncluttered horizons. He'd been raised that way. When he was a boy, sailing off the California coast, his father had taught him the art of navigation, as well as how to keep a ship in good repair and how to tie the rope knots that were essential to life at sea. Most important, his father instilled in his son the belief that shallow water is a fisherman's worst enemy.
It was the going out and coming back in over the sandbars at entrance channels, especially those at Softuk, and Strawberry, and Egg Island, that local fishermen feared most. Let an out-rushing tide confront a strong flow of onshore wind, and the waves can really stack up.
Even for Skip Holden, getting trapped out on the open sea in a sudden blow was something to be avoided if at all possible. Let him receive a warning over the local CB fishing channel announcing that the sandbar was closing, and Holden would rush his net aboard and make a mad scramble in over the building breakers before they closed him out. Once inside the punishing surf line, he would wait out the storm in the shelter of one of the tideland coves carved out of tens of miles of sandbars by the thirteen-foot tides that flooded in over the area several times each day.
Miss the closing, get cut off by a sudden storm, and a fisherman would have few options, all of them dangerous. Left unprotected by island or berm, caught tens of miles from Cordova, a fisherman could either jog into the storm and weather (which might last for several days and nights) or make the near-impossible journey around the thirty-mile length of Hinchinbrook Island, running broadside to the storm winds and waves crashing ashore the entire way. Lose an engine, throw a prop, and you would be history.
Regardless, Holden was always hanging it out there, working on theedge. Unlike some wanna-be fishermen, however, Holden had the touch. And during the season, it wasn't unusual for him to intercept as much as four thousand dollars' worth of the migrating fish in a single week.
On that gray day in 1981, Holden had already gone for two days and nights without sleep, standing anchor watch, waiting out the past few days of blustery weather in a featureless, godforsaken reach inside Softuk Bar. It was no big deal, really. Gillnetting the flats had always been a young man's sport. And Holden could go for days without sleep. But when the winds finally did calm down, he thought, That's it. Time to go fishing, and, pulling anchor, he fled out across the bar.
Once at sea, however, Holden soon found himself idling up the high, sloping faces of the unusually large swells lumbering in toward shore. Enormous as they were, the swells weren't breaking, and he drifted over them one by one, the bulging waters passing smoothly underneath him. It was the air around him, however, that spooked him. The enveloping air had turned "eerie calm, like out of breath," as he put it. It was a little like entering into the eye of a hurricane. Skip Holden had never experienced anything quite like it.
Shortly, the sky grew dark, and as the unexpected storm intensified, strong winds burst up the scene. Blowing directly in against the outrushing tide, the winds soon whipped the sea into a cresting frenzy. In only minutes, thunderous breakers began collapsing across the entire width of the bar, effectively closing off any possible retreat.
Still, Holden was determined to give it a try, and so he maneuvered into the roiling waters of the bar. He had managed to weave his way past several rows of breakers, when, in the gray-black of the dim evening light, he spotted a single white lightbulb mounted atop the mast of another salmon boat. Having learned of Holden's plight, a fellow fisherman had apparently left the safety of his snug anchorage and was now motoring back and forth just inside the breakers, trying to guide Holden into the deeper waters of the main channel, through at least five thousand feet of breaking waves and lathering foam.
Maybe I can make it through this, thought Holden, focusing on the challenge at hand. Now, should I go around this breaker and throughthat one? he asked himself as he pushed ahead. Is it deeper there? What's my Fathometer reading? Uh-oh--too shallow. I'll try this way.
Finally conceding defeat, Holden fought his way back out through the marching rows of breakers, then began motoring down the sixty-mile delta of sandbars and bordering channels.
When he arrived at the channel leading past Egg Island, he found stiff seventy-mile-per-hour winds driving heavy seas ashore, and the bar closed. Without one of the powerful VHF radios on board with which to call out, he was forced to rely on the comparatively feeble power of his CB radio.
"Hey, Phil, what's happening?" he radioed his good friend Phil Thum. "Is there a way in? Do you see any way in there?"
"No, I don't think you can get in, Holden. It's breaking all the way across the bar here."
The entire time he talked, Holden was jogging along the outside edge of the sandbar at the Egg Island entrance, quickly looking for an opening in the surf. Either I find my way in past Egg Island here, he thought, or I'll be out here all night. It's now or never. He cruised up and down the bar, but was unable to find anything like an opening.
"I really don't see any way in there," Holden radioed Thum finally.
"There is no way in," cut in the anonymous voice of another fisherman.
And suddenly, all cross-chatter on his CB radio ceased, followed by a dead silence. Holden caught the full measure of what this meant. Everyone listening knew that there was no way back, and that in the building seas, the trip out and around Hinchinbrook Island would be pure suicide. His only hope would be to try to jog into the storm, however long it might last, however severe it might be.
Well, this will be good for a laugh with my buddies back at the Reluctant Fisherman saloon in Cordova, he thought. Old Holden thought he could beat Mother Nature, and he got his butt kicked.
"Boy, I'm sure glad I'm safe and sound and anchored up in here," bragged another fisherman over the CB, laying it on thick.
"I sure wouldn't want to be out there in this kind of weather," remarked another in a tone of sincere empathy.
Sometimes, Holden knew, a fisherman could find a place where he could kind of surf in where the waves weren't actually breaking. But the winds were gusting past eighty miles an hour now, and as the dark, peculiar cloud cover pressed down on him, Holden continued to motor back and forth along the outside edge of the breaking surf, praying all the while for a freak opening through which he and his boat might pass.
It was then that the steering on his boat went out.
"Damn!" he said aloud.
Suddenly caught dead in the water, Holden knew that he was in serious trouble. The winds seemed determined to blow him broadside into the Hawaiian-sized breakers now folding over and exploding with boat-crushing furor all along the mouth of the bar.
He refused to let the instinct to panic have its way. Somehow, in the breaking seas and wild, punishing winds, Holden searched for a way to stabilize his boat. Like any seasoned fisherman, he knew the score: Lose the boat, lose your life.
Then, cleverly, he hit upon the solution. He would play out three-quarters of his one-thousand-foot-long gillnet and, if the tide was right, catch a ride on the tidal currents as they flowed offshore and away from the breakers, all the while using the net (with the departing waters pushing against it) as a kind of sea anchor.
He fed the 750-foot trail of webbing and buoys off his bow roller and watched as the offshore flow caught it. He was in luck. The tide was going out. The net, buoys, and ship were being swept out to sea and away from the pounding surf. The vessel's bow swung to point into the accelerating storm winds, exactly as he had hoped.
Holden tied the net off on the ship's bow cleats to prevent the six-foot-high, four-foot-wide aluminum reel from being torn from its steel deck mounts and jerked overboard.
As the darkness closed in, Holden found it difficult to see anything clearly. His eyes strained toward something in the distance. He stood squinting in the dim light, peering through the haze of rain and blowing spray. He couldn't be certain. The misty vision was either one ofbreakers demolishing themselves on nearby rocks or the flash of the buoy marker over on Wessels Reef.
"Holden, how are you doing out there?" radioed Phil Thum, who was anchored off in a wind-raked channel amid the barren sands of Egg Island. "Do you want me to call the Coast Guard?"
"Well, Phil, I'm still alive here," replied Holden. "If a Coast Guard rescue basket were to somehow land on my deck, I'd climb right in. But there's just no way a helicopter could make it out here. It's too damned windy."
As the night progressed, the storm intensified and the wind pushed the waves higher. In the gathering darkness, the winds were soon hissing across the water at ninety miles per hour, with stronger gusts ranging out of wave valleys large enough to hold a football field, complete with goalposts.
Getting trapped on the outside in such a blow in a relatively tiny boat (26 feet compared to one of the weather-busting king-crab boats, some of which are 150 feet long and 40 feet wide) was one of the worst experiences a Prince William Sound salmon fisherman could have.
Holden was hoping that the driving wind and torrential rains would soon blow themselves out. What he could not have known was that one of the most formidable storms in the history of storm-ravaged Prince William Sound had pushed into the area, catching him flat-footed and leaving him cut off, with nowhere to run. In addition to the wicked winds, more rain would fall on the area of the Copper River Flats over the next three days in the shortest amount of time ever recorded, some fourteen inches in all.
Skip Holden opened the door leading into the tiny space of his wheelhouse and quickly stepped inside. He was still dripping wet when the F/V Marlene's main engine coughed heavily. Holden bent over, removed one section of the floorboard, and peered down into the small engine compartment. It was not an encouraging sight. The bilge area was full of water, which was now lapping at the sides of the gas engine.
Then Holden recalled how he'd been running along with his back door left open slightly to flush out all engine fumes from inside hiscabin. Seawater, he surmised, had silently and surreptitiously been seeping in through the opening since the storm had first kicked up. The engine's carburetor and wiring were getting drenched. I need to get busy now and bail some water out of here, he told himself. I've got to shut down this engine and very methodically remove the seawater from the bilge. One thing at a time.
Holden slammed the back door and tied it shut, securing the handle with a length of rope. With the engine turned off, he knew that the bilge would soon run the battery down to the point where it could no longer turn the engine over. Then all hope of somehow getting the carburetor dried out and the engine started would be lost. Holden tore away the remaining floorboards, leapt down into the chest-deep engine compartment, and immediately went to work bailing out the water. When, more than a hour later, he looked up again from his sweaty efforts, the compartment was relatively free of seawater, while outside, the dull gray evening had given way to a coal black void of blasting winds and pummeling rain.
Normally, when he was fishing and drifting along on a given set, Holden could feel the currents gently tugging at his net. On this night, however, the gillnet playing off his bow roller (and now stretching several hundred yards beyond it) remained as tight as a bowstring as the offshore currents tugging at his net and buoys came into direct conflict with the force created by fierce onshore winds driving hard against every exposed inch of the Marlene's superstructure. The wind shrieked constantly over the wheelhouse, and the torrential rains and surf thrumming against the fiberglass hull of the Marlene echoed inside with the irregular thump of beating drums.
 
 
Well, what do you think we should do here, Skip?" radioed Phil Thum finally."Do you want me to call out a Mayday and get the Coast Guard people on their way?"
Thum knew that such a decision was not to be taken lightly. A commercial fisherman could not justify sending out a Mayday unless someone's life was in imminent peril.
"I don't know what to do," replied Holden finally.
The pocket in which Skip Holden was cornered, in between the sandbars and channel entrances at Softuk and Strawberry, was famous, Thum knew, for turning boats into kindling. Under the current conditions, the place had become a kind of death trap, a small-boat killing field. Thum was certain that his friend was about to lose his life there.
Undeterred by fear or the gravity of the decision, Phil Thum lifted the handheld mike from his powerful VHF radio set. "Mayday! Mayday!" he called out for the entire fleet to hear. "This is the fishing vessel Keeper! The fishing vessel Keeper! We have a fisherman in trouble, and we are in need of assistance."
"This is United States Coast Guard, Comsat Kodiak! Comsat Kodiak!" came the quick reply. "We receive your message. Please give us the name of the skipper and boat in trouble and its exact position. Over."
Thum identified himself and gave Holden's current position. "I am relaying this message from a CB radio broadcasting for a man named Skip Holden," Thum explained. "He is on board the F/V Marlene, and he's been caught outside near the Egg Island entrance. He doesn't have a VHF, so I'll be talking to him and relaying that information on to you, and I'll relay what you say to me back to him."
Not until every question had been asked and answered did the Coast Guard finally render their decision.
"Please relay to Skip Holden that we're on our way," radioed the petty officer.
"Roger. I'll be standing by on channel twenty-three," Thum confirmed.
"Holden, the Coast Guard is on their way," Thum announced, excitedly passing on the message.
"Good," acknowledged Holden.
As soon as Holden heard the news, he turned and began donning his survival suit. I've got to keep my eyes peeled, he told himself. If those chopper boys are really going to come out here in this crap, I want to be ready and help all I can.
Holden knew it was easily the most impossible predicament thathe'd ever faced. Inside the rocking, battering space of the ship's cabin, Holden tried to prepare himself for the end. In the scheme of things, he knew, he was just an ant-sized creature caught in an exceptionally tough spot. Yet he refused to allow himself to slip into the emotional quicksand fear produced. Even as the storm outside seemed about to tear his boat to pieces and bury him on the spot, Holden made a conscious choice to stay focused, concentrating on performing each individual task he faced as quickly and efficiently as he could.
If the gillnet jumped out of the bow rollers and slid amidships along the pivoting boat, however, Holden was certain that the Marlene would instantly flip over and all would be lost. He made repeated trips out the wheelhouse door to see if the net, reel, and cleats securing it were in need of repair. Each time, as he worked his way forward, thigh-deep water came crashing in over the sides. The rampaging sea threatened to knock his legs from under him and sweep him down the open deck and over the side.
It would be several hours before a four-engined U.S. Coast Guard C-130 search and rescue (SAR) airplane reached the scene.
 
 
How are you doing down there?" radioed Lt. Jim Hatfield, the copilot and officer in charge of the C-130 now circling at some 18,000 feet overhead.
Although Holden had been unable (other than relaying his messages through Phil Thum) to even come close, with his tiny CB radio, to reaching Air Station Kodiak some three hundred miles away, he could now hear Lieutenant Hatfield's voice clearly.
"The boat's hanging on," said Holden, "but I don't think there's any way you're going to be able to hoist me off of her. It'd be like trying to thread a needle from up there."
"Let us worry about that," replied Hatfield. Then he informed Holden that an H-3 "Pelican" Sikorsky helicopter had landed in Cordova (following the terrific beating of a three-hour flight over from Kodiak Island) and was preparing for the rescue attempt.
"Don't be surprised if you get a static electric shock when the basketfirst gets to you," Hatfield said. "But don't worry about it; it won't hurt you. He'll be shooting a cradle [a body strap] down that line to you."
Hatfield's plan was to guide the H-3 chopper close enough to pluck Holden off the Marlene's front deck, air-lifting him into the stormy heavens like a sack of potatoes.
"Right now, I need you to take your antenna down, because we don't want it to get tangled up in the rescue basket."
"Roger," said Holden coolly.
Up until that time, Holden felt sure that he'd kept a tight rein on his emotions. But he was soon forced to acknowledge that he had felt a bit more shaken than he'd been letting on, because when he hurried outside and grabbed hold of the two-inch-thick base of the twenty-foot-high CB antenna, it broke off in his hand, snapping in two, as if it were no more substantial than a bone-dry strand of uncooked spaghetti. Suddenly, all communications with the outside world came to a close, as far as he could tell. He would continue to send out messages on the CB radio, but he would have no way of knowing if anyone could actually hear them.
It was approximately 1:00 A.M. when Holden spied the blinking navigation light of a helicopter far off his stern. He rushed to illuminate his cabin and make sure that his small mast light was turned on and shining brightly. Lit up like I am, thought Holden, I must look like a little torch out here on the water.
Then he set off a flare, launching it out the side window of his wheelhouse. He was sure the helicopter pilot had spotted him. Okay, thought Holden. Now I've got to get ready here for what's going to happen.
Leaving the security of his radio and the protection of his bathroom-sized wheelhouse, he crouched down like a wrestler against the wind and currents, waded out onto the front deck, and stood there waiting for the helicopter to arrive.
When Holden caught sight of them again, they were gunning their engines and coming straight for him, closing along an invisible line stretching directly downwind of the boat. Holden could see that thepilot was making an attempt to pull up even with him. What worried Holden, however, was the straining sound of the helicopter's engines and gears. They were producing an unbelievably loud whining, a kind of metallic screaming.
Just then, Holden looked to his left and spied a large sea otter floating alongside his boat. The otter was lying on its back and wore what appeared to be a broad grin across its face. Isn't that weird, thought Holden. The sea otter seemed to be saying, Look, the next step will probably be to come in and join me, and when you do, it's not going to be a big deal. Holden was beginning to understand that it might just come to that. If I somehow wind up in the water in my suit, he calculated, I'm going to act just like that sea otter. I'm just going to dig it and have a nice big smile and a good time.
Holden was also aware that he was caught in a steady drift that was carrying him ever farther out into the vast wind-raked reaches of the Gulf of Alaska. Each time his small boat teetered up and over the top of one of the long, sweeping faces of the storm waves, he thought he could make out, through the demolishing forces of wind and spray, the indistinct speck of a buoy marker's light blinking off in the distance.
The downpour and the blowing spray tumbling across the face of the sea had joined forces and were now creating near whiteout conditions. Out of the vacuum of sea spray, rain, and wind engulfing him came ungainly waves twenty-five feet high. Now and then, in the reflective glow coming from his wheelhouse, Holden could make out the mountains of seawater approaching. He could feel each wave lifting him, sweeping him up and up and up, and then the free fall as the wave discarded him and moved on. And he thought, I've fished Kayak Island and Cape St. Elias in a big swell, but this is something that I've never seen before. At times, the winds blew so hard that the sea itself seemed to contort under the pressure.
Abruptly, the chopper pilot turned on his floodlights, and for a few seconds, it looked like broad daylight. Several times, as the helicopter maneuvered overhead in the intensifying storm, Holden found that he could no longer determine for sure whether he was hearing the roar of the jet engines or the sound of the wind shrieking past. He wascertain that if someone were standing right next to him and he yelled into that person's ear, the sound of his voice would never be heard.
Holden felt a tremendous surge, and the Marlene was swept to the top of a wave. From its crest, he could see the helicopter clearly in the wave valley stretching out before him. Just 150 feet away, Holden took in the startling vision of the chopper's main rotor blades spinning at eye level with him. And yet the chopper's fifteen-foot-tall body hung down into the trough below. Man, he's way too close to the ocean, thought Holden. His blades are going to hit that wave! Seconds later, however, the chopper's volatile course carried it past directly overhead.
Though Holden felt relieved, something was still bothering him. Then, as he watched the chopper maneuver, it struck him. The pilot was flying as though he couldn't actually see the waves; it was as if somebody else were describing the water below to him. One second, the waves would be practically licking at the bottom of the helicopter, and in the next, the helo would be one hundred feet above them. The helicopter staggered along like a drunken sailor--inebriated but still on his feet. And as it drew nearer, Holden noticed the sharp, clipped flash of a tiny blue-white strobe light mounted on the aircraft's underbelly.
The F/V Marlene was yawing back and forth when a sneaker wave struck her from the starboard side, flooding her main deck and knocking her sideways through the frenzied surf. She was still pitching violently, pivoting from one side to the other when the helicopter swung in overhead again.
Holden was more than a little taken aback when a shot bag with a line attached to it plopped down next to him, smack in the middle of his deck. The valiant Coast Guard crewmen aboard the wind-tossed helicopter overhead had managed to zero in on a space just eight feet wide, hitting the mark as if it were the most common, everyday thing to do. Holden was amazed. These guys are phenomenal! he thought. They're out here risking their lives for me. I've just got to do the best I can for them.
Yet, with no way of communicating, Holden couldn't have known that the line trailing the shot bag was a tending line. In less extremeweather conditions, Coast Guard helicopter crews ordinarily used it as a way of feeding the basket down to the party awaiting rescue on the deck below. Holden grabbed the line trailing down out of the sky, thinking, If they can't get the rescue basket down to me, maybe they can just reel me up. If I feel something solid on the end of this line, he reasoned further, I'm just going to wrap it around my hand, swing from the end of the line, and just go for it. I'll pull on this line until I feel some tension, and when I feel something really secure on the other end, I'll hook it around my body and they'll just winch me up. What worried Holden most was the quality of the cord line that he held. It was made of loosely woven polyester fiber. Just three-eighths of an inch thick, it looked little more substantial than a dog leash.
At that moment, an overpowering gust of wind swept the helicopter away, carrying it tail-first, well downwind of Holden. The line in Skip Holden's hand went slack. What do they want me to do with this now? he wondered. Oh, they had to let go of the line, he then realized as he coiled it aboard.
When the helo drew near to Holden once again, he spotted the rescue basket. It was swinging violently about in the wind, below the open side door, underneath the aircraft's white belly. The helicopter managed to pull almost even with his bow, when, once again, he heard the high-pitched, almost supersonic whine of the aircraft's engines. With it came the grinding sound of metal crunching, like a washing machine falling apart. It didn't sound right. Holden was certain that they were in serious trouble.
Then it appeared as though some powerful hand had reached out and grabbed the helicopter and catapulted it back into space. One second, it was holding its own; the next, it went shooting back off the Marlene's stern as if shot out of a cannon. It appeared to be traveling backward at about the same speed as the wind, as helpless in the one-hundred-mile-per-hour blasts as an errant mosquito. Holden hung on to the gillnet reel with both hands, his legs spread-eagle, as thigh-deep water crashed aboard and drained out the boat's side scuppers.
Then, well downwind of the Marlene's stern, the rescue helicopter staggered several hundred feet into the air and paused there--a minusculedot of tentative light hovering against a vast backdrop of all-enveloping darkness. All Holden could see was the tiny pulse of her navigation lights blinking and the hazy swath of a spotlight shining down on the ocean. They must be having some kind of trouble, he reasoned. Or perhaps they're having a powwow of some kind.
He was still studying the lights of the chopper, now suspended in the air more than half a mile away, when, as if in a slow motion, the helicopter dipped sharply to one side and toppled from the sky. With its nose down and its tail trailing up and behind, the helo plunged toward the water. A moment later, the rotor blades on one side plowed into the ocean's surface. "Oh no! No! No! No!" screamed Holden as the aircraft crashed into the sea. "Oh my God, I can't believe this!"
Time seemed to stand still. For one long moment, he could see the glow of the navigation lights blinking beneath the water. Then the night just seemed to swallow them. Holden's mind raced. What if there are survivors inside that helicopter? he asked himself. They must still be alive back there. And now they're waiting for me to rescue them. But how can I pull this off? I don't have a searchlight. I don't have a radio. My steering is bonkers. Maybe I can get my engine warmed up and see if I can't somehow back down on them and pick up whoever has survived. But if I get too near the helicopter in these winds and seas, it'll put a hole in my boat and I'll go down, too. Then we'll all be lost!
Still, I've got to try, reasoned Holden finally. I'll just fire up my engine and see what I've got here. Then I'll untie my gillnet from the cleats and reel and play out some more net. If I can play it out far enough and drift in close enough, perhaps some of them can swim over to it and grab ahold.
First things first, Holden, he told himself. Let's start the engine. He turned the key and was pleased to find that his battery was still strong. But although his engine cranked over and over, it ultimately refused to start. The wiring on my engine is soaked, he was forced to acknowledge. Just totally soaked.
Each time he'd gone out the back door to await a rescue basket, more of the torrential rains and sea spray had washed down onto hismotor. He deeply regretted now not having bought the diesel engine that he'd contemplated installing the winter before.
Holden was certain that the crewmen were back there in the water, freezing their tails off, if they were alive at all. Frantically, again and again, he cranked over his sea-soaked engine, but with no luck. Finding himself entirely without power now, Holden asked himself, Is there any way in the world I can still rescue those guys?
"Mayday! Mayday!" called Skip Holden over his silent radio. "This is the fishing vessel Marlene! The fishing vessel Marlene! Does anybody hear me?" Though he heard no response, he continued to send out the call. "The Coast Guard helicopter that came out here to get me has crashed! The helicopter's there, but I can't get my engine started!"
With his antenna gone, his battery power running down, and the regenerating powers of the F/V Marlene's main engine flooded out, Skip Holden's radio transmissions had been reduced almost to nothing.
Though Jim Hatfield could no longer hear anything, at that very moment Phil Thum was hanging on every syllable of the bitter news spilling out of his static-filled CB radio. His friend's voice was racked with emotion.
"Oh God, the helicopter crashed!" added Holden. "It got too low and it crashed! The chopper's down! I've got to try and get over to them!"
Thum wasted no time in relaying the message to Lt. Jim Hatfield and his crew in the C-130 circling above.
"Sir, I just received a CB radio transmission from Skip Holden, the skipper aboard the F/V Marlene. And he reports that your chopper has just crashed into the water."
The C-130 pilot wept over the radio.
When Skip Holden came back over the radio once again, he, too, was crying. "Don't send anybody else! No more! No more!" Then all radio transmissions from Holden went dead. It was the last anyone heard from him that night.
With the helicopter down, the long nightmarish hours that followed were filled with incessant waves of guilt. Without his engine, Holden knew, he had no hope of saving the crew of the downed Coast Guardhelicopter. They would have to make do for themselves, or be lost. For Skip Holden, it was the sickest feeling in the world to know that there was nothing more he could do.
Perhaps the chopper has sunk to the bottom of the ocean witch the Coast Guard crew trapped inside, he thought. Or maybe they were able to deploy their life raft and save themselves. He prayed that the latter had happened.
Battered and fatigued, but still in the battle, Skip Holden stood out on deck in the first gray light of day and took stock of the prodigious combers that continued to sweep through the area. The wind still howled across the deck and around his wheelhouse, but it was gusting to around fifty miles per hour, rather than the primitive forces of the previous night, which clearly had exceeded one hundred miles per hour.
At last, he felt like he had a chance to do something about his predicament. He finished bailing the latest influx of seawater from his bilge, hauled the remaining bucketfuls of water up out of the hold, and flung them out the door. Then he attempted to repair the CB antenna, but again without luck. Finally, he grabbed a can of starter fluid, sprayed it into the carburetor, and turned the engine over. This time, it rumbled to life.
Throughout the night, Holden's gillnet had been his lifeline. Now, with the engine started and a lonely gray light marking the dawn, he decided to pull in his gillnet and go search for the crew of the Coast Guard helicopter. When he began reeling the net in, however, he found it choked with silver salmon.
If the crewmen were still somehow clinging to life, he needed to move quickly. Tossing several hundred pounds of the fish into the bottom of his hold for ballast, he took a deck hatchet and chopped at the net. The thousand-foot line parted with a sudden explosion, freeing up the boat and releasing the net, buoys, and mother lode of salmon back to the currents.
Holden raced back to the wheelhouse and immediately pointed the Marlene toward Cordova. Though he tried to take it slowly, idling carefully along, he found himself from time to time literally surfingdown the faces of the towering spires of gray-green ocean passing by underneath him. Any slower and the wheelhouse of the tiny Marlene could have been decapitated by the storm waves; any faster and the vessel would have ended up pitchpoling end over end, and he'd have been lost.
Holden had been inching his way along toward the Softuk Bar for close to an hour, keeping his eyes focused on his compass, when, entirely by accident, he stumbled upon the Coast Guard helicopter floating upside down. Except for a set of tires jutting skyward from her amphibious white underbelly, the hull of the inverted H-3 helicopter might have been mistaken for an overturned boat. The two black tires sticking up on a single strut, he would learn later, were part of the nose landing gear, which extended automatically when the aircraft's electrical power was lost.
In the light of day, with his bilge emptied and his engine finally running, Holden had chanced to run upon them. He was ecstatic. Now I can rescue these guys, he thought. Even if I just get one, it'll be worth it. Holden could hardly believe it. Had he varied so much as a single degree on his course either way, he'd have missed them completely.
A greasy island of fuel and oil lingered around the inverted wreckage, and it somehow appeared to be keeping the foamy portion of the waves from breaking quite so forcefully in the immediate area. He made a large loop out and around the helicopter, "surfing" much of the time, working his way downwind and slowly back again. It was then, as he drew close, that he spotted one of the crew members. He appeared to be tethered by a single hand to the wheel well of the chopper. He was lying facedown in the water in a dead man's float.
"You better be alive!" screamed Holden over and over as he approached. "You better be alive!"
He knew how he was going to rescue the man, too. He was going to motor upwind and toss out a buoy ball with a line attached to it. He'd feed it out and float it back downwind to the waiting crewman. But when he pulled to within twenty feet of the body, he could seethat the man was dead. His body was motionless, his arms and legs both outstretched.
Every time a swell went by, the big white hull of the overturned helicopter would sink, disappearing into the depths, a hundred feet or more below, dragging the man's body along with it. To Holden, the helo seemed to remain submerged "forever," before floating back to the surface once again. Realizing finally that there was nothing more he could do, Holden began motoring in around Cape Hinchinbrook. Three hours of running time later, he ran into fellow fisherman Andy Halverson. Halverson thought he was seeing a ghost. "He thought that I was dead," recalls Holden. "He'd heard it on the radio. He'd heard that the F/V Marlene was lost and that the four USCG guys were lost, as well."
 
 
U.S. Coast Guard helicopter pilot Lt. Pat Rivas (pronounced reevas) and copilot Lt. Joe Spoja, as well as flight mechanic Scott Frinfrock and navigator John Snyder, had been out on an ordinary training exercise over on Kodiak Island when Phil Thum's Mayday call first came in.
Several hard-won hours of flight later, they found themselves caught in an unending torrent of record-breaking rainfall, battling fierce ninety-mile-per-hour winds in Prince William Sound. They were flying blind in near whiteout conditions when their Loran C navigational computer shut down, their radar quit, and the onboard HF radio went out. With so much critical equipment malfunctioning, and without the light of day to aid them, it would be tough going.
"Do you know where you are?" asked the C-130 pilot, Lt. Dale Harrington. "Could you give us a position?"
"Okay," replied Pat Rivas. "I think that I'm on a two-hundred-and-twenty-degree bearing from Cordova, about twenty-two miles out. That's the best I can do for you."
A little later, copilot Lt. Jim Hatfield checked back with them. "Hey, boys," he radioed. "Are you all right?"
"We're all right," answered Lt. Joe Spoja. "But we're busy. Please stand by."
Lt. Jim Hatfield remembers it this way. "They made several attempts to get the basket down, with little or no luck because it's such a small boat, a small target, and the seas were terrific and they could not see what they were doing and the boat was swinging around. Pat Rivas was obviously getting concerned that his fatigue would become a factor in this. He mentioned that he was going to be going to Cordova to land ... that they were getting tired and kicked around quite a bit."
Lt. Dale Harrington recalls that "there was some discussion going on, concerns about fatigue, and Pat felt that he had given it his best shot, obviously, and his comment that I recall was, 'I have tried everything that I know how to do, and under these conditions, the seas, the smallness of the boat, it bobbing around in the wind, and with no hoist reference, I've done everything that I can. Maybe somebody else can come out here and perform this hoist, but I can't. It's beyond my capability. I just can't do it."
It was the last transmission anyone received from the pilot of the doomed chopper.
Faced with dismal weather conditions and massive instrument failure, the crew of helo 1471 had been attempting the rescue under very demanding conditions for an extraordinarily long time; hoists under favorable conditions are often completed in as little as ten minutes. Proceeding with the mission under highly stressful conditions, with no water references except for the occasional glimpses of the fishing vessel Marlene, they spent their final hour battling on-scene, trying to remain over the boat and out of the water. And this came directly on the heels of an exhausting three-hour flight from their base on Kodiak Island, which was preceded by another hour or more of flying assigned maneuvers before even being called out on what would be their final mission.
Ultimately, Rivas was forced to acknowledge that he would not be able to complete the hoist. But the decision was made that, before recovering to Cordova for fuel, food, and rest, and to await daylight, they would try and deliver a handheld radio down to Skip Holden. Itwas then, as they were preparing to do so, a Coast Guard Accident Analysis Board would later surmise, that "they probably relaxed a little. And a slight relaxing was all that was necessary to invite disaster."
The helicopter, the board found, had probably backed down, tail-first, into a passing wave crest. Spinning within precise tolerances at blinding speeds, the tall rotor blades exploded upon impact with the seawater, instantly shearing the four-inch-thick, fifteen-foot-long steel tail-rudder shaft.
The initial impact with the water bent the tail section up. A microsecond later, the chopper's main rotor blades severed it from its own body. This catastrophic mechanical failure sent the H-3 helicopter into a ragged teeter. Staggering through the air like a gyroscope in its last energetic throes, the helo struggled to right itself. Ultimately, however, the unbridled torque toppled the helicopter from the sky as if it had been shoved over a cliff.
When the main rotor blades plowed into the sea itself, they disintegrated upon impact, shattering like icicles fragmenting. Amid the scattering of G-forces and flying plane parts, the twenty-five-foot-long blades were instantly reduced to jagged stubs just twenty-eight inches long. With the weight of her main engines and gearbox both mounted atop the aircraft's back, the straying helicopter immediately flipped over.
The crash and the struggle to survive it must have been nothing short of a nightmare. In the panic of the moment, as the jolting black ice water roared into the inverted space of the helicopter's cabin, the four gasping Coast Guardsmen fought to free themselves and get out.
Those who gained the surface faced what must have been a kind of elemental madness. The spray stung their faces, and as they struggled to see in the wet, suffocating darkness, and to be heard over the roar of the wind filling their ears, twenty-five-foot storm waves began crashing in over them.
Though his body was never found, copilot Lt. Joseph Spoja, thirty-one, exited the plane without a survival suit. The exact specifics of most of his experience will forever remain a mystery, but left to tread the wild, flesh-numbing, forty-four-degree waters of the Gulf of Alaska thatnight, he could not have survived for long without the thermal protection of either a survival suit, or a wet suit, and none were found to be missing.
It was Lieutenant Spoja's first night on duty at the base in Kodiak. The father of three young children, his wife pregnant with the fourth, Spoja hadn't even finished unloading his furniture and belongings back in Kodiak when he was called out on the mission.
Only recently married, twenty-one-year-old radio man John Snyder probably succumbed soon after the crash as a result of partial incapacitation from head injuries and because his flotation collar had not been inflated. Clad in a wet suit as he was, Snyder might have lived for several hours, eventually expiring due to his injuries and his inability to keep his head out of the water.
Although no one was killed outright by the impact of the crash itself, the helicopter's pilot, the ever-popular and athletic Lt. Earnie "Pat" Rivas, age thirty-three, was tossed forward so violently that he struck the instrument panel with his head, shattering the sixth cervical vertebra in his neck. Still, he did manage to exit the inverted aircraft.
With his neck fractured and blood draining from a cut on his forehead, Rivas was no doubt certain in the knowledge that since he was without a survival suit, hypothermia would soon disable and kill him. Yet somehow he maintained enough clarity of mind in his injured state to unlace and remove both of his heavy, steel-toed flight boots, probably in an effort to facilitate swimming.
Somebody had to go back inside the inverted helicopter to locate and retrieve the life raft strapped inside. Perhaps Scotty Frinfrock had also helped. Dragged to the surface, the powerful CO2 canisters inflated the raft with a burst, and the pressing storm winds immediately launched it across the water. But when the sea-painter line (which serves as both the canister activator and the line tethering the raft to the individual holding it) came tight, unbelievably, the knot on the raft-end parted, and the windblown raft began to streak away. The speed of its departure was checked only by the fact that the raft was ballasted with pockets of cloth that fill up with water, built into the bottom of the raft.
After all the equipment failure, and the surreal experience of the crash itself, and with two small children and his lovely wife Linnea at home awaiting his safe return back in Kodiak, the vision of the departing life raft must have broken Pat Rivas' heart. Shattered vertebra or not, he was in exceptional physical condition and, as those close to him will tell you, bulldog-determined to wrestle the best that could be had from any given situation. Having already disposed of his flight boots, and dressed in little more than his standard pilot's thin blue cotton jumpsuit, with his water-wings inflated (two sets of air bags connected by straps slung under both armpits), Pat Rivas probably decided to give chase. He must have known that the life raft was their only real chance.
Seated by the helicopter's side door, twenty-five-year-old hoist operator (flight mechanic) Scott Frinfrock was, in all likelihood, the first to escape, and the last to die. While his crewmates swam off, were washed away, or were fast dying of a combination of hypothermia and injuries, he carried out a furious campaign to remain with the aircraft and to survive the ordeal. Despite the icy sweep of angry wave-water twenty-feet deep pounding over him, Frinfrock not only refused to give up; he waged open war.
Wearing a one-piece wet suit, booties, and a survival vest, Frinfrock battled the impossible. When the F/V Daryl J came upon the inverted helo several days later near Naked Island up in Prince William Sound, divers flown to the scene soon discovered that someone had removed the strobe light and the ancient AR/URT-33A Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT) from inside the overturned helicopter and had tied them to a fitting near the aircraft's side door. The MK13 flares had also been removed and were missing, as was a signaling mirror.
Five of seven cartridges in Frinfrock's own pen-gun flare kit were either spent or missing. Scotty might have made it, too, had his ELT worked properly, but its off/on switch had somehow been broken off, leaving him no way to activate it.
When they found his body washed up on the rocky shore the next day, he was wearing an orange wet suit, an uninflated neck pillow, and no headgear or gloves. Coast Guard searchers also found a thirty-foot-longsection of yellow trail line attached to him. In one final, last-ditch effort, Scotty Frinfrock had apparently tried to tether himself to the hulk of the overturned helicopter. He may have continued the struggle for as long as six hours before the force of the pummeling seas finally broke the line that held him, sweeping him away.
And so, with the life raft gone, the relentless onslaught of storm waves thundering down upon them, and no electronic means of signaling others of the location of their downed helicopter, the fate of the heroic crew of helo 1471 was sealed. Lost and adrift at night, scattered across the vast wilderness waters of the Gulf of Alaska, these men stood no chance of being rescued.
At first light, a massive manhunt was launched. Search and rescue airplanes, boats, and helicopters from the Coast Guard and air force bases in Anchorage, Juneau, Kodiak, and Sitka relentlessly combed the area for any signs of life.
Searchers soon found the life raft, fully inflated and in perfect repair (without the tethering line), washed up on rugged Montague Island. Nearby, they came upon the body of one of the crewmen lying facedown, partially buried in the surf and sand. The man was wearing little more than a pilot's thin, blue cotton jumpsuit and a set of water-wings under each arm. Then the shaken Coast Guard searchers noticed something odd; both of the man's flight boots were missing.
COMING BACK ALIVE. Copyright © 2001 by Spike Walker. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.