Alaska Ship Rescue Left No Time to Spare

By: By STEVE QUINN
By: By STEVE QUINN

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) -- The call came at 2:52 a.m. Sunday: "Mayday. Mayday. This is the Alaska Ranger. ... We are flooding, taking on water in our rudder room."

Within minutes, two Coast Guard helicopters and a search plane lifted off and a cutter with a third helicopter headed out. They departed from different parts of Alaska, moving toward an isolated location 120 miles west of Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands.

It would take rescuers nearly 2 1/2 hours to reach the crew members, who had abandoned ship.

Forty-seven crew members were clinging to life in an ice-cold sea, battered by 20-foot water swells. Ultimately 42 of them were rescued by the Coast Guard and the Ranger's sister ship, the Alaska Warrior.

Five were not.

The bodies of three crew members and the captain, were recovered. Alaska State Troopers say they were in the water for about six hours, and died of hypothermia. One man's body was lost at sea.

The lost crew member may have been a survivor who fell out of the rescue basket as it was being hoisted up to a helicopter, but no one knows for sure.

A Jayhawk helicopter was the first to arrive.

"As we approached the scene, we saw three strobe lights and we assumed those were rafts," flight commander Lt. Brian McLaughlin said. "The scene was very grim.

"We got a little closer and there was a fourth light, then a fifth, and a sixth and the numbers just kept growing. The ocean was flashing at us over about a mile-long stretch."

The Alaska Ranger was gone. It sank within 15 minutes, falling 6,318 feet to the sea floor - deep enough to stack the Statue of Liberty and its foundation 20 times over.

The crew members were in survival suits - some illuminated in small pods, others alone - and life rafts.

Another helicopter and a search plane were slowed by head winds, so it was up to the Jayhawk to perform the pre-dawn initial rescues while the Coast Guard cutter, Munro, and its Dolphin helicopter made their way to the scene.

Petty Officer 2nd Class O'Brien Hollow was attached to a steel cable and lowered into the water to see who needed the most immediate help. He placed 13 survivors into a basket-like gurney and stayed in the water as each was hoisted into the aircraft.

"We were moving 30 to 50 feet sometimes with the swell," Hollow said of the time he was in the water, trying to stay in sync with the helicopter pilot. "We moved left, right, north, south, east, west."

As the 33-year-old Hollow worked, neither the Munro nor the Alaska Warrior had arrived.

But once the cutter got to within 80 miles, it launched its rescue helicopter, the Dolphin, and four crew members, said Munro Capt. Craig Lloyd.

Within 10 minutes, and about three hours after the fishing vessel's mayday call, the Jayhawk approached the cutter with its first group of survivors.

The Jayhawk first tried to take them to the Warrior because the vessel arrived before the Munro, but the Warrior's deck was filled with fishing gear and covered with ice.

"In the end, it would have been too dangerous to lower them on board," McLaughlin said.

The Jayhawk flew another 50 miles to the cutter, which was not equipped for such a large aircraft to land.

So one by one, survivors again found themselves in baskets. They were lowered to the ship and escorted to a mess hall converted into a medical ward with heaters, bags of intravenous fluids, special sleeping bags to fight hypothermia and warm blankets.

In the meantime, the Warrior was able to take crew members from life rafts, and the helicopters plucked more survivors from the sea.

At one point Petty Officer 3rd Class Abe Heller remained in the water so there would be enough room on the helicopter for the survivors, and to keep tabs on three remaining crew members.

Watching the survivors regroup after the rescue, Lloyd, the captain of the Munro, spotted one fisherman designing a new tattoo: an anchor and the words, "Ranger Survivor."

Coast Guard members say their efforts worked not just because of their rigorous training, but the quick thinking of the crew.

The captain of the Alaska Ranger, Eric Peter Jacobsen, made sure his crew put on survival jackets before going overboard, according to secondhand reports from friends of crew members. The crew themselves were ordered not to talk to the media by the vessel's owner, the Seattle-based Fishing Company of Alaska.

The survivors were ultimately returned to Dutch Harbor, where the fateful journey began for the Alaska Ranger.

The Munro brought the last group in late Monday. Only one crewman, Alex Olivares, spoke as he and others were hustled from the ship to waiting cabs.

"Glad to be alive," he said.

© 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. Learn more about our Privacy Policy.


Comments are posted from viewers like you and do not always reflect the views of this station.
powered by Disqus
631 SW Commerce Pl. Topeka, Kansas 66615 phone: 785-272-6397 fax: 785-272-1363 email: feedback@wibw.com
Gray Television, Inc. - Copyright © 2002-2014 - Designed by Gray Digital Media - Powered by Clickability 17036406 - wibw.com/a?a=17036406