Excerpted from Deadliest Sea: the Untold Story Behind the Greatest Rescue in Coast Guard History (HarperCollins).
Editor’s note: A little after 2 A.M. on March 23, 2008, the head-and-gut fishing trawler Alaska Ranger sank 800 miles from the nearest Coast Guard Station. Within a few hours, almost the entire vessel was under water and most of her 47-man crew were floating in the water waiting to be rescued before freezing to death.
Evan Holmes was bobbing in the swells. Every time he rose up to the top of a wave, could see other lights spread out in the ocean. He could hear people yelling. Then he would sink down into another trough and whoosh, the yells would disappear along with the lights. The crashing waves were so loud, they blocked it all out.
Back on the ship, Evan had been standing next to a friend of his, a small-framed Laotian guy named Phouthone Thanphilom whom everyone called P. Ton. The men were holding on to each other as they balanced on the listing deck.
“Hey, Holmes, you’ll take care of me, right?” P. Ton asked Evan.
Evan thought of P. Ton as his little buddy on the boat. “Yeah, I’ll take care of you,” he said.
He was relieved when they found each other again after just a few minutes in the water. Evan could immediately see that P. Ton was panicking, trying to swim on his stomach in his enormous neoprene survival suit. The Laotian man couldn’t have weighed much more than 100 pounds.
“Get on your back!” Evan yelled as he helped to roll P. Ton over in the waves. He noticed that the strobe light attached to his friend’s suit was off, and turned it on.
“Grab my legs,” Evan told P. Ton as they linked together in the swells.
The men were on top of a swell when they saw their ship for the last time. The Alaska Ranger was stern-down in the sea, the bow pointed straight toward the sky.
Whoosh, Evan plunged down with a wave. The next time he rose up, the Ranger was gone.
Evan had been in the water for maybe an hour when he saw someone floating toward him and P. Ton, who was still holding on to Evan’s legs. When the guy got closer, Evan could see that it was Kenny Smith.
“Kenny! Come on, let’s make a chain!” Evan yelled over the crash of the waves.
The fishing gig was pretty much Kenny’s first real job. He was twenty-two and had been on the Ranger for about nine months. Before Alaska, he’d worked as a newspaper delivery boy. And he’d spent some time in jail after the police found stolen goods in his apartment.
Evan knew that Kenny and P. Ton hadn’t been to the safety course in Seattle like he had. Now, the lessons he learned there were paying off. Evan showed Kenny how to link together, with one man’s legs wrapped around the other’s waist.
Both Kenny and P. Ton were smaller than Evan. They both seemed colder and in worse spirits. “We’re not gonna make it,” Kenny kept saying.
“Keep calm!” Evan yelled. “If you don’t shut up, I’m gonna give you overtime!”
After a while, the men saw someone else floating toward them in the water. Kenny grabbed the man’s suit.
“Evan, man. Evan! This guy is dead. He’s dead, he’s gone,” Kenny screamed.
Evan touched the body for a second. It was lifeless. “Oh my God,” he said. “Shit.”
Kenny couldn’t tell who the guy was. Someone small. Evan let go, and the body floated quickly away.
The men were shaken up. Evan was cold, and he had a little water in his suit. When he lifted his arm, he could feel a trickle of icy water run down toward his chest. He was worried about hypothermia setting in. Crap, we’ve been floating around for quite a while, he thought. He couldn’t stop shivering. The other guys seemed just as bad—maybe worse.
Kenny and P. Ton had been real quiet ever since they saw the body. Evan tried to think of a song to sing. He should try to keep them all occupied with something other than the fact that they didn’t know if they were going to make it out of the Bering Sea. But for the life of him, he could not think of single song.
“Hey Holmes, I’m not gonna make it,” Kenny was saying.
“Yeah, you are,” Evan told him. “You are.” Evan wasn’t a religious guy. To him, it seemed a little selfish to start praying just for his own life at a time like this. He looked up into the dark sky. Here’s the deal, God, Evan bartered. Give us one more sunrise. We want to see the sun one more time. If I’m going to be floating around in this ocean like a Popsicle, I want to see the sun rise just once more.
Evan was in the rear of the three-man chain. He was the only one who had his arms free, and he kept trying to steer the other guys so that the waves would hit them all in the back instead of the face. Each time they were pummeled from the front, water leaked down into their suits. It was so dark, though, that it was hard to see where the water was coming from. It was only every once in a while that a little sliver of moon poked through the clouds. When they rose up on the top of a swell, Evan could see a helicopter in the distance, hovering. Then they’d plunge back down, and the chopper would fall out of sight.
“They know we’re here,” he told P. Ton and Kenny. “They see us. They’re coming. We just have to hang in there.”
Finally, the light came toward them, and settled overhead.
“No shit,” Evan said. “Thank you.” He watched as a man dropped down on a metal line from the open aircraft door. “U.S. Coast Guard!” rescue swimmer O’Brien Starr-Hollow yelled as he reached the men in the waves.
Evan pointed to Kenny. The young processor was nearly unconscious. A few minutes before, he’d started drifting away from the other men. He couldn’t hold on to P. Ton’s legs anymore. Evan feared that Kenny was done.
“Hey, man,” Evan yelled at the Coastie. He motioned toward Kenny. “This guy, he ain’t doing too well. Get him first.”
Starr-Hollow could tell on his own that Kenny was the worst off of the three men. He loaded him into the helicopter’s metal rescue basket, gave his flight mechanic, Rob DeBolt, the thumbs-up—the signal to lift the man out of the water—and then swam back toward Evan and P. Ton.
“How are you doing?” Starr-Hollow yelled.
“I’m okay,” Evan answered. “Well, I’m not okay. Look, I’m doing okay right this second. I don’t know how much longer, though.”
Evan had seen how long the helo had been out there picking people up, and he’d seen some movies. He knew P. Ton should go up next. “Shit, man, do you have room in that helicopter for me?” he yelled to the swimmer.
Starr-Hollow grabbed onto Evan and looked him right in the eyes. “I tell you what,” he said. “I’ve got room for you. You’re my last guy.”
It had been close to an hour since the Coast Guard’s HH-60 Jayhawk helicopter had arrived at the sinking site. The four-man crew had just kept moving from one light to another light and another. Now they had almost a dozen men in oversized, waterlogged suits piled on top of one another inside the crowded cabin. It was almost 6:00 a.m. For most of the past hour, the cabin door had been kept open. The metal floor was a sheet of ice. The last fishermen to be brought up had been more hypothermic than the first. Some of them couldn’t seem to hold themselves upright. Even though DeBolt had ordered two of the men to crowd onto the tiny console between the pilots, the back cabin was packed tight with bodies.
While he was operating the hoist, DeBolt focused his attention on what was going on outside the helicopter. But glancing over his shoulder now, the flight mech was alarmed by how cramped the cabin had become. One guy had his feet hanging partway out the open cabin door. There was water everywhere. Even one more body and there would be a risk of one of the survivors sliding out and ending up back in the Bering Sea.
“That’s it,” DeBolt told the pilots, as he pulled the basket into the helo with Evan Holmes inside. Never before in his career had DeBolt been in the position of even considering leaving anybody behind. Yet now he was sure that it wasn’t safe to lift a single person more. The flight mech got the fishermen packed in as well as he could, then lowered the hoist line one more time for Starr-Hollow, who was floating alone in the waves below.
It was 6:10 a.m. as the Jayhawk approached the port side of the Alaska Warrior, another fishing boat that had been racing toward the Ranger’s position ever since they’d heard the ship’s distress call hours before. The clap of the rotors grew to a thunderous roar as the machine settled into a hover over the trawler’s stern. Outside, it was still spitting snow and blowing hard.
When the door to the helicopter slid open, the crew on the Warrior’s trawl deck could make out a mass of red inside. They watched as the metal basket dropped out of the cabin, and slowly descended toward them with Evan Holmes inside.
He was terrified.
The Ranger’s factory manager had been the last person the Jayhawk had lifted out of the water. The cabin was already so crowded that flight mechanic DeBolt told Evan to stay right inside the basket. There was nowhere else for him to sit.
Evan had been shocked at how packed the chopper was; he didn’t know a helicopter could hold that many people. With all the noise, he couldn’t hear what was going on. But he knew he was the last one. He’d only been in the Jayhawk for a couple minutes when DeBolt leaned over and yelled in his ear: “Hey, we’re going to drop you to the Warrior,” the Coastie told him. “Stay in the basket. Hold on.”
“What?” Evan said. “No! Put somebody else first.”
He turned, and yelled to one of his crewmates. “You go! Tell me how it works out,” he tried to joke.
But it was obvious to Evan that it wasn’t up to him. He was going first.
As he was lifted out of the cabin, Evan could see the Warrior’s huge trawl net strewn out over the deck. There were buoys everywhere. The gantry seemed way too close as the massive ship pitched and rolled in the waves. Even the crew on the ship’s deck looked like they were barely holding on. Evan could see a few of their faces. He knew some of the guys. There was a big Samoan dude he liked. Oh, man, I hope he catches me. I do not want to smack the boat, Evan thought.
Evan cowered inside as the basket swung like a pendulum above the icy deck. He hugged his arms around his legs, trying to keep fully within the metal box.Jesus Christ, I just had my life saved, and now I’m gonna die getting banged against the goddamned Warrior, he thought.
The deck grew steadily closer. On the flight to the Warrior, some of the Ranger’s crew members felt good enough to joke around a little in the back of the helo. “They’ll probably make us work,” someone had said. Evan didn’t doubt it. He didn’t want to get on the Warrior. He was halfway down when all of a sudden the basket started rising again. They were bringing him back up, Evan realized with relief. They’d changed their minds.
Evan reached the cabin door, and DeBolt steadied the basket against the edge.
Then, horribly, he was going back down. They were trying again. Evan closed his eyes. He didn’t want to see it coming; there was so much rigging, so much gear. He could hit the ship, the wheelhouse, one of the boat’s sharp, pointy antennas. The basket was spinning; he was spinning. He was scared shitless. There was water coming from all directions. It was so windy, Evan couldn’t tell if it was raining or if water was just being blown up from the ocean or down from the helicopter. The rotor wash was so powerful he couldn’t look up.
I’m more likely to get killed right now than I was back in the water, Evan thought. This seemed like a bad idea.
Then, suddenly he was moving back toward the chopper. DeBolt steadied the basket just below the open door while the pilots repositioned the helo over the front of the ship. Evan saw the Warrior’s crew running toward the bow.
Evan looked up toward the pilots. Through the aircraft window, he could see that one of them was shaking his head and slicing his hand across his throat. Moments later, the basket was pulled back into the cabin.
“Don’t do that again!” Evan shouted to the flight mech as soon as he was inside.
“Don’t worry, man,” DeBolt yelled back. “It’s not going to work.”
The 60 Jayhawk had been hovering over the Warrior for less than five minutes when the crew made a tough call: Lowering the fishermen to the Warrior was just too dangerous. They would have to offload the men to the Coast Guard Cutter Munro instead.