"In Alaska, virtually no one, except [US Coast Guard] search and rescue pilots, flies after dark....In cases of emergency, it is the search and rescue helicopter squads in Sitka who are called upon to respond.
"Whether it is a mission to Skagway, Lynn Canal, Haines, Juneau, Hoonah, Gustavus, Yakutat, Chatham Strait, Angoon, Kake, Meyers Chuck, Pelican, Port Alexander, Rowan Bay, Security Bay, Petersburg, Wrangell or Ketchikan, the trick is to remain on the beaten path as long as you can. The real adventure begins when you are forced to veer off and venture out into the wilderness...." COMING BACK ALIVE by Spike Walker (consultant on The Deadliest Catch) p. 48-49.
I read his book over a dozen years ago and at the time never imagined that one day we'd be calling upon the Coast Guard to make one of those emergency, night-time rescues out into the wilderness.
It was around 9 o'clock in late December when my dad called me saying my mom was having problems breathing, could I come over and help? When I got there she had pain in her lungs and her breathing difficulties became so severe that she had a panic attack and almost quit breathing entirely. "I can't do this, I can't do this!" she said.
I had my dad call the hospital in Ketchikan (the nearest city) but they handed us off to Sitka, which is over 360 miles away. Sitka in turn called the State Troopers because we were so isolated the hospital didn't know how to reach us. The State Troopers in turn handed us off to the Coast Guard in Juneau (even farther away). My dad is hard of hearing so he handed the phone to me when the Troopers were talking. I ended up repeating everything several times over while trying to keep my mom calm and breathing.
The Coast Guard surgeon gave me some helpful tips and told me that from her symptoms and behavior he was "concerned" and that a Coast Guard rescue helicopter and crew were being scrambled from Sitka and would reach us as soon as possible, although at first they had a hard time pinpointing our location since we don't live in a village.
I gave them our longitude and latitude, but they requested that when I heard the chopper I shine a spotlight to help them find us. (There's an awful lot of wilderness and water around us.) This was at 1 am. They got to us at 3:30 am. When I heard the chopper I left off rubbing my mom's back, to keep her calm, and while my dad rigged the spotlight to a battery I stood outside pointing it skyward. "I feel like the Statue of Liberty," I said and my mom, who was thoroughly exhausted by this time, managed a weak chuckle. The helicopter found us, but circled awhile to scout out the area, tree height and other hazards, before stopping above us.
Their SAR (search and rescue) helicopter can produce sustained winds of 150 miles per hour from the ground wash of their blades. Our houses were floating when they hovered overhead and we were instantly slammed by a ferocious, extremely localized hurricane. Everything not tied down, and some things that were tied down, went flying. There was as much saltwater in the air as rain, making it hard to see despite their brilliant floodlights. My parents' house was jerking and shuddering and straining on its mooring lines. When we opened the front door everything in the house took off--plants, pictures, books, etc.--and crashed onto the floor. I held my mom with my back to the buffeting wind and spray/rain at the open door, trying to protect her.
We thought the basket would be lowered and we'd get her in it and they'd be off (hopefully before the roof came off), but that wasn't the plan. They lowered a rescue swimmer onto my parents' tongue of a dock and he was nearly blown off by the incredible winds. He got to the house and had us shut the door and have my mom sit down and rest while he got everything arranged.
He took off his visored helmet and introduced himself as Jonathan, USCG Rescue Swimmer. He looked about 19, dark hair, dark, level eyes, Hollywood handsome--which somehow made it all seem surreal, like we were in a movie--was extremely calm, kind, and listened attentively despite the deafening roar of the helicopter, wind, and things being blown away and crashing around outside.
"How are you doing?" he asked my mom (and me, with a slight glance in my direction to let me know he understood that I might have been having a rough time, too). My mom nodded, unable to speak, and I said, "Well, it's a little out of our usual routine."
He smiled and was very gentle and reassuring with my mom as he attached the portable oxygen tank to her while at the same time communicating with the helicopter pilot, requesting that they gain some altitude since we were suffering some pretty strong wind damage and, he informed them, he'd barely been able to stand up outside and he had to get the patient out there.
The helicopter didn't respond and it didn't gain altitude. He looked at his waterproof handheld, but didn't repeat himself. Instead, he turned to me and explained what needed to be done. He might have been standing in his bathroom shaving for all the excitement he displayed with the house jerking and shaking and things falling and crashing around him. He went to my mom and allowed that things might "seem" a bit exciting, but she should keep calm since that would be best for her breathing. She nodded, her eyes clinging to his, and I could tell she was reassured despite the scary things that were happening to her house. I'd defy anyone to have a fit of hysteria with him in the same room.
He went back outside (my dad was outside this whole time--he had to hang onto the door from the outside to keep the door shut!) to direct the landing of the rescue basket about two yards or so from the door, to make it as short a journey for my mom as possible. He grounded the basket, to discharge the static charge it had picked up in the air, by slamming it into my parents' steel barbecue bolted to their dock. I rounded up a warm blanket (per his instructions) and a bag for my mom, including her current medications he'd said they'd need to look at on board the helicopter. When I saw that the rescue basket was down I gave my mom another puff from the inhaler (also according to his instructions) and got her on her feet.
My dad opened the door and things started flying again. We got her outside, with me carrying the blanket, her bag and the portable oxygen tank, and were instantly blinded, deafened and breathless. Rain and spray slashed our faces and the wind was incredible, like nothing I'd ever experienced and I've been in a few high windstorms that clocked in over a hundred miles per hour.
The rescue swimmer met me and led my mom to the huge steel basket. My dad held onto me and the door to keep me from blowing away. Beside me a 25 gallon steel propane tank, almost as tall as I am, took off and landed in the water.
I had to step away from my dad's support to get the oxygen tank, which was still attached to my mom by the hose, to the rescue swimmer. He was tenderly helping her into the basket and tucked the blanket around her. I had to grab his shoulder to keep from being knocked overboard and he looked up, thinking I needed to tell him something, but he realized what the problem was and got the bag and oxygen off me as quickly as possible. But with their weight gone I was even more vulnerable to the power of the wind and had to drop onto my knees next to him and hold onto the basket to keep from being tossed aside like so much debris.
"Get in the house!" he yelled to me. I didn't have a chance to say anything to my mom or try to reassure her, but I figured he was up to the job. I had to crawl on my hands and knees back to my dad. He opened the door and threw me inside and remained outside, holding the door shut. I tried to watch, to make sure my mom made it up to the helicopter all right, but my eyes started burning and I began choking and retching. When I turned around to see what the problem was all I saw was a solid wall of white. The helicopter was directly overhead and its rotor wash was slamming the smoke down my parents' chimney and forcing it in a flood out the woodstove's door. I staggered blindly to the back door and cracked it enough to breathe. I had to hold onto it with both hands to keep it from being ripped loose in the wind.
The worst part was I couldn't see what was going on with my mom. My dad told me later that she was hoisted straight up without any problems. My mom said it was like a surreal nightmare. Freezing cold despite the blanket and how warmly I'd bundled her up in clothes, coat, hat and scarf, the basket swinging one way then spinning the other, and the too-bright, artificial light in the wilderness lighting up her house below her.
A line with a snap was lowered for the rescue swimmer. He clipped it to his harness and motioned for the helicopter to hoist him up. My dad said they weren't as careful with him as they'd been with my mom and clipped the edge of the house--he had to kick himself away from it. Then they dragged him into the tree tops before they finally pulled him clear. When he was aboard they headed straight for Ketchikan.
I called my brother Robin to have him meet her. He told us later that when the helicopter landed the Coast Guard cordoned off 500 feet of street because the ground wash could flip over a car. After standing out in that wind, I believe it.
We spent the rest of the night--morning, rather--retrieving things from the water, like the propane tank. When the tide went out we found everything else that had been blown away and stacked it on the dock, and tried to fix what wind damage we could.
My mom said that everyone aboard the helicopter was extremely kind and that the rescue swimmer never left her side, making eye contact and smiling reassuringly, holding her hand and then squeezing it when it was time to put her in the ambulance. My dad called the Coast Guard headquarters to recommend that he be commended.
As it turned out the lower part of my mom's lungs had "pancaked," collapsed, and with the addition of a virus she'd picked up her lungs hadn't been able to handle it. The hospital was able to fix all that, though, and she was out of the hospital the next day and back home a couple days later.
One more save for the Alaskan branch of the US Coast Guard.
Tara Neilson (ADOW)