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Friday, March 28, 2008 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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For rescue crew, no time to think of risk — just act

Seattle Times staff reporter

Perched at the cabin door of a Coast Guard helicopter hovering over the Bering Sea, Petty Officer 2nd Class O'Brien Hollow had only a moment to think about his own situation:

"One thought that went through my head was, 'Am I going to make it back into the helicopter?' But then you revert to your training and do what you need to do."

Just before Hollow, 33, descended into the pre-dawn darkness Sunday toward the Alaska Ranger crewmen bobbing below, he turned to his own three crew mates aboard the HH-60 Jayhawk helicopter and said, "Let's be safe."

With that, Hollow hooked into a harness and, wearing a drysuit, snorkel and helmet, was lowered 50 feet through a snow squall into the 36-degree water by a flight mechanic, Petty Officer 2nd Class Robert Debolt, 28, of Walla Walla.

Like Hollow, Debolt had plucked people from the water in "advanced rescue swimmer school," but never in a real emergency. "I just had to focus on the job at hand," said Debolt, who operated a winch extending from the side of the helicopter. "I wanted to get O'Brien in the best possible position."

3 a.m. call to action

Just hours earlier, Debolt, Hollow and their two pilots — who were the first rescuers to reach the Ranger's crew — were asleep at their remote Coast Guard station at St. Paul Island.

The factory trawler's "mayday" call just before 3 a.m. had them scrambling into their gear and driving through blowing snow to the helicopter hangar. They fired up the Jayhawk's twin jet engines and started the 230-mile flight south, monitoring radio traffic as the stricken fishing vessel continued to take water from the stern.

Pilot Lt. Steve Bonn and aircraft commander Lt. Brian McLaughlin were at the controls. During the flight, Hollow, who lives in Kodiak, worked as radio officer while Debolt readied the rescue equipment.

By the time they reached the scene at about 5:30 a.m., the Ranger had sunk.

"We didn't see the vessel at all," Hollow said. "We saw a sea of flashing white lights, strobe lights — like the lights of a small city."

Each of the dozens of lights marked the position of a Ranger crew member. Some were in life rafts; some floated alone. Six were in a human chain, their arms locked together.

By the end of the morning, four of the boat's 47-person crew would die of hypothermia; a fifth was lost at sea.

For 50 minutes, the crew of the Jayhawk would perform the complicated and delicate task of lifting 13 Ranger survivors — one by one — into the chopper.

Hollow sought out those in the worst condition to lift first. "They were just so elated to see us, saying, 'Man, I'm glad you're here. I was praying.' "

Jockeying into position

Debolt would call instructions to the pilot to maneuver the helicopter into the best possible position for a survivor to be lifted and loaded. Debolt tossed a bulky pump and other nonessential gear into the ocean to make room for more passengers, whose survival suits, bloated with seawater, made them especially heavy.

Despite the noise from the engines and rotors, the survivors, once inside the helicopter, encouraged one another with "a camaraderie I would imagine you might see on a football team," Hollow said. But the relief was tempered with concern: "They were asking, 'Where's my buddy? Did everybody make it off the ship?' "

Hollow would rub his knuckles on the chests of the Ranger crew who were nodding off, figuring the more alert they were, the better their chances of staving off hypothermia.

Initially, the Jayhawk crew considered lowering the survivors to the sunken boat's sister ship, the Alaska Warrior, which had rushed to the scene and was also rescuing Ranger crew members. But the Warrior's deck was cluttered with equipment and coated with ice, making it too risky.

The chopper flew a half-hour to the approaching Coast Guard Cutter Munro, which had sent its own helicopter, a smaller HH-65 Dolphin, to the scene.

Too large to land on the cutter, the Jayhawk lowered its passengers the same way it had picked them up, one by one.

Afterward, a fuel hose was lifted from the boat to refuel the Jayhawk in midair. As it finished, a call came from the Dolphin, reporting that it was on its way with five more survivors but was rapidly running out of fuel.

"They called to the ship and said, " 'We're 36 minutes away from splash,' " Hollow said. "And they're still 20 minutes away. Simple math tells you they don't have much time to spare."

Back for another load

The Jayhawk then flew back to the disaster scene and picked up four more survivors, along with the Dolphin's rescue swimmer, Petty Officer 3rd Class Abram Heller, who had stayed behind in the water with Ranger crewmen. They, too, were flown safely to the cutter.

Only later, when the eight-hour mission was over, Hollow said, did the helicopter crew have a chance to reflect on the immensity of the operation. "If everyone had made it, that would be great. We'd be high-fiving all the way back," he said. 'But when you have a loss of life, you don't forget it. That's something that stays with you."

Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or jbroom@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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