"NINETEEN, TALK TO ME!"
by Barrett T. "Tom" Beard ©1995
Extracted from "Wonderful Flying Machines: A History of U.S. Coast Guard Helicopters" -- Naval Institute Press. Reprinted by permission of the author
The saga of Petty Officer Michael Odom, a REAL Coast Guard Hero.....
U.S. Coast Guard petty officer, Michael Odom, dropped earlier from a helicopter, knows he is dying. Alone in a life raft tossed by the stormy- winter Atlantic Ocean, 350 miles east of Savannah, Georgia, he lies exhausted after struggling to save three lives. Waves hurl him repeatedly, cartwheeling him from the raft. Ingested saltwater empties his stomach, body is cramping from violent retching. His core temperature is reaching a fatal level.
For fifty minutes he struggles pulling panicked sailors to the rescue basket, from seas piling as high as three story buildings driven by forty knot winds. He watches them soar to safety and disappear inside the helicopter above. Suddenly, as the third man reaches sanctuary in the sky, the hoist cable, Odomís lifeline, breaks. Minutes later, he can only watch, bewildered, as the helicopter, low on fuel, disappears into the storm-filled night. There is no rescue for the rescuer. He knows it. He can only wait and prepare for his death.
Hours later, his numbed mind, in the twilight of consciousness, focuses on one thought. He wants "them to find my body." In a final struggle, he ties himself to the life raft then escapes the tempest succumbing to the darkness of oblivion.
ASM1 Odom completes his checklist for the water rescue of survivors from the sailboat, MIRAGE. The sailors are briefed on the radio by Lt. Matt Reid piloting a circling Coast Guard HC-130H Hercules, a four engine turboprop transport airplane, and Lt. Jay Balda the pilot of Odomís HH-60J Jayhawk, twin turbine helicopter, on what to expect. Odomís intentions are to be in the water just aft of the sinking sailboat and to grab each sailor as he jumps. Unexpectedly, at the last moment, just before the five begin their leap into the sea, the sailboatís captain, still in the cabin, radios he will not leave. The other four on deck do not know this.
This radio call is relayed to the Coast Guard Search and Rescue Coordinator in Miami by the C-130. Immediately, the SAR coordinator responds with the instructions, "The helo (will) rescue all of them or none." The SAR coordinatorís conclusion from the sailboatís radio message is that conditions are stable, now that the storm has passed, and the risk of pulling five men from the sea is greater than having them stay with the boat. Odom waits for the MIRAGE crewís next response. He sits in the crew entrance door of the hovering helicopter, legs and feet with frog like flippers dangling in space. He watches the nearby sailboat, MIRAGE churning in the waves, illuminated by the helicopterís bow light. This situation has the appearance of yet another non-event.
It is similar to many; like the earlier case flown a few hours earlier soon after he came to work this evening, or rather since it is now almost 1:20 in the morning, yesterday. Odom expected a non-flying night. Work waits for him in his shop. However, the assigned rescue swimmer suffers from a virus, and Odom, the shopís supervisor, takes his flight duty. Soon after Odom starts work, he is "scrambled" with the crew of a helicopter heading for a ship reported sinking off the North Carolina coast. Odom rides the hour and fifteen-minute flight in the helicopter out over the storm-battered Atlantic dressed in his blue, red, and yellow swimmerís dry suit, prepared for action that does not come. A Coast Guard vessel arrives to assist. The distress is canceled. The helicopter goes home. He sees no action.
Back in his survival equipment shop, he eats a quick supper in his shopís office of pizza brought in from the local pizza parlor, does "a little work around the shop and some paperwork."
In those same moment's 320 miles to the southeast, terror numbs the crew of the forty-foot racing type sailboat MIRAGE on the third day out from St. Augustine, Florida, en route to the Virgin Islands. Most in the crew feel death is a certainty.
A strong winter front is sweeping down the Atlantic coast. The men have little experience to cope with its effects. On the second day out the engine fails. Batteries can not be charged. Their food supply, mostly in frozen dinners is thawing. Winds are fresh on the first day, stronger than most have experienced. Instead of the expected drop off in velocity, winds grow in intensity, building waves. MIRAGEís crewman, Mark Cole thinksóand hopesóthat the storm will pass quickly as storms he remembers do on the Kentucky lakes where he acquired his boating experience. It is the relentless rising wind and building seas that alarm the five man crew. It does not stop. Three days pass. It only worsens.
The electric autopilot does not workócorrosion in the boatís electrical system. More insidious effects are erupting from neglected maintenance. Sitting in dry storage in a yard suffering from the Florida climate for nearly a year, MIRAGE was hastily launched and rigged out. A shakedown trial sail is skipped before challenging the Atlantic. The crew is unfamiliar with the boat. The wind-driven self-steering vane does work for a time when the winds are mild, but Cole says "nobody (has) used one before." It does not work when the winds increase. With the lack of autopilots, each man must take turns steering the wildly surging boat.
This routine takes its toll in energies. First, they take two-hour stints, later fatigue drives them to refuge in their bunks more frequently. Appetites abate. Food preparation becomes impossibility in MIRAGEís small gyrating galley. Rest is impossible. Thomas Steier, the boat's owner muses, "I guess we (are) a bunch of landlubbers." By the third day, all are suffering from the lack of nourishment and "pretty fatigued."
Then the savagery of the storm finally hits. "It just (starts) picking up and picking up and picking up and the waves (keep) getting bigger and skies getting darker," Cole pauses, searching for words that do not exist, describing the enormity of his plight, then rambles on repeating phrases, "and we (are) getting toward evening. The seas (keep) getting higher."
Darkness adds gloom to an already frightening seascape. "It wasnít pitch black. It was just dark." Cole can still see "waves coming behind the boat, and breaking, and wondering just how much higher these waves (are) going to be." Down below, in the cabin where three crewmen cower from the storm, Cole says the noise is "just incredible, you just canít imagine being on a boat and having these kinds of sounds."
The winds reach fifty knots when the front passes, then instantly shift direction from their southwesterly course to the west-northwest. A confused wave pattern surges from the new, arctic driven winds. These galloping waves impose themselves on the diminishing waves from the steady tropical winds of the past three days, creating a confusing tumble of dangerous peaks in already mountainous waves. And the occasional rouge wave.
Allen Brugger, the forty-foot sailboatís captain, takes the helm about dark. His crew is incapable of steering in these conditions. Brugger steers for about three hours until a confluence of waves towering "fifty feet" tumbles over and plunges the small fiberglass shell beneath countless tons of roiling water. The boat succumbs to the seaís violence. It rolls about 120 degrees as the wave tumbles over it shoving it beneath the surface.
At this moment, 320 miles northwest at Elizabeth Cityís Coast Guard Air Station, Odom, a rescue swimmer, takes his first bite of pizza.
The wave passes; white water boils in its wake. Slowly, the white hull struggles upright, at the same time popping back to the surface shuddering and shaking off water cascading across its decks like a Labrador retrieverís first shake reaching the shore. Everything lashed to the deck, including the fabric "dodger" is swept away.
Cole, trying to sleep, is thrown across the cabin when the wave rolls over them. He describes the feeling as being in a room suddenly flung into the air. He recovers unsteadily and glances into the new surreal world where there is no up or down. Anything familiar is now jumbled in space with a new element tossed in, seawater. It is "just a mess. Everythingófood, clothing, flooring, everything." Two to three feet of water sloshes throughout the bottom of the now nearly upright boat mixing in the ingredients formerly used for sustenance and comfort with loose pieces of cabin structure and cushions. Adding confusion for the three men trying to regain footing in the cacophony, a meaningless mixture of debris, cabin lights start going out, shorted by saltwater in the electrical system.
Cole is the first to burst out of the cabin into the cockpit expecting to find it emptyówith Brugger and his friend Fred Neilson washed away. Brugger is still at the wheel holding on, staring ahead; Neilson is gone, washed overboard. Cole then sees him, upside-down, dragging along behind the boat still hooked on by his safety harness. Next, in a devastating vision, one that caps his rising fear into full blown terror, Cole watches their only hope for survival, the life raft, disappearing into the darkness, rolling and tumbling with the winds across the spume washed waves. Anticipating its possible need earlier in the day, the raft was moved into the cockpit and lashed to the steering wheel column. They used the only spare line available, the lanyard that also inflates the raft. The wave, when it hits, washes the raft overboard. The lanyard immediately reaches its limit, tugs the firing mechanism and punctures the charge that inflates the raft. The lanyard then slips free from its lubberís knot leaving the winds to drive the raft into the night.
Brugger and Cole pull a panic-stricken Neilson back on board. He goes below in near hysteria.
It is sometime after eight p.m. and shortly after the boat rights itself when crewmember Dave Denman, a private pilot, figures out how to operate the SSB HF radio (single sideband high frequency transmitter). No one is familiar with its operation or of the EPIRB (emergency position indicating radio beacon). It never works; they do not know to attach the antenna.
At 8:30 p.m. EST, 23 January 1995, the Coast Guard radio stations at Hampton Roads and Cape May copy a MAYDAY on 2182-kilohertz emergency frequency from Denman in MIRAGE. Coast Guard units are alerted from Miami to Norfolk. This offers no solace. The MIRAGE crew knows they are to die soon in the cold Atlantic. The boat is sinking, their life raft is gone and in this storm, no one can offer any aid, even if help might arrive in time.
They pump water out of the wallowing hull, more comes in. After thirty minutes most of the water is out, but more comes. Cole suspects a cracked hull. It is futile. They report to the Coast Guard that they cannot stay afloat.
The crew begins a deathwatch. Brugger, the professional mariner, a charter boat captain with a Coast Guard issued license, tries cheering the hapless crew. He even suggesting they might float on the boatís cushions after it sinks. Float for what? The nearest merchant ship is three hours away and a Navy submarine is 150 miles off. They do not know this.
It is the sight of the Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth Cityís (North Carolina) HC-130H, CGNR 1502, arriving overhead three hours later that brings the first relief from the helpless panic. Cole later relates, "When the boat rolled, I thought we were sunk. I thought this was the end. I truly didnít think weíd make it. Not until the Coast Guard flew over the first time in the C-130. Somebody found us."
Lt. Matt Reid, aircraft commander in the C-130 guides Lt. Jay Balda flying the H-60 to the sailboat, trudging along the track at half the C-130s three hundred-knot pace. Balda makes a nine-minute stop en route at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point topping off the fuel tanks prior to jumping offshore.
The Jayhawk, Coast Guard number CGNR 6019, moves over MIRAGE at 1:10 a.m., watching the boat whipped by the maelstrom. The helicopter crew is ready for action. It has fuel enough now to remain about fifty minutes. Reid in the C-130, CGNR 1502 tells Balda, the "master of vessel declined pumps and survival kits offered by the CGNR 1502." Instead the "master requested to be removed from vessel," because of flooding from an unknown source.
Balda can not hover over the boat to retrieve its occupants. Lowering the rescue basket to the deck of the sailboat is impossible. The wildly whipping mast is like a rapier thrust skyward deftly probing at intruders by the boatís violent lunging in the twenty-five foot waves and forty knot winds. As they watch, a wave suddenly swats the stricken craft sweeping it sideways the length of a basketball court.
The helicopterís crew conclude their only option for recovering the distressed sailors is to have each man jump in the water one at a time to be grasped by the waiting rescue swimmer and then loaded into the basket. They know the water is too wild for the men to get in the rescue basket unaided.
AMS3 Mario Vittone, backup rescue swimmer, observing from the cabin of the CGNR 6019, was the rescue swimmer on a similar case three months earlier. He grabbed four survivors from the water following their leap off the sailboat MARINE FLOWER II, 410 miles east of Norfolk, Virginia caught in the late season hurricane Gordon, churning the Atlantic waters between the US east coast and Bermuda. On this case, the Elizabeth City Jayhawk reached the scene by refueling aboard USS AMERICA on the way to the scene where they retrieved two adults, a 13 year-old girl and four-month-old boy strapped to his motherís chest.
The MIRAGEís crew is briefed by Reid in the C-130 on how the rescue is going to proceed. The helicopter arrives prepared, avoiding any wait costing precious fuel. MIRAGE is alerted, if "you donít come off now you will be beyond the range of helicopter rescue."
Then comes an unexpected call from the boat. The captain refused to jump overboard. This resolve, however, is unknown to the boatís other crewmembers already assembled on deck preparing to leap.
They had already strung a line as instructed, about fifty feet long, trailing aft with a boat fender tied to its free end. The rescue swimmer plans to hold onto this line and grab each man as he goes overboard. This procedure, however, means three hoists for each man lifted. The first hoist places the rescue swimmer in the water, the second pulls the survivor into the helicopter, and the third recovers the rescue swimmer for the move back to the boat for the next cycle. Confounding this recovery plan is Bruggerís decision to keep sail up. The racing sailboat barrels along with the tethered float bobbing and skipping off the water like an abandoned water ski rope towed behind a speedboat.
Caught by this new development with the captain refusing to jump, the helicopter crew aborts their plans. It is only a few moments since the message relayed from Miami is transmitted to MIRAGE telling it that ALL are to remain aboard if one intends to stay.
There is some confusion in the cabin of the helicopter CGNR 6019. They are not sure now if they are going to recover the boatís crew. Balda hauls the helicopter back off away from the sailboat to wait, wasting critical fuel. Odom does not go into the water. Watching the sailboat spotted by the helicopterís light, the crew is stunned to see the unexpected scenario in the waves.
Thirty seconds after CGNR 1502 sends the "remain aboard" message to MIRAGE, the crew on CGNR 6019 see Mark Cole jump into the water.
Cole struggles to hold onto the line "but the boat was going so fast...there was just no way to hold on to that line. And then I just let go." Odom is not in the water, as planned, with the rescue basket waiting to grab the survivor. As dark waters envelop Cole, Odom is still sitting in the cabin door watching with the same disbelief shared by the rest of his crew. Balda quickly pushes the helicopter forward, presses heavily on the right rudder peddle spinning the nose into the wind, simultaneously dropping into a hover keeping Cole in sight throughout the maneuver. Odom is hurriedly lowered into the water with the cable end snapped to his harness. The cable is retrieved, the basket attached, then lowered for him to catch after he swims to Cole.
The boat sails swiftly away and is out of Coleís sight immediately. The fifty-three degree water is shockingly cold much colder than Cole expects. The air temperature is falling to forty degrees. He still has on the cotton sweat suit, he put on at the start of the trip. Over it, he wears foul weather gear and two lifejackets, one inflatableóhe did not inflate. Almost before he can add new fears to his already terrified mind Cole feels Odom touch him. "It was a great feeling when that fellow put his arm around me," as Cole remembers.
Cole, like most of the MIRAGEís crew never before experienced the sea offshore on a small boat. Early during the voyage, apprehension over building winds and seas, became the foundation of fear. Fear turned to terror when he saw the boat (his world) sinking and the life raft, his only hope, scurrying away born by the winds, scudding, rolling, and skipping off into the tempest. He KNEW a terrifying death for him and his companions was only hours away. Now, however, with the neoprene dressed arm wrapped across his chest, he is released from that horror. His new world, though surrounded by cold dark swirling waters, now is the reality of flooding light from above, noise, the blast of air and spray from the helicopterís downwash, and a comforting voice saying he is OK. He is safe even in the maw of this man made tornado.
These moments are not easy for the rescue swimmer, Odom. He swims hard for the basket swinging below the helicopter while holding onto Cole. Balda, the helicopterís pilot, has no visual reference to hold a position. The plunging waves spewing spindrifts conveys a false sense of moving to him when the helicopter is motionless. It is the sensation many experience when parked in an automobile waiting at a crossing for a passing freight train. The thirty-five to forty knot winds are also trying to blow it away from that tiny spot on the water where Odomís arm is reaching, grasping.
Baldaís guidance comes from AD3 Mark Bafetti, the flight mechanic and hoist operator. He is viewing Cole, sighting down the cable, from the helicopterís open doorway aft of the cockpit on the starboard side. Bafetti is leaning in space kneeling on the cabin floor, restrained from pitching out by only a strap around his waist clipped to the helicopter. He calls out in steady-calm tones through the internal communications system (ICS), "back tenóright, back, backóhold, hold, holdóleft fiveóstop, hold." Balda applies slight pressures on his control stick almost wishing the helicopter in the directions called for by Bafetti. It is a world of inches.
Bafetti, holding on to the cable with his left hand, tries swinging the basket to Odom while at the same moment controlling its up and down movement matching the wave heights with a push button controller in his right hand. He is wary. He knows loose slack can be fatal to those in the water if the cable should make a loop and wrap around body parts and then go tight suddenlyóa giant garrote. Odom, swimming frantically holding on to Cole, just gets the basket at his fingertips when suddenly a wave drops him several feet and it is "jerked away."
After several attempts, Odom captures the basket and gets Cole in. But Cole will not sit down; he freezes and stops responding to instructions. Coleís head and shoulders are above the basketís bail as he wraps his arms around the bail placing his head, arms and torso next to the whipping cable. Suddenly the basket is violently jerked out of the water as a wave passes. Odom, in alarm "seriously feared we had broken his neck." Cole, miraculously still in the basket, ends back in the water on the next wave. Odom swims as hard as he can to Cole, unbelievably finding him OK. The basket starts up again but swings wildly with the cable striking the helicopterís airframe.
Cole is recovered safely after a twenty-minute struggle. Four MIRAGE crewmen still must be retrieved. Only thirty minutes fuel remains for the helicopter to stay on station. Odom is hoisted aboard. The helicopter does a quick turn and chases after the sailboat, now nearly a mile away down wind.
Steier is next. "Jumping off the boat," Steier says is "the hardest thing to do." At one point he nearly refuses to jump. "Not that Iíd want to go down with the boat, but jumping off the boat into that black water was the MOST difficult thing to do." He jumps. Odom, once more back in the water, grabs him in the swirling darkness penetrated only by the light from the hovering helicopter and says, "Hey as long as I got you nothingís going to happen to you, and Iím taking care of you and donít worry about it." Steier experiences difficulty squeezing his six foot two inch frame into the rescue basket in the tumbling seas. Finally, Odom releases him for the hoist and the basket is up about ten feet when a huge wave overwhelms Steier. "All of a sudden, I was under water" being jolted and jerked "and I kindaí had a snap when I came out of the water." Coming up now in the air, he swings in circles banging the bottom of the helicopter and fuel tank before he is pulled safely inside.
"Here is where a weird thing happens," explains Odom. The wave that swallows Steier "scared the heck out of me to the point where I was swimming like heck to get out of the way of the aircraft. Iíve never seen water so close to a helicopter....The flight mech jumped back in the aircraft and dropped his hoist unit and backed off." Odom explains, "The wave didnít hit them and they got back and picked me up. It was a good twenty-five to thirty-five footer." Odom, once again back aboard the aircraft for the run back to the sailboat, recommends to the pilot, Balda a higher hover altitude for the next hoist. Balda needs no encouragement. The entire crew saw the wave pass just inches below. Vittone observes Odom during their short passage together in the back of the helicopter and sees Odom is "fatigued." He asks, "Are you ready for me to go, Mike?" Odom responds with the portentous words, "One more. Let me have just one more."
Time and fuel are becoming critical. Nearly forty minutes elapses recovering the first two survivors. Less than ten minutes remain with three survivors still on the disabled sailboat. Pressure mounts.
The CGNR 6019 moves about a half-mile to the next survivor and climbs to a one hundred-foot hover to keep away from any more rogue waves. The third crewman from MIRAGE, Denman is in the water. As Odom goes down this time, swinging at the end of the long cable, he "hit the water hard, gasp for air and sucked seawater." He coughs and vomits while struggling to reach Denman. Odom, still vomiting, works him into the basket. The hoist operator, Bafetti, can not "retrieve and pay out slack fast enough to keep pace with the seas" while Odom is loading Denman in the basket. He has out nearly one hundred feet of cable, with the aircraft in a high hover. Bafetti is working hard keeping dangerous slack from forming loops in the cable but at the same time allowing enough slack to keep the basket from being jerked from Odomís hands as the waves constantly change the distance from the surface to the helicopter. As Denman, finally in the basket comes up, Vittone assist the hoist operator by lying on the cabin deck, using both hands, struggling "unsuccessfully to control the cable and keep it away from the aircraft." As the basket climbs toward the aircraft, it is swinging in wide circles. The cable, in its arcing, slams in to the 120 gallon fuel tank, hung out from the right side of the fuselage, then sweeps between the tank and fuselage, slides along the edge of the cabin door frame, flies out, hits the side of the tank, then repeats the arc.
Cable strands start popping. Vittone yells to Bafetti as he feels sharp spurs of small wires peeling off the cable. Denman is sixty to seventy feet above the churning seas dangling in the basket. Bafetti reacts and runs the hoist at full speed winding in the snarled cable to recover Denman quickly before it should snap and drops him to his death. Denman is trundled safely aboard as the co-pilot, Lt.(jg) Guy Pearce, announces "six minutes to bingo." Only six minutesí fuel remains until the helicopter must leave. Broken cable strands jam the hoist mechanism. Emergency procedures do not free the metallic Medusa. The hoist no longer works.
Odom, still in the water, can not be recovered. Bafetti attempts signaling Odom by flashlight to call back on his radio. Odom does not respond. The pilot flashes hover lights; a signal meaning the aircraft crew no longer sees the rescue swimmer. It is not true, but it is their only signal to indicate a problem to the man in the water. Odom confused, believing they lost sight of him fires a flare and attaches his strobe light to the top of his head. The co-pilot calls "bingo."
Odom bewildered, watching the helicopter, sees the rescue basket drop into the sea. The Jayhawk is drifting around in a hover about two hundred yards away. Other equipment falls from the helicopter. The 6019 crew is ditching equipment. Odom then sees the DMB (Datum Marker Buoy) drop into the water. This floating radio transmitter is used to track drift, hopefully of objects in the vicinity. "I looked at that and it didnít look right." Odom thinks, "Thereís something wrong." Fear grips him. He does not know what is happening. He can not understand how they could not see him. With a sinking heart, he can only mutter a choked, "Oh, NO." Slowly the Jayhawk moves back over him. Looking up, he can only see the glare of lights overhead. He can not see the faces twenty-five feet away looking back. The H-60 crew tries to figure a method to recover Odom. They are out of time. Nothing! It is seven minutes past bingo. They have to leave now for their own survival; Odom must be left behind, abandoned in this fearsome space alone, unrecoverable.
Petty Officer Vittone, Odomís best friend and in their "personal life...pretty much connected at the hip," kicks out a life raft, closes the cabin door and leaves Odom alone to the unmerciful ocean, bewildered. The life raft lands within armís reach. The helicopter waits until Odom inflates it and climbs aboard. Odom says later, Vittone watches him as the helicopter slowly accelerates into forward flight.
Darkness once again surrounds Odom on the tumbling surface with the lights from the vanishing helicopter going out, "So it was an extremely emotional--." Odom does not finish the sentence. A long pause. "Thereís a lot of stress at this point," emotion etches his voice. Odom pauses once more, then starts speaking in bolder tones,
I know how far offshore I am, and I know thereís no other rescue resources backing them up. And Iím thinking to myself, thereís no way, thereís no way. And the aircraft takes off. And I see them disappear into the night. At this point I got on my radio and screaming, Ďnineteen talk to me! Whatís going on? Nineteen talk to me!í Iím talking to them on the radio and Iím stressed. And Iím not hearing from them.
Both were tying to talk at the same time blocking each otherís transmissions.
MIRAGE owner Steier, huddled shivering in the rear of the helicopter cabin, remembers after Denman came into the cabin, the door is closed. To the new passengers, it feels as if the helicopter remains in its hover waiting. They wonder, waiting for what? They know their two crewmates still remain on the boat and Odom is in the water. "We had no idea whatís going on. I looked over at one of the Coast Guard lieutenants (sic) in the back and he had tears in his eyes. And I didnít have any idea what in the world was goiní on." Steier remembers being cold from his wet clothing and it was dark, but looking at Vittone he still can see "his eyes were all watery."
Odom alone, with only the seemingly impotent circling Hercules overhead, sits in his raft. It is a raft HE recently re-packed for use in saving other lives, one of his jobs as a survival equipment technician. His emotional state is still high minutes later when a large swell slams into the life raft and hurls him back into the sea. Now he is the survivor.
Odom swims swiftly after it, grabbing it before the winds and seas can snatch it away forever. He clambers aboard and is again trying to find the lanyard to attach himself to the raft when it is struck violently once more, tossing him back into the tumbling water rolling with froth. Recapturing it once more, he slithers aboard, "exhausted, physically ill, unable to talk to the helo, having no idea what happened and knowing that he (is) three hundred miles offshore and another helo couldnít reach him for at least four hours," Odom becomes "understandably panicked."
Reid, piloting the circling C-130, CGNR 1502, has been out just over four hours. Fuel remaining is a concern. He is ordered to return to base but the C-130 crew is not going to leave their shipmate, Odom, alone. The Herculesí crew does not know how long they must wait. A relief Coast Guard C-130 is being readied to fly out from Clearwater, Florida. It will not arrive, however, before the time all the fuel in CGNR 1502 is exhausted. Reid defies orders to return, shuts down two of his four engines to conserve what fuel remains, and continues to circle Odom for as long as he can. This orbiting white and red Coast Guard transports with its crew of seven keeps Odom alive during the bleak hours of darkness before the dawn.
Odom finally is attached to the raft and is still very sick. Seasickness and depression begins consuming him. He knows the only two Jayhawks that might reach him are both out of commission in the hangar at Elizabeth City. The Marines at MCAS Cherry Point have nothing that can come this far to sea. A Navy Cruiser, the USS TICONDEROGA, with a SH-60B Seahawk aboard is beyond its aircraftís range from Odom, also. The cruiser, however, starts steaming fast towards Odomís position closing that gap. In the meantime crew from the cruiser pushes the helicopter from the shipís hangar, unfold the rotors and unfold the empennage. The task is burdensome. The TICONDEROGA is buffeted and is heaving in the same storm. It takes time; time that Odom does not have. A merchant ship, the M/S DILETTA F alerted by the Coast Guard through the AMVER (Automated Merchant Vessel Reporting) system turns and steams for the lone swimmer. Odom can not hold out much longer. He is weakening; body strength going and mind whipped with emotion.
Odom says the C-130 "comes up on the radio." His only lifeline now is the small handheld radio. "You all right, Mike?" The co-pilot, Lt. Mark Russell, in the orbiting C-130, CGNR 1502 calls. He reports to Odom another plane is on the way. This is not true. It is over an hour before two more C-130s and an H-60 are launched at 3:35 a.m. Furthermore, the Navy is not close enough and does not launch its SH-60 from TICONDEROGA until 6:06 a.m.
"You can make it," Russell asserts with unfound boldness. Russell, according to Odom, "starts developing a mental attitude for me." Russell asks if Odom wants any equipment dropped and then says they will drop flares. This "calms me down a lot. And at this point we actually joked around a little bit." Together on the radio, they recall a rumored incident months earlier where a Coast Guard aircraft drops a flare that accidentally falls into the raft of Cubans. Odom reminds Russell, "Remember, Iím not a Cuban."
The lighthearted banter works. "Weíre actually joking around a little bit and (it calms) me down quickly." Flares drop around Odom, these small pyrotechnic candles floating on the waves nearby light up the bleakness of the night and his mind.
The reverie suddenly ends. "Another wave crashes over and back in the water I go." This time he does not have to swim for the raft. He is finally attached by the lanyard. But Odom is much weaker. It is more difficult for him to clamber back in the raft. He can not keep water bailed out; he sloshes in his miniature six foot round pond.
Panic takes over. He screams on the radio that he needs "help fast!" The seas are wearing him down. He questions how much longer he can fight the seas and is now constantly on his knees in the raft vomitingódry heaves.
Russell suggests Odom open the emergency survival pack with the raft and drink some of the fresh water. He can not get it open, then remembers his knife. That idea he immediately discards for fear of accidentally jabbing the heaving, tumbling raft. He removes a glove to untie the line closing the survival equipment envelope. The glove washes overboard. Finally he gets to a plastic bag of water, tears it open with his teeth and drinks it. He immediately regurgitates. "The water taste like--." Odom stops in mid-sentence. He can not describe the taste. He tells Russell on the radio "if anything comes from this rescue, they need better water in the raft." Odomís humor returns. They all join in laughter over the radio, a tinny sound that sustains life. Odom offers to trade places with Russell.
Levity is not sustainable. His gut still cramps violently reminding him of the overwhelming reality of his situation. Russell is busy also, assisting the pilot Reid flying the airplane, with two of its engines shut down at low altitude in stormy night skies, while at the same time managing the communications to Miami and Elizabeth City. The flight engineer sitting between the C-130sí pilot and co-pilot, AD1 Berry Freeman, friend and shipmate of Odomís starts talking on the radio. "And he was wonderful." Odom is reaching critical stages in survival. The numbing coldness overwhelms him. He passes through the shivering stage. This alarms him. He knows the signs from his training as an emergency medical technician. He knows now he has little time left. It is Freeman that keeps a spark of life going during this critical period with his commanding presence. "That man was just amazing on the radio. I cannot stress it enough." This fragile electronic link is soon severed.
Odom is still convulsing, trying to throw up but with nothing more to release from his tortured stomach. He is dehydrated, body temperature is falling, and weakening rapidly. His thoughts turn to death. His limbs now are numb. His hands are drawing up. He stops talking on the radio because he can no longer lift the small handheld radio to his mouth. He is losing his vision.
He tries to focus on the low flying C-130 as it sweeps toward him in its racetrack pattern low overhead. He sees the lights, thinks it's the helicopter finally coming. The plane rolls out and he sees the lights at the wingtips spread wide apart knowing it's the C-130 but still hoping it is the helicopter. Finally expectation for rescue is gone.
"Theyíve given me no indication that the helo is anywhere in the area so I started thinking to myself the things you think before you die. I think about my family. I think about my ex-wife. I think, Iím glad itís me, I have no kids, and I have no wife and most of the guys in my shop do have a wife." Then the thirty-year-old Houston, Texas native, Odom makes his final commitment. He does not want to be thrown from the raft when he dies so he ties himself in face up. At least his tortured mind reasons "they will be able to find my body." Odom knows from his own experience the frustrations of body searches. He does not want the Coast Guard wasting "all the resources for days searching" for his body. Odom knows his shipmates will try.
The relief Hercules, CGNR 1504, arrives from Elizabeth City at 4:36 a.m. and relieves CGNR 1502. In the newly arrived airplane is Odomís boss, Lt.(jg) Dan Rocco, the co-pilot. The Clearwater Hercules, CGNR 1714, diverts north to intercept the Elizabeth City Jayhawk, CGNR 6034, refueling at MCAS Cherry Point prior to turning offshore en route to Odomís location. Station policy requires a fixed wing aircraft cover when helicopters venture beyond fifty miles off the coast at night. The Clearwater C-130 escorts the H-60, CGNR 6034 for thirty minutes passing its covering responsibility to the Elizabeth City Hercules, CGNR 1504 and diverting to search for MIRAGE at 0545 a.m. After relocating MIRAGE it takes up its vigil there orbiting until the MIRAGE distress case is resolved.
The last thing Odom remembers is "the C-130 coming over extremely low. It was hard to focus on it." His vision is going. The aircraftís crew looks hard to see if Odom is still with the raft and if he might respond by waving or moving as the aircraft flies low overhead. He has been off the radio for too many minutes. In the glare from their landing lights they see a lifeless body. The helicopter is still fifty minutes away.
Earlier during the night, phones are busy in Elizabeth City recalling crews. The station bustles with daytime like activity. Crews have to get the second Hercules up to relieve the CGNR 1502. Mechanics have to repair the Jayhawk, CGNR 6034 so it can fly. It requires a test flight, not permissible at nighttime. The air stationís commanding officer Captain Stanley J. Walz waives the requirement. Lt.Comdr. Bruce Jones then races the helicopter CGNR 6034 out to Odomís position. The crew of this rescue Jayhawk soon experiences a life threatening encounter. Flying at seven thousand feet to conserve fuel, the aircraft suddenly runs into icing. The helicopter blades take on ice rapidly. Vibrations shudder through the airframe; control becomes difficult. They drop to a lower altitude, loose the ice, regain control, and continue.
Lt.Comdr. Dan Osborn, the pilot of relief Hercules, CGNR 1504, overhead Odom directs Jones's helicopter to the raft positions. The merchant vessel DILETTA F also arrives at the scene as the storm filled eastern sky begins to lighten with the dawn. While it cannot pick up Odom, it offers itself as a wind and sea break to assist the hovering helicopter in Odomís retrieval.
The Jayhawk settles in a hover above the drifting life raft at 6:13, four hours and fifty minutes after Odom first went into the water. The helicopter crew sees the lifeless figure of Odom in the raft in a sitting position. It is over an hour since he transmitted his last words on his radio to Freeman. He kept repeating, "Iím cold, Iím cold."
Rescue swimmer, ASM3 Jim Peterson drops down from the hovering CGNR 6034 into the raft with his friend, Odom. Straddling him, he shouts in Odomís face and vigorously rubs his chest. Odom remains motionless, his head rigid, twisted to one side. Next, Peterson inserts his hand beneath the Odomís hood to check the carotid pulse. At that moment Odomís arm comes up in an unconscious effort reaching out to his rescuer. He is alive! Quickly Peterson snaps Odomís harness to his harness and the two are lifted together. As they start up, the liferaftís webbing tangles and snags Petersonís arm. The raft loaded with water rises with the two adding a critical load to the helicopterís hoist and cable. Peterson, after "several sharp tugs" frees them from this deadly trap. The sea gives up. They are recovered into the hovering helicopter with Odom still unconscious.
Meanwhile, miles away, the two MIRAGE crewmen are still aboard the distressed sailboat waiting for evacuation with Clearwaterís C-130, CGNR 1714 circling overhead. Jones, the aircraft commander of CGNR 6034, with Odom just recovered and in the helicopter is ordered to pick these two up. He reports the condition of Odom and the urgency for medical attention. He is then directed to bring Odom to a hospital over two hours away. He elects instead, to proceed to the TICONDEROGA, now one hundred and fifty miles away, to drop Odom off for more immediate medical attention, refueling at the same time. After this mid-ocean stop, he can continue back to the MIRAGE with his escort, the CGNR 1504, make the pick up and make it back to an airport.
Odomís body temperature is 92.5 degrees F. when he is pulled aboard the helicopter. The crew in the back of CGNR 6034 cut Odomís survival suit off including his thermal undergarments, wrap him tightly in blankets, and start him breathing oxygen. Elizabeth City air station has three thermal recovery capsules for this type of emergency, a unit critically needed now for Odomís survival. All of them are in the Jayhawk CGNR 6019 that left him behind which is presently sitting on deck at Wilmington, North Carolina.
The co-pilot in CGNR 6034, Lt.(jg) Dan Molthen runs the cabin temperature controller up to maximum heat "which was just smoking those fellows in survival suits." Odom later remarks, "It must have been a hundred plus degrees inside the cabin." During the one hour and ten minute flight to the cruiser, Odom recovers consciousness and his temperature climbs to 97.1 degrees. Navy corpsman aboard TICONDEROGA treats Odom for his exposure. His recovery is rapid but he remains aboard for the next twenty-four hours.
Meanwhile, the two crewmen aboard MIRAGE are still claiming they are in distress and want helicopter evacuation. Jones is unaware of the sailboatís captain previous refusal to jump from the vessel, so he proceeds to retrieve the two. Fred Neilson, who suffers physically and emotionally from his being tossed overboard now over thirteen hours earlier, is eager to leave the boat. However, the captain, Brugger again refuses the helicopterís evacuation when it arrives. Boat crewmember, Mark Cole claims, as a possible reason, Brugger has personal belongings aboard for his move to the Virgin Islands. Some items are family heirlooms. Jones informs him no other assistance will be provided and leaves with just Neilson aboard the helicopter.
The following day, the Navyís SH-60B Seahawk, aboard TICONDEROGA returns Odom to MCAS Cherry Point where he is fetched home by his unitís aircraft to a welcome by "all hands" and a cup of hot chocolate offered by Capt. Walz.
Odom returns to work the next day. Three days later he is flying on another rescue mission. He still eats pizza, his favorite meal, but is eating a different brand.
"Captain" Brugger sails on after the Coast Guard Jayhawk and Hercules leaves him alone on the stormy Atlantic, arriving at his destination in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands safely after a seventeen-day passage. He is readying the boat to haul passengers for hire in the popular winter charter service.
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