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A Tale of One Who Came Back From the Dead

Posted on 13 September 2010 by John Rippo

For those who escape from a sinking ship, the battle for life is far from over. One struggles to stay afloat and conscious in spite of the cold. Desperate swimmers hunt for boats, rafts or wreckage that will hold them up long enough for rescuers to find them. Survivors do all they can to be noticed by other ships or planes overhead, and sometimes watch unbelieving as ships or planes pass them by—heedless of their screams and frantic waving.

In the intensely lonely hours left to those in the water, questions and terrors rise in survivors’ minds. Every man hopes he’s not alone out there and that his friends got away in time. He wonders if a distress call was made before the ship sank; one that gave its accurate position, and he hopes that it was heard by ships close by. He deludes himself that his situation and injuries aren’t so bad and silently worries that whatever he and fellow survivors do may not be enough to save them from death by drowning, freezing or any of the other ways the sea can kill them. He realizes that by saving himself from sinking in a steel coffin to the bottom he may only prolong his suffering on the surface. If he lasts long enough, he wonders why he is alive and why others are not. For those who survive sinkings, the time in the water is a unique and exquisite kind of torture and to those saved and landed ashore life is never the same again. For them, following the terror, loneliness and desperation, life is surreal; a strange blessing. Sailors refer to it as “coming back from the dead”.

Julio Morales works at a gas station at the corner of 16th and Market Streets downtown. The friendly, fortysomething Guatemalan native was once a crewman on a 184-foot long fishing trawler named the Alaska Ranger based in Dutch Harbor, Unalaska, that fished for every kind of catch available in the cold, northern seas. Alaska Ranger was a hard working boat that carried forty eight men for up to six weeks at a time; its catch was taken up in a long net flowing off the boat’s stern and as the net was wound back up into the huge reels that define the trawler’s form, the fish was sorted, gutted and stacked in gigantic freezers in the bow of the vessel. Boats of this kind a sort of floating factory and their machinery is complex and tempermental. Like all trawlers in the Bering Sea, Alaska Ranger had to contend with ice floes that endangered its progress. Julio Morales says that the impact of the ice thudding into Alaska Ranger’s bows was a likely cause for its later sinking. The boat was a kind of sea-going misfit, too. Originally built to service offshore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, Alaska Ranger’s flat bottom meant that it rode unusually hard, with a sloppy roll in rough weather. Its automatic engine controls would kick the engines into reverse if the bow hit anything and since bumping small icebergs was common, the boat was always shuddering to a stop and reversing itself. This tended to add lots of un-needed wear to the engines and propellor and contributed to the Alaska Ranger’s loss.

Alaska Ranger’s end came on Sunday, March 23, 2008. At around 2 in the morning, one of the crew heard an automatic alarm bell indicating a water sensor had tripped. Opening a watertight door, the man saw a foot of water in a space where no water should have been—one deck above the boat’s engine room, all the way aft near the rudder. “Hey, we’re flooding!” he called out to others watching a video in the galley. The words at first didn’t register; men blinked silently and stared and tried to convince themselves that they hadn’t heard what he said. The first mate, San Diego tunaman David Silveira came into the galley and told the men, “We’re taking on water in the ramp room. Go down there and do your jobs.” As it turned out, going to the ramp room, where the boat’s repair tools were kept was an exercise in futility, if not a death sentence. The room was already flooded and though several men ran in to activate the boat’s pumps, the freezing water up to their knees gave them leg cramps almost before they could activate them.
Julio was in his bunk and awoke from the alarm. He heard someone yell that they were flooding at the rudder. Getting out of his bunk, he met one of his bosses who told him to get ready to abandon ship. “Are you serious?” he asked. “We got to get out!” the man answered. “The rudder room is filling up!” Julio later explained that the Alaska Ranger was a victim of bumping into too much ice. This, he says, led to hammering of the engines, propeller shaft and the through-hull—a bearing sealed at both ends that supports the turning propellor shaft and and seals the outer, submerged side of the boat from the interior. The through-hull lost integrity and the unsupported propellor shaft likely tore the upright rudder post off the boat. It became clear immediately that Alaska Ranger had no steering ability, and this would have happened only if the upright rudder post and rudder had gone. Open to the sea at the stern, Alaska Ranger was done for. No one on board knew how long she might float, but those on deck could see she was down at the stern and the cold, black water was rising up to the main deck. It was time to go to the suits.

The “Gumby” Suits are thick neoprene, full body outfits that are pulled over clothes and zipped up. They look like a kid’s footed pajamas and are equipped with a hood, strobe light and whistle. They provide buoyancy and insulation even when immersed in cold water. But for them to work properly, the suits have to fit well and be free of rips or tears. Any water that gets inside reduces that the wearer’s life expectancy. Alaska Ranger’s suits were relatively new and had been tried on in some half-hearted training events before the boat left the dock, but this effort had damaged many of them. Julio Morales noticed that his had a rip at the seam of the left arm; another small tear graced the suit’s left ankle. It didn’t help that the suits were stiff with cold and since Alaska Ranger was losing power—and heat in the accomodation spaces—everyone was stiffening up and finding it harder to function. The wheelhouse was crowded with worried men dressing up in suits and to make room, the ones who were suited up went outside into the 40-mile per hour wind and snow. Julio watched as waves broke over the Alaska Ranger’s stern and flowed higher up the main deck toward the wheelhouse.

Some forty men stood on the icy deck, gripping the rail, smoking and waiting. With even their mouths and noses covered, it was hard to tell them apart. Julio scanned them, looking for his cousins, Marco and Byron. It was Byron’s first trip as a fisherman and he’d been on the boat only four days. Julio was worried about his younger cousin because he didn’t know how to swim.

While trying to tell his cousin Byron to tuck his hair in his Gumby suit, the Alaska Ranger took a sudden, violent lurch to starboard. Alaska Ranger suddenly went dark as the water shorted the AC generator and, true to her early form, the last power input to the engine was to kick the boat into reverse; she was going slightly astern when a wave crashed onto the stern and retreated with the boat’s net out onto the sea. The loss of the net was one more added danger to the men soon to be adrift since it could entangle swimmers. While this was going on, some crewmen tried to launch the two large life rafts near each side of the bow. They had trained for this and it seemed easy enough before, but with a boat sinking on a freezing night at odd angles with no lights and going in reverse, it wasn’t long before the raft launch became a fiasco. One snapped its tether as soon as it hit the water and sailed off into the dark. The other remained but strained its lines at a long distance from the boat; getting to it and inside it would be no easy task for anyone who could reach it.

Byron seemed frozen on deck, unable to move. He called Julio for help, but he was downhill on the low side of the boat and couldn’t climb up the wet, frozen side in his suit. Crewmen were following ropes streamed over the side into the water in an orderly process and Julio told Bryon to do the same. Julio turned to look at something, and when he turned back to look again, Byron was gone with the rest.
A raft drifted back alongside and one man made it in and tried to lift an unconscious shipmate into it. This was like lifting 200 pounds of wet, slippery deadweight with one arm over a high wall without help. Another shipmate helped push the unconscious man in. Soon, a collection of mustered into the raft; four men out of forty eight who were determined to find the rest, even though they couldn’t see them.
Julio went overboard with the rest and so began a five hour ordeal in a leaky Gumby suit in freezing water whipped by snow flurries. All the swimmers separated; it was impossible to maneuver and stay together in the suits. The flashing beacon attached to Julio’s suit malfunctioned and no strobe flashed to mark his position as it did for the others. No one could see him; no one could hear him. The nearest man to Julio was face down and dead; plagued by this corpse that wave after wave tossed up against him, Julio constantly fended off the dead man with his right arm, hour after hour. Hypothermia slowly set in, checked only by the adrenalin, and with time, Julio began to think of his grandmother who had died years before. He and his cousins had been close to her; and now he was cheered at the thought of seeing her again soon. Lots of thoughts clouded his mind in those hours; the decisions that led to a job on the Alaska Ranger; the fate of his cousins; anger at God for letting this happen and finally, accepting that he was going to die in the cold dark, alone. He fended off the dead man and wondered how soon it would be before he would be just like him. He thought about unzipping the suit and getting it over with, but soon found himself getting sleepy and decided to just wait. With hope gone, there came a strange peace. Julio didn’t know if he was dead or not.

Before Alaska Ranger sank, she had sent a mayday call that was picked up by several other vessels and the Coast Guard, which immediately set a rescue plan in operation involving a cutter, the Monro, a long-range observation plane and several helicopters that would fly to their extreme range repeatedly to find and rescue the crew. The helicopters carried rescue swimmers; men trained to jump into water in any kind of rough sea and organize survivors into groups that can be lifted into waiting helicopters. Though the nearest Coast Guard base was hundreds of miles away, a plane was sent to scout the dark seas looking for tiny lights on the surface. The plane found them—and two rafts in which a few swimmers lay, seasick, puking and half frozen. The plane did not see Julio Morales or his dead companion; neither had working strobe lights on their Gumby suits. What saved Julio was the coming of dawn—and some sharp eyed helicopter pilots.
Julio saw a helicopter. Stunned to action, he began waving and shouting and watched in disbelief as it flew by. What he didn’t know was that his—and his dead companion’s—orange Gumby suits had been seen and their positions marked. Returning, the helicopter’s swimmer found each man and loaded him into a basket that was winched up into the aircraft. It was long work against the deadline of running out of fuel, and another helicopter joined in, refuelled from the Monro at a distance. Julio remembers seeing a raft drop to the surface not too far from him, and soon a swimmer clasped his arms around him. The swimmer led a cluster of survivors before catching hold of Julio and began to load these men one by one into a basket hanging from a helicopter. The raft drifted almost on top of the group and the swimmer instead launched Julio into the raft and swam back to the others. Julio was the last of his group to go from the wild ocean into a loud, churning flying cargo box of a helicopter. They shoved him up against the back of the pilot’s seat and Julio and placed a dead man at his feet. It may have been the dead man who floated alongside Julio for hours out there; it turned out to be David Silveira, Julio’s friend and Alaska Ranger’s first mate. Julio was relieved when someone placed a cloth over the dead man’s face.

It was just as well that Julio and the rest of the survivors on board the helicopter didn’t see the near collision between the helicopter and another fishing boat that arrived on scene to assist. Finally, they landed on the Munro. Julio stood up and the water which had seeped into his suit drained to his feet making walking nearly impossible. The Munro crewmen carried him across the deck, waterlogged legs of the Gumby suit dragging behind. Shivering uncontrollably, he was stripped out of the suit and wrapped with hot towels. For Julio Morales, the rescue was over. By 10.15 a.m., the search for the crew of Alaska Ranger ended. Of 48 men on board, 47 were accounted for; several were dead and the one missing had last been seen by Julio in the boat’s wheelhouse, calmly smoking a cigarette and in no hurry to go over the side and take his chances.

For Julio Morales, the aftermath following the sinking was difficult. He testified at the inquiry, telling investigators about the shortcomings of safety equipment on the boat and what happened to him and others. His extended family ostracized him, blaming him of the death of his cousin Byron, and this has been a bitter pill for him to swallow. They find it hard to understand and accept that he is here and Bryon is not and to a great degree Julio has trouble accepting that he’s here too. He sometimes wakes up startled, as if from a weird dream, unsure if he’s alive or dead. It takes time to reassure himself by touching walls and looking out windows and focusing on his breathing before he’s convinced. For a long time following the sinking, Julio saw psychiatrists, spent up to seventeen days in a hospital in Riverside and drank heavily in order to sleep and dull the nightmares of being in a wild ocean in the dark. He credits the people he met in recovery for helping him adjust and refers to those efforts as a “silver lining” that has helped re-focus his life in ways that will help him help others fight fear. Though he still can’t stand the smell of diesel oil—the other ever-present smell on any fishing boat—and says that smelling it brings back the taste of it that he experienced in the water after his boat went down, Julio has not let this stop him from going back to the ocean and become certified as a diver. He says as long as he’s in the water here and not in the Bering Strait, it’s okay and there is nothing to be afraid of.

Julio Morales may be back on the road to some kind of happiness in the small house he shares with his aged parents in Southeast San Diego. A settlement received from his employer following the sinking gave him some stability and he works at a gas station mainly to keep him around people and occupy himself while he plans his next move. One of those moves was a series of interviews with author Kalee Thompson, who authored a book about the loss of Alaska Ranger. The Deadliest Sea: The untold story behind the greatest rescue in Coast Guard history tells a complete story of the events with emphasis on the Coast Guard efforts to find and rescue the crew. Julio read the book while at work when things were slow.

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