By Sean Bailey / Staff Writer
Sometime in the very early hours of March 23, Coast Guard Petty Officer Al Musgrave, a Barbourville native and father of three, awoke when his Coast Guard cutter hit rough seas. Moments later, word would go out that he and his crewmates would be part of one of the most harrowing rescues in recent Coast Guard memory.
“What woke me up wasn’t when they made the announcement that we were headed toward the scene,” Musgrave said. “It was when we started pushing through those big seas through the waves ... and I thought they were beating the ship to pieces.”
At around 3 a.m., Musgrave’s cutter received a distress call from a fishing boat, the Alaskan Ranger. The 184-foot-long boat lost control of its rudder, forcing its crew to abandon ship.
Musgrave is an aviation maintenance technician, so it’s his job to be sure the helicopters on board his ship are kept in top condition. Normally, his boat and chopper make sure fishermen are sticking to the rules and regulations of the sea, and ward off foreign fishermen who stray too far from the international border near Alaska’s Aleutian Islands.
But a couple of times a year, Musgrave and his crewmates are called upon to rescue stranded sailors.
During rescues, Musgrave flies aboard the choppers and operates the long hoist that plucks victims out of the often savage water below.
The weather on March 23 was atrocious — so much so that Musgrave and his crewmates had to push themselves and their equipment past all safety barriers just to get their helicopter into the air.
“We were way out of limits for launch. The way the policy works, when there is an opportunity to save a life, you can abuse your equipment,” Musgrave said. “As our boat made its way toward the scene, I remember thinking they were going to get somebody on the boat hurt... because the way the boat was pitching, someone could be thrown off.”
On the tightly packed boat, helicopters have their blades folded to conserve space, and to unlock them, a crew member must crawl on top of the chopper to manually unlatch them.
Despite the rough conditions, the crew got the helicopter in the air, and through the dark of the early morning made their way toward the accident scene. By the time the crew arrived, the Alaskan Ranger was gone — taken to the deep by swells that Musgrave said, “must have reached 20 feet at times.”
All that remained were blinking lights dotting the sea.
“When we got there, it was still dark. I remember as we were getting on the scene just seeing lights. The fishermen, on their survival suits, which are big neoprene suits, have strobe lights on them... I remember just seeing lights all over the place, more than I expected to see, more spread out than I expected to see,” Musgrave said.
By the time the helicopters arrived, the fishermen had been in 30-degree water for hours, with only their rescue suits keeping them from freezing. Musgrave said under such extreme conditions, the crew has to work in a “triage” manner — helping the worst off first.
Once the plan was set, Musgave hoisted down “swimmer” Abram Heller into the sea with the rescue basket. The swimmer’s job is to help victims into the rescue basket so they can be hoisted to the safety of the helicopter’s cabin.
The first three victims’ rescues went without a hitch. Each victim was hypothermic to some degree, but Musgrave applauded the captain of the Alaskan Ranger for training his crew.
“Everybody we picked up was in a gumby suit. We call them gumby suits because you look like gumby when you are wearing them. But that’s what kept them alive. You have to give a lot of credit to the captain in command... because they were obviously running drills and making sure they were up on equipment,” Musgrave said.
The fishermen who made it aboard were extremely disoriented, some trying to strip off their rescue suits for reasons Musgrave couldn’t discern.
“They say when you are hypothermic to that degree, it’s like being really drunk, as far as your mental state. Disoriented and obviously numb. It’s really hard to have a grasp of what’s going on around you,” Musgrave said.
One of the fishermen, Byron Carrillo, was still in the water extremely disoriented, unable to understand any directions that the swimmer gave him, and unable to properly position himself in the rescue basket, a cage-like metal basket attached to the helicopter’s hoist.
As the crew struggled to get Carrillo into the basket, massive snow squalls began to rock the helicopter, creating total white-out conditions making navigation nearly impossible — and making it even harder for Carrillo to get into the basket.
Eventually, Carrillo got on top of the basket. The swimmer moved on to the next victim, and though Carrillo wasn’t completely secure, Musgrave had to hoist him 30 feet in the air back into the cabin.
“Then I brought him up, and when I did, the dude, he looked huge, he looked like he was seven feet tall. What had happened, he was actually like five foot something, he was stocky, but all the water in his suit stretched his (suit) legs down and weighed him down,” Musgrave said.
Because of Carrillo’s position, Musgrave wasn’t able to bring the basket all the way into the cabin. “I got as close as I could and reached out and tried to grab his feet in. All the extra weight from the water made him really heavy...”
Musgrave said he turned around to grab a knife and cut Carrillo’s suit open to let out water.
As Musgrave turned, Carrillo slipped.
“I was trying to pull him in... there was just nothing to hang on to, and he fell. I remember, man, that really tore me up. It was really hard for me to regain my composure, to finish the job we had to do, but you know, it’s something we had to do...” Musgrave said.
Carrillo died during the rescue attempt. In all, four Alaskan Ranger crew members died and one remains missing, assumed dead. But on that day, Musgrave and the crew he was a part of saved 42 of the Alaskan Ranger’s crew of 47.
After losing Carrillo, the crew made more rescues, until the cabin of the helicopter was full and its fuel reached critically low levels.
The swimmer, Heller, stayed behind, as the helicopter headed back to the cutter. But for Heller to stay on scene safely he need a raft, so the crew decided to deploy the helicopter’s emergency raft.
“We moved off a little ways and I deployed the raft and it happened to go right where it needed to be... that was really fortunate. People have given me a lot of credit for that, but I’d say it was as much luck or divine intervention or whatever you want to call it,” Musgrave said.
The danger was still not over for Musgrave and the crew. While re-fueling another rescue helicopter, the cutter had to stray off course, putting it even further from Musgrave’s chopper. But the cutter’s crew pushed their ship past its limit one last time, closing the distance between the cutter and the chopper.
Musgrave praises the actions of all the rescuers that day, saying, “It was by the grace of God that everything went that well... the way we all worked together was amazing.”
It’s been hard, though, to shake the thought of Carrillo falling back into the sea.
“You can’t dwell on anything in the moment. I had a friend in the water, the swimmer, Abram Heller, and we needed to get people out of the water. I just couldn’t dwell on it in the moment,” Musgrave said.
Afterwards was another story.
Musgrave found it hard to talk to the survivors, knowing he couldn’t save their crewmate. But Musgrave says the Coast Guard offers incredible support.
“So far I’ve been able to function, and we have a tremendous support system. We all care for each other, and we all look out for each other,” Musgrave said.
Musgrave was in town to visit his grandmother in Barbourville this week, but by early next week he will be on his way back to Alaska, and back to duty.
By Sean Bailey / Staff Writer
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