Walking around in oil up to my knees on the shoreline of southern Chile in August 1975 was a sobering experience for a nature lover like me, particularly because I had just spent several weeks working along the essentially untouched coastline of south-central Alaska. Eventually, though, my practical, scientific nature took over, and I saw that there was a job to be done that I was uniquely qualified for, first academically and later on as a business person. Some of my students and business partners and I have been trying to understand how to respond to such incidents ever since.
I started keeping a fairly detailed diary a year or so before that, so I have a pretty good record of what went on at the oil spill in Chile and the ones that followed. This book is built from a mosaic of those diary notes, plus a little reminiscing about the more distant past. The incidents reported are all true. In a few instances, the time sequence has been changed slightly in order to smooth the telling of the story. Also, where appropriate, the names of certain individuals have been changed in order to protect their privacy.
I don't have a clue why I took all those notes; however, over time, pieces of the mosaic seemed to fit together as if predestined--pieces such as living in the rain forest in Alaska, the Black Tide of La Coruña, Spain, the plane crash, and on and on. The mosaic took on a near-final form as I walked the oil-soaked mud flats of the coastline of Saudi Arabia after the Gulf War oil spills of 1991. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
25 December 1978--
On the beaches of Puerto Rico
The young Coast Guard petty officer, sweat pouring down his face, waved his arms emphatically while trying to direct traffic at the intersection of two dirt roads several yards behind the beach. Long lines of cars were backed up on both of the roads, with half of the impatient drivers honking on their horns. The traffic was a complete snarl on this Christmas holiday weekend on the north shore of Puerto Rico.
"There's been a major oil spill here!" he shouted his frustration, somehow thinking that this proclamation would clear the traffic. Then the cleanup of the No. 6 fuel oil that had spilled out of the barge Peck Slip and was impacting the beaches could begin in earnest.
We finally reached him and showed him our badges. He waved us on by. "Which way to the beach with the heavy oil?" I asked as we passed him. He pointed to the left, and we drove out of the traffic, following the ruts over the dunes and down to the beach where the cleanup workers were still gathering.
By then, we were doing this for a living: going to oil spills whenever and wherever they occurred if the U.S. Coast Guard needed some scientific support from our client, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), to plan a response to the spill. We had been on worse assignments than Puerto Rico in December. This spill was fairly early in the game for us. We had only been at it for three and a half years, and we were still green and excited, glad to get the chance to go to the spill and make our contribution. So what if it was Christmas? We still had a lot to learn. We saw heavily oiled mangroves for the first time at that spill, and I was impressed by the transport of the dark black oil back out to sea by currents in the rip cells that developed all along the exposed sand beaches.
The science we pursue is called "coastal geomorphology," which means study of the shape, or form, of the coast, including how it has evolved. About thirty-five years ago, while still a graduate student at the University of Texas, I began my first scientific research project on an ocean shoreline, the coastal bend area of South Texas. I finished my dissertation on the geomorphological effects of hurricanes on the Texas coast and journeyed on to teaching positions at the universities of Massachusetts and South Carolina. At those schools, I was joined by an army of graduate students as we conducted studies of shorelines as far away as northern Alaska, southern Chile, and Kuwait.
When we started, understanding how the coast was made was almost virgin territory, at least in the United States. Hypotheses on how barrier islands evolve, how the tides and waves shape the coast, and how the storms change things were there for the alert observer to deduce, assuming enough examples had been seen and that the global processes had been properly accounted for. We were using what Comet (1996), referred to as "one of Aristotle's two forms of logical inference"--namely, inductive reasoning from the observation of a generalized pattern or distribution in order to develop a principle or law. In other words, we started with a large number of more or less random observations, not with a detailed data set on a specific topic. However, we did eventually try to figure out how to collect meaningful data sets to verify or disprove those deduced principles or laws.
The practical reasons for making such observations usually centered on environmental issues such as beach erosion and other forms of habitat destruction. The most meaningful observations were made by being there--we went by boat, by plane, by four-wheel drive vehicles, and by walking. We spent long hours in the sun and the wind and the rain, working out ways to make our observations more and more disciplined and useful.
Most of the observers I worked with were called to this field by some elemental communication with the Great Mystery or the Spirit Father (or whatever the people that beat us here--by about ten thousand years--called it). Over the years, we all came to love that part of the earth where the waves and the tides shape the land. It seemed as if we almost became a part of it ourselves.
The methods we used to pursue our dream of understanding how the coast was made are no longer in vogue, a kind of scientific future shock for people like me. The new dreamers who want to understand this phenomena will not be doing it by foot, by car, by plane, or by boat. They will be doing it with remotely sensed images and with computer models that churn out mathematical solutions to their theories. I just hope that the new searchers will somehow be able to feel it, smell it, and touch it the way we did.
Through all of our wanderings we noticed how the most remote and unmodified areas of the coastlines we studied were being rapidly encroached upon by humans and how the most populated areas were abused more and more over time. We tried to deal with these abuses each in our own way. Leaving the bigger, and no doubt much more significant, issues such as ground water depletion, global warming, and sea level rise to others, my immediate associates and I have focused on a problem more tangible and approachable, the impacts of oil spills.
It all started at the end of the earth, along the shoreline of Chile in the Strait of Magellan in the summer of 1975, and almost ended for me fifteen years later on a rock off Mitkof Island in southeast Alaska in the summer of 1990.
Sunday, 12 August 1990--On a rock off Mitkof Island, Alaska
I shivered as the sun went behind the high cirrus clouds for the third or fourth time since I had been there. I reached behind me with my right hand, stretching the muscles to the limit against the sharp pain near my right shoulder blade. But I had already plucked up all the grass within the reach of that arm, so I came up empty handed. My left arm lay just on the high-tide line, where no grass was growing.
Then I placed my right hand on the grass piled on my bare chest and pressed down, absorbing the warmth the brown fibers had taken from the sun while it was out. I shivered again, my teeth chattering as I lifted my wristwatch in front of my eyes. It was 10:20 A.M., dead low tide.
We had been down for fifty minutes. It would be another two and a half hours before JM and her pilot would miss us and start searching.
"Todd is dead," I said to myself as I remembered the start of the day.
JM and I were walking along the road in Petersburg, Alaska, heading for downtown when Todd Hatfield, our pilot who had spent the night with friends, stopped for us in a cab. We had breakfast with him at Margie's Restaurant. He was very quiet as JM and I babbled away about the science of the project. This was to be the last day of our field work in southeast Alaska. We would be approximately halfway through mapping the shoreline of the area for environmental sensitivity (to oil spills), which meant we had met the specs of our 1990 contract with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). We were having a good time, concluding that this beautiful, diverse setting was probably our favorite part of Alaska. It was also relaxing to be away from the politics of the Exxon Valdez oil-spill site for a change.
We were working with two fixed-wing planes. Todd would be my pilot in a yellow-and-white Cessna 185 on floats. We were scheduled to depart at 8:30 A.M. and work the four-hour window around low tide. The tides control all scheduling of this type of work, which is essentially mapping the intertidal zone, especially in southeast Alaska where the vertical range of the tide exceeds twenty feet at times.
Todd perked up when we started discussing the mechanical aspects of the mapping, asking a number of questions about typical air speeds, flap settings, and altitudes. He had flown me over the mountains to Petersburg from Ketchikan the afternoon before, after I had completed my low-tide mapping session in that area with another pilot. JM had already been mapping in the Petersburg area for several days. Todd had not flown a mapping mission in Alaska, but he told us about flying some state biologists in Florida who were mapping plant assemblages in the Everglades. He wondered aloud how the biologists were able to locate themselves on their maps.
"Yeah. It's tough down there," I responded. "Everything looks the same. Very flat!"
After concluding this leisurely discussion and leaving Margie's, we walked down the long pier to the float-plane dock. It was a sparkling clear day, and the sun was shining over our shoulders and reflecting off the white feathers of the hundreds of glaucous-winged gulls that circled over the harbor. I felt the chill of a light breeze, at least ten or fifteen degrees cooler than it had been at that time of day for several days, and wondered if I should put on my jacket. I didn't.
The right pontoon on our plane had sunk a bit overnight, so Todd began pumping the water out of it while JM and her pilot prepared to leave. I waved good-bye to her as they taxied out into the open harbor past myriad fishing vessels, some still anchored and some moving about in what appeared to be random motion from my vantage point. Their float plane, also a Cessna 185, lifted off promptly at 8:30 A.M., headed south.
We organized the interior of Todd's plane, and I climbed into the left rear seat, directly behind the pilot's seat. Todd was looking for the bolts to put the right rear seat back in place. We had removed it in order to pack gear back there for the trip over from Ketchikan the afternoon before. JM and I had unpacked most of the gear upon my arrival in Petersburg.
"Let's leave it like this," I told Todd. "I can lay my pack and maps on the floor, and, you're such a big guy, I can put my right leg over there." He climbed into the left front seat and adjusted it, leaving barely enough room for my left leg, which I propped against the back of his seat. He was around six feet four inches tall and weighed about 220 pounds, I guessed, and he was built like a tight end. It never occurred to me to ask him if he had ever played football, but I found out later that he played music and wrote poetry. He was twenty-seven years old.
"This is fine, I can see out of both sides okay," I told him, as I adjusted the seat and pulled the life vest out from under it a little, noting the yellow color, while he started the engine and filed a flight plan.
After takeoff, we started mapping south along the Wrangell Narrows. We were moving rather slowly, probably 75-85 miles per hour. Because of where I was sitting, I could not see the instrument panel so I had to guess how fast we were flying. I thought about checking with him on the air speed, but was distracted by the changing landscape, and didn't think of it again. I had asked him to maintain an altitude of around five hundred feet.
As we started up Blind Slough, the flight service called to say that an ELT emergency locator transponder) was going off somewhere in our vicinity. Todd passed the word that we should keep an eye out for any boats or planes in trouble.
When we reached the southwest tip of Mitkof Island at the south entrance to Wrangell Narrows, we turned east to continue mapping the shoreline. Shortly thereafter, Todd reported to the flight service that we would soon be approaching the south side of Blind Slough, which occupies a fault zone that cuts through the center of the island, and that we would continue mapping all the way around Mitkof.
The southernmost tip of Mitkof was on a map different from the one I was working with. JM, who was mapping to the south of us, had that map with her and was scheduled to map that small segment of Mitkof on her return to Petersburg. As we came back onto my map, I couldn't tell exactly where we were, so I asked Todd to turn back so I could check out the area again. He seemed to be concerned about making the turn over the open water and said he wanted to go behind a hill which lay a bit east of a small rocky embayment to our left. The hill was snug against the high, steeply sloping main body of the island. I wasn't paying close attention to our flight path as we approached the hill because I had managed to locate on my map the small bay, which had a complex mixture of tidal flats, rock outcrops, and mussel banks in it.
I began to map the features in the bay, continuing until it was hidden behind the small hill as we passed between it and the steep mountain. In order to pass around the hill, Todd turned the plane sharply to the left, with the left wing tilted down about fifteen to twenty degrees. As we passed back out to sea, a sudden jolt of strong turbulence tilted the wings into a vertical position. In the absence of the lift normally provided by the wings, the plane headed straight down, engine first, toward the ground.
During this cataclysm, Todd didn't say anything that I could hear; he had the engine on full throttle the whole time. It felt like a strong force was pushing on the top of the plane, as if it were an object being swung around in a circle on the end of a string. But the radius of the circle was too large for the plane to pull out before impact.
I can divide my thoughts during that brief five-hundred-foot trip to the ground at the speed of over a hundred miles per hour into three distinct segments, during which everything seemed to be moving in slow motion. Throughout the first segment, I just thought we had hit some bad turbulence but that Todd would be able to pull out of the dive, so I was not overly concerned, just surprised. However, during the second segment, as we continued downward and I was looking straight ahead, which is to say straight down at the water, I realized that we might crash, and I was vicariously flying the plane with Todd, mentally pulling back on the steering mechanism. Indeed, during that second segment, we did seem to pull out a bit, but then the plane tipped back up to vertical again.
When that happened, I was sure we were going to crash, and I said loudly, "My God, we are going to die!"
During the third segment, that short instant of time as we passed through the last hundred feet or so, I bent over to the side with my head facing the right rear window. I grasped my right leg with my right hand and pulled my body down, covering my head with the other hand. Apparently, I did not move my legs. My left leg remained pressed against the back of Todd's seat, and my right leg was stretched out under the copilot's seat, which had been pushed forward as far as it would go.
We hit in about ten or twelve feet of water, with the plane tilted down to the left at about a sixty-degree angle. I learned later that the left wing was broken off, and both of the pontoons were fractured on impact. Gasoline quickly leaked into the plane, no doubt as a result of the broken wing and its ruptured fuel tank.
The first thing I remember about the impact was an abrupt noise like an explosion and the splash of water that covered the windows. Then a kind of high frequency, muted sense of pain was all around me. My body had been thrown up tight against Todd's seat as my seat broke off its bolts and scooted forward, and I think I skinned my rear end in the process. My right foot was jammed up under the right front seat, which had the instrument panel pushed into it. Although my seat broke off its base, the seat belt held, and it was pulling me tightly sideways as I lay stretched out on my back. I remember saltwater being in the plane; I could taste it. There was also a fairly strong smell of AVGAS, though I made little mental note of it and didn't think about it again for hours.
The plane then tilted slowly backward and upward to nearly a horizontal position, floating on the badly mangled pontoons. I pulled myself slightly upright and looked out the right window.
Instantly, I began talking loudly to myself, swearing profusely, and saying things like "We have crashed this blankety-blank plane," "I have to get out of here," and so forth.
For a short time I refused to accept the fact that this had really happened to me, but then I heard a sound from the seat against my left shoulder. It was Todd, breathing out two sighs. After struggling with the seat belt for some time and then finally untangling myself from it and freeing both of my legs, I pulled my upper body up with my arms so I could look over at him. He was still clutching the wheel, and the instrument panel was tight up against his chest. His head was cocked upward and slightly to the side. It didn't quite register completely, but somehow I knew that he was dead. I learned later that he had broken his neck upon impact.
After reaching that conclusion, I suddenly felt an overwhelming sense of helplessness.
A heavy, heavy weight pushed me back down, and it felt like I was sitting on fire. While moving my upper body up and down, I had glimpsed strands of muscle hanging out of a huge gash in my left shin, no doubt cut when I lunged against the back of Todd's seat. I also noticed that I couldn't put any weight on my right leg, so both legs were out of commission.
And after having made all of those discoveries, I felt a certain reluctance to continue participating in that scene. "This is not happening to me! This is not really happening to me!" I thought. I couldn't quite come to grips with the idea, it had happened so quickly.
No doubt primarily because of the shock of Todd's death, what followed was a short period of time when my mind seemed to wander into a completely different arena. The exact details of this interlude escape me now, but my thoughts probably went something like this:
I can't be here alone in this plane with ... Todd, he's dead.
Surely, I don't have to get out of here and lie over there on the bank like some forgotten refugee. I'm the infamous M. O. Hayes, self-proclaimed world's greatest coastal geologist. I've been to the South Pole and the North Pole and all around the world, at least that's what I told my high school class at our twenty-fifth reunion a few years back. In '76, Cowboy, Chris, and me flew the entire Alaskan coast. Hey, I took two thousand pictures. And in '75, Gayle, Chris, Janie, and me crashed in the ocean up there by the Malaspina Glacier, and the plane kept running right up onto the beach. I've been in turbulence so bad that my head bounced off the roof of the plane, and Cowboy, he had me flying the plane upside down. Crap, I've done this job a thousand times.
And then I kept saying over and over, "Todd is dead! Todd's dead!"
The searing pain under my butt focused me again, and I reluctantly lifted up and put my hand inside my trousers, expecting to come up with some very bad news. I couldn't believe it when I saw that the retrieved hand contained only clean, clear water that was now beginning to fill the interior of the plane as it slowly sank.
I reached for the right door, and the next thing I remember I was outside the plane, balancing on the pontoon with my left foot, while hanging onto the strut with both arms. Blood was spurting out of the gash on my left shin, sprinkling down on the sinking pontoon. The plane was tilted to the left, probably because the left pontoon hit the bottom first and with the most force and was, consequently, the most damaged in the crash.
During the entire period between when I discovered Todd was dead and the moment I was standing on the pontoon, it was as if two separate people were participating in that episode. One was a casual, though careful, observer of the scene who had moved outside of the injured geologist's body, so he could have a better observation post, I presume. The second man, the one with the real problems, was a struggling fifty-five-year-old who stood hanging onto the right strut of the plane, his shirt tail hanging out. As he stared in disbelief, the Prowalker shoe came off the foot he was holding up in the air and bounced off the pontoon, taking a quick dive of twelve feet or so to the bottom. Without the shoe, he could observe clearly why he couldn't stand on that foot. All the bones in the middle part of it had been formed into a teepee shape and protruded out of the place where the ankle used to be. The top of the teepee still had a cover of stretched skin.
He had been nearsighted from an early age and had lost his glasses in the crash; as he looked around, the coastline that he had just recently been mapping took on the appearance of an impressionist painting. The missing glasses were of little consequence to him. In fact, he hardly thought about them, because the colors he saw, though somewhat blurred, had meaning. He recognized the colors of the biozones of the intertidal zone--white for the barnacle zone, yellow-green for the popweed zone (Fucus sp.), and blue for the mussels (Mytilus edulis). In addition to being distributed in a distinct band along the base of the rocky edge of the water, the blue mussels also occurred as a number of isolated banks scattered about the bay, about three or four of which protruded out of the water over to the right of the plane. As the injured geologist was thinking about the mussels, the disinterested observer noted that the old guy was into science again. The fun was over, so to speak, and thus the two entities suddenly merged and weren't separated again during that crisis.
The maneuvering to get out of the plane had apparently been quite exhausting because I remember thinking, "I know I will have to swim over there to those mussel banks pretty soon, but I think I will just rest here for a little while."
The instant I had that thought, the plane started to sink much more rapidly. I quickly glanced to my left, just in time to see Todd's head disappear under the water, and then I started to swim as the water reached my waist. The nearest mussel bank, which was a few feet in diameter and stuck up out of the water only a foot or two, was probably fifteen to twenty yards away. After choosing the direction in which I would swim, I put my face in the water and stroked with my arms, not looking up until I felt the edge of the mussels with my hands.
As soon as I reached the mussel bank, I pulled myself onto it and sat down on the razor-sharp shells, which didn't exactly ease the pain I had been feeling in my rear end. Once again, I thought something terrible was wrong under my bottom; I therefore reached to check it out further. As before, no blood was in evidence as far as I could see. In addition, the bleeding in my left shin had stopped, the wound presumably having been cauterized by the cold water. When the realization of how cold the water was set in, my teeth started to chatter, and I rubbed my chest to stimulate the circulation.
Soon after checking out my bottom, I once more began to doubt whether the crash had actually happened. I thought that maybe, hopefully, I was dreaming. "Time to wake up now!" I pleaded with myself, as I pinched my arms and slapped myself on the face. No such luck. Couldn't wake up, no matter what I tried.
For the first time, I looked at my watch, which, miraculously, was still on my wrist. It was 9:26 A.M. I guessed we had been down five or six minutes. I knew the ELT on the plane was under water and assumed that it was not working. I also knew that another ELT was going off somewhere in our vicinity, and as far as I could tell, no one was looking for it in any serious fashion. Needless to say, I didn't think I would be rescued in response to our ELT signal. I wasn't. (I guess I could question why the Federal Aviation Administration [FAA] even bothers to require these things to be in the planes, but I won't.)
Therefore, I thought there were two possibilities of my being rescued: a plane flying over or a boat passing by would spot the wreck--the yellow-and-white tail and the end of the left wing were still sticking out above the water; or JM and her pilot would get back to Petersburg around 1:00 P.M., discover we had not returned, and start looking for us. And since they didn't know precisely where we were, they would have to look a long time before they found us.
Once more, I carefully looked around the area for a route of escape. In about forty-five minutes it would be low tide. When the tide turned, this mussel bank I was sitting on would be covered with water within a matter of minutes. Besides, I had to get out of that cold water somehow! Because I couldn't stand up, only my upper torso was actually out of the water and had any chance of drying out.
I had earlier made a quick assessment of my wounds. I didn't know how it could be done, especially repairing the hole in my shin, but I was sure our good old American medical profession could make me almost as good as new, even if my foot looked like a teepee held sideways. Thank God the bleeding in my left shin had stopped, and, of course, every once in a while I did wonder why my rear end was on fire. Nonetheless, with that confident overview completed, I didn't worry about much of anything from then on except getting out of the water and drying out.
I knew that I had to get off the mussel bank soon, so I looked over to my left where a rock island, or peninsula, sloped down into the water at a rather high angle. That rock, in addition to being the closest one to me, was also the highest in the area (about twenty-five feet high). The intertidal part of the rock contained the usual distinct biozones along its side, and I could see some terrestrial grasses on the top, which assured me that the top of the rock would be out of the water at high tide. The rock was fifty or sixty yards away from where I sat. A shallow tide pool over some mudflats that contained a few scattered mussel banks lay between me and the rock. To somehow get on top of the highest point in the vicinity of the wrecked plane, as well as above the high-tide line, seemed like a pretty good idea to me, so that was where I headed.
I pushed off the mussel bank and guided myself with my hands toward the rock island, floating in the shallow water over the flat, which was only three to five feet deep. The real fun started when I reached the base of the rock. I had twenty vertical feet to go to the high-tide line up the steeply sloping rock surface, which was covered with razor-sharp shells in the barnacle and mussel zones, and mushy, slimy algae in the Fucus zone. As I pulled myself up the side of the rock, it seemed as if I were losing strength on every pull, and it didn't help any when I slipped back down the slope as I hit a particularly slick patch of algae. Sometimes I lay on my stomach and sometimes I turned and scooted on my back. The mussels and barnacles cut into my hands in a hundred places as I gripped the rocky surface.
I was quite cold and shaking as I very slowly worked my way up the rock. I continued talking loudly to myself, occasionally saying "Todd is dead!" and other lamentations. I never thought in terms of whether or not I would survive. In fact, I think I was surprisingly confident and calculating about the whole thing. However, I was very concerned about hypothermia; therefore, I started remembering the video that I had viewed on that subject while taking the HAZWOPER safety training sponsored by Exxon back in April. That training was part of the preparation for the summer field work at the Exxon Valdez oil-spill site. If someone had given me a quiz on that hypothermia video the night before the crash, I probably would have scored about 40 percent. However, as I was crawling slowly up the slick rock and replaying the most minute details of the hypothermia video in my mind, I would have scored 100 percent on any questions asked. I knew what I was going to do when I got to the top of the rock.
I scooted up onto the upper surface of the rock while lying on my back and found a little low spot above the high-tide line within which my body snugly fit. When I reached that position, the only clothes I had on were a long-sleeved field shirt, an undershirt, long pants, some undershorts, and a pair of gym socks. Everything that I had in my trousers pockets was gone, including my wallet, which I usually kept in my right rear pocket. When I started to take off my field shirt, I noticed that my clip-on polarizing sunglasses were still in the left pocket, having been put there for a fishing trip the previous day. (I don't wear sunglasses when I'm mapping because I have to be able to distinguish among the true colors of the sediments in order to make accurate calls on the habitat classification.) The clip-ons were the only thing, except the bare minimum of clothes and my wristwatch, that had managed to stick with me all the way to the top of the rock. When I pulled out the clip-ons, I was so mad that they were all I had with me, considering how absolutely useless they were, that I threw them as far as I could back down the rock.
After that little episode, I quickly went into my anti-hypothermia routine. Remembering that the most critical areas for heat loss from the body are from the top of the head, the chest area, and the private parts, I removed both of the wet shirts, carefully wrung them out and spread
them out on the rock behind me, hoping they would dry out in the sun. Then I pulled up all the grass that I could reach from where I lay and piled it on my naked chest. When it was out, the sun, which was shining directly into my face, warmed up the grass. I unbuttoned my trousers and pushed them down as far as possible, being careful not to disturb my broken legs, and grasped my private parts, warming them with my left hand as best I could. I used my right hand to press down on the grass on my chest when the sun went behind the clouds.
The shivering and teeth chattering gradually subsided as the sun warmed me. I reckoned that I would be in for a long wait, at least four hours before JM and her pilot could find me, best case. I was completely exhausted and didn't move to get any more grass. At one point, I started to pray, as I had been for a while as I was crawling up the rock, but I felt so hypocritical about it that I soon stopped. I can't remember exactly what I said. I had some serious doubts about what prayer really meant. I think I said that if I were rescued, I would be ethically pure, although I thought I was trying to be that already--whatever that meant. It was just a brief thing. Nonetheless, it was pretty obvious that someone or something was doing a good job of looking out for me. Maybe it was my mother's prayers; she said she prayed for me every day, especially since I had quit going to church. I had quit that practice twenty-five years before the crash so she had been praying for me a long time.
As the time passed, I didn't move again. I was in serious pain. My bottom was killing me, and I had no idea why. My right foot was also hurting badly.
Time dragged by. A couple of airplanes passed over in the vicinity, but I never actually saw them. I played a game of guessing just how much time had passed within certain time intervals, usually three to five minutes. I got to where I could guess the time within ten seconds or so. No, I wasn't counting the seconds. I was glad to have the watch because it gave me something to do.
At about 11:25 A.M., I heard a motor out over the water, which meant a boat was in the vicinity. Then I saw a fuzzy white object round the point to the east of me and head in toward the little bay. I started waving my white undershirt while they were still far out, but they didn't see me. They were headed for the tail of the Cessna 185 with the broken floats. As the approaching vessel, which I reckoned to be about a twenty-five to thirty-foot sport-fishing boat, came closer, it passed out of sight behind the rock I was on. Although I had continued to wave the shirt, they had not seen me. I could still see the tail of the plane, but the boat was hidden from sight.
I started to panic, thinking "What if they just think it is an old wreck, turn around, and head back out to sea?"
The boat stayed out of my view behind the rock for what seemed to be an eternity, but then, finally, I saw it nose right up to the tail of the plane. I could see a man and a woman on deck.
"Hey! Hey!" I yelled at the top of my lungs, continuing to frantically wave the shirt.
They finally looked my way.
He yelled back at me, "What happened? Are you all right?"
"Yes, I think so. I appear to have two broken legs, but the pilot is dead."
"Do you need anything?"
"I sure could use a blanket."
Then I heard them calling someone on their radio.
He moved the boat around to a better spot than the one I had used to climb up the rock. The tide had come up quite a bit in the meantime, which also made the climb easier.
He walked up to me and introduced himself. His name was Jamie Debore, and he was about thirty-five years old. He was doing a little salmon fishing with his wife on a nice Sunday afternoon. After laying a piece of blue canvas over me (he didn't have any blankets), he took off his sweatshirt and wrapped my foot with it and a piece of plastic he had carried up from the boat.
He was yelling back and forth with his wife, who was still on the boat, about who else to call on the radio and giving other instructions. Then he said to me, "The paramedics are on their way from Wrangell. They should be here in about fifteen minutes." Sounded pretty good to me.
And then, as an afterthought, he added, "in a little while there will be more people here looking after you than you could ever imagine. The salmon are running, and there are a lot of people out on the water (who were probably listening in on the radio messages."
"Anything else I can do?" he asked.
I was starting to shiver again. The canvas wasn't quite doing it. "Well, I'm still a little cold," I said, and he took the shirt off his back and gave it to me. I quickly put it on. I never felt anything so warm in my life. After that, he had to go back to the boat to get another shirt and jacket.
As Jamie had predicted, it was only a few minutes before more boats arrived and people began walking up the rock to me. One of the first to get there had something in his hand. "These yours?" he asked, as he handed me the clip-on sunglasses that I had thrown away. "Oh yeah," I said. I took them and placed them over my eyes because the sun was out again.
I told them about Todd, who had been under the water about two and a half hours by then. I had been trying, unsuccessfully, not to think about him.
"Here come the paramedics," Jamie announced.
I looked up and saw a float plane pull right up to the base of the little island we were on. A young man in his late twenties came bounding up the rock. He was thin, with blondish hair, and, as I remember, had a narrow mustache. I was struck by how much he reminded me of one of my graduate students, Tom Moslow, in his younger days. How could I help but feel comfortable with this guy? "What's your name?" he asked.
"My name is Brian. Don't worry, we are going to get you fixed up here," he assured me.
I lay back and closed my eyes, which were hidden under the clip-ons, as Brian and his associate checked my blood pressure, felt all over my body for injuries, checked the movement in my toes, and so forth. Then Brian started cutting off my trousers and the rest of my clothes, destroying Jamie's shirt in the process. I sent Jamie a replacement shirt later. It was a small price to pay someone for saving your life, no?
After Brian had removed all my clothing and covered me with blankets, he said, "Now I'm going to have to take your watch."
"Don't lose it. It cost me eight bucks," I countered.
As soon as I said that, I was startled by laughter coming from a lot more than two or three guys. I opened my eyes, removed the clip-ons, and saw a ring of approximately twenty men standing all around me. The sun was shining at an angle to them, and several of them cast shadows across me in the brilliant sunlight. I was lying bundled in the warm blankets, surrounded by a halo of exquisite light! At least it looked exquisite to me. Where did they all come from?
That watch lasted another three years.
Brian was talking back and forth on the radio with his associates at the hospital in Wrangell. I particularly noted the deep, resonant voice of one man who was apparently the head doctor. "Caucasian male, mid-fifties," Brian reported. "No. The pilot is presumed to be dead. What? He's under about fifteen feet of water." And so on.
"Damn, how did he know I was that old!" I thought. "Hey, I'm in good shape now. When I went fishing yesterday morning, I walked all the way up the mountain to that lake without stopping once. And I was wearing my hip waders. How far was that, four miles?"
I didn't stop to think how long it would take me to get back into shape after this adventure, but it would be a very long time, and I might never be able to repeat that mountain-climbing feat again.
There was a lot of discussion about how they were going to transport me forty miles over the open water to Wrangell. Brian was ready to take me in his float plane, but he talked to someone on the radio who countermanded his plan. He wasn't too happy about that. He finally walked over and told me that a U.S. Coast Guard H-3 helicopter was on its way over from Sitka, and that it would be a while before they could get there.
I reminded Brian to have someone call the flying service in Petersburg and tell JM that I was okay. She and her pilot would be getting back pretty soon.
At about 12:30 P.M., I heard the old familiar flt-flt-flt-flt-flt of the helicopter blades as it crossed over the hill and headed in toward the bay where we were. As soon as he heard it, Brian and several of the men put me on a stretcher, and Brian had to cinch me down tight. Being on the stretcher was extremely painful, primarily for my rear end, which had received no medical attention. But it surely was hurting in that position.
Meanwhile, the helicopter had landed down by the edge of the water on the tidal flat. "Hurry, Hurry!" someone yelled up from the flat, "The wheels are sinking in the mud!"
About eight people picked me up and raised me over their heads, and then we proceeded down the landward side of the rock that I had spent my last three hours on. I was somewhat concerned that they might slip, and we would all go tumbling down the rock. I held on tight to two hands, one on either side of the stretcher. One of them belonged to Brian. It was a bumpy ride down, and when we reached the tidal flat, they tilted the stretcher at about a forty-five-degree angle and shoved me feet first up into the waiting hands of the Coast Guard helicopter crew members. I had flown in numerous Coast Guard helicopters on our various mapping missions all over the country and the world, but this was the first time that I would be doing it as the target of a rescue mission.
I looked back down at Brian and said, "Brian, are you going with us in the helo?"
He said, "Don't worry, buddy, I'll be with you the whole time," which was something I was mighty glad to hear.
Then Brian climbed in beside me and said, "We'll be in Wrangell in ten minutes," as he handed me some ear plugs.
I had been on oxygen since Brian had arrived and was occasionally getting the shakes. He kept assuring me that I was doing great and seemed delighted that I had sensitivity in my feet and could move my toes.
At 1:00 P.M., they rolled me into the small emergency room of the Wrangell Hospital. I remember seeing numerous faces peering at me as they rolled me along. I was a real curiosity, somebody who had survived one of those airplane crashes out in the bush. At that time, my main concern was that I was incredibly thirsty. I remembered that I was just about to open a soft drink shortly before the plane crashed, and now, three and a half hours later, I was famished for a drink. However, I couldn't have one because they were not sure what operations I would have to undergo. I did manage to coerce one of the nurses into feeding me tiny pieces of crushed ice from time to time.
I eventually saw the doctor who I had been listening to on the radio. He was wearing Levi's and a red-checked flannel shirt for his Sunday afternoon duty. He was a tall, well-built, rugged-looking man of about my age. As I said before, he had a resonant and kind voice. First he stuck needles into my toes, which made me jump and yelp. So much for the kindness bit. Then they x-rayed my lower extremities and probed my body looking for other problems. Because the treatment I required was too complex for the Wrangell facilities, I would have to go to the Ketchikan Hospital, which was a bigger unit.
After completing the examination, the doctor told me kindly, for sure this time, "Well, Miles, looks like you are going to be all right. You're a real tough guy."
In response, I tried to say "But I wish I could have helped Todd." However, I think it came out something like, "Todd, he isn't here." And I thought the rest, "He's still in the plane." I couldn't finish. I looked away from the doctor and the faces of the nurses all around the table, and for the first time, the tears came.
Outside the hospital, they put me on a board stretcher and strapped me in real tight, pressing my unattended-to-butt against the hard board. This caused excruciating pain, the worst of the whole ordeal.
Then they put me in an ambulance to take me back to the helicopter for the trip over the mountains to Ketchikan, but the ambulance's motor would not start. It was very hot and stuffy inside the ambulance because it had been sitting in the sun. While they were trying to decide what to do, I told Brian that I had to get out of there and that I couldn't go on with my butt pressed against that board. He seemed a little disgusted with me. After all, wasn't this a minor inconvenience considering what I had just been through? But one of the female nurses convinced him that it was too hot and claustrophobic inside the ambulance, and thank God, they decided to put three pillows under my back so my butt would not be pressed so hard against that board. After that, the stretcher became barely tolerable.
JM was waiting for me inside the Coast Guard helicopter, wearing an orange Coast Guard Mustang suit. She had heard about the crash about 1:00 P.M. and the Temsco people in Petersburg had flown her to Wrangell in a helicopter. The Coast Guard personnel made her stay in her seat with the seat belt fastened, so she could not get near me.
At the time we lifted off, I still had not had any medication, and I was in considerable pain and felt groggy. But shortly thereafter, as we flew along in the helicopter noise, I looked over at JM and wrote "I love you" in the air with my finger. She looked puzzled at first, but when I did it again, she smiled and waved.
Brian seemed happy that I had gotten over the panic that began in the ambulance. We were going to go up to five thousand feet for the trip across the highest mountains, so they had to adjust the inflatable cast on my foot to allow for the changing altitudes. After making one of the changes, Brian grinned down at me and said, "You know what they call these things, don't you?" I shook my head no. "A bucket of ten thousand bolts that has no business flying."
I was thinking, "The fear of flying will no doubt catch up with me later, but right now, I surely am happy to be flying along in this bucket of bolts and not lying over there on that rock freezing to death!"