Now and Then
27 May 2020 | Elfin Cove, SE Alaska
A little excitement in Elfin Cove last evening. Just after dinner, starting to prepare the dogs’ food, a shout on the VHF radio, on the channel used inside Elfin Cove, 72. That there was an over-turned skiff, “two in the water, in South Pass (right around the corner) too close to shore” for the caller to get to them with his boat, which it turns out was disabled as, in turning sharply to assist, he’d run over the rescue line he trails and fouled his prop. This was a local commercial fisherman, just arriving after the winter down south. How fortunate he was there.
I acknowledged the call from DavidEllis’s radio, then with Dorothy’s help land-lined two different fishing lodges in the cove who had fast boats. One answered and got underway immediately (we could see them, further up the cove from us, running to their boat). The other lodge didn’t answer; it turns out they were already underway to assist.
Coast Guard was then up on channel 16; more traffic from the boats on the scene indicated they’d gotten the victims out of the water and were enroute to the seaplane float on the state dock out front. The Elfin Cove local who is the only trained EMT, (in addition to Dorothy and me) was now on the air, headed for the dock, and we started that way also. While hustling that direction we learned the victims were breathing but hypothermic.
We arrived along with a dozen others to find that the patients were on the deck of a small landing craft / halibut boat that operates out of the lodge who I hadn’t been able to reach. Efforts were being made to warm the two men, who it turns out were known to many present. The two men were brothers, who’d grown up and lived here their whole lives. Old training kicked in and I did a quick assessment: both men were clearly hypothermic, with lowered LOC (level of consciousness), one clearly worse than the other, neither coherent.
I could tell at least one was hypoxic and Dorothy headed back to the community building where first aid supplies are kept, including several O2 kits. (Dorothy walked/ran several miles in the course of this operation). In the meantime, communication continued with Coast Guard as they launched a helo out of Sitka, I presume, and the original reporting party / fishing boat with the fouled prop was escorted to the dock. All this time many people attended, attempted to warm and encourage the patients.
It was high tide when the USCG helo arrived on scene, which means there simply was nowhere for the aircraft to land. They winched their rescue swimmer down to the top of the ramp and he hustled down to the float and patients loaded with multiple gear packs.
I was impressed with his scene management, directing and making good use of the local people already there helping. I was additionally impressed when, at his direction, a young boat operator from one of the lodges, stripped down without hesitation, to provide warming for the worst of the patients.
First one, then the other of the patients were hoisted from the seaplane float into the hovering helo. Working in the rotor wash and noise of the hovering helo was intense. Everyone present performed beautifully.
For me, the entire operation was punctuated with very tangible flashbacks. In 33 years with Sonoma County Sheriff, California, I did this hundreds of times. As as reserve deputy and scuba instructor, I was part of the original Angel One crew, flying in my wetsuit starting in 1973 (or maybe ‘72). I was a member of the underwater recovery team my entire career, recovering bodies, evidence, cars, airplanes from various waters in and surrounding Sonoma County. During the late 70s, I was the resident deputy for the Sonoma North Coast, the first “King One”. Initially, I was the only trained EMT on the coast, and regularly performed cliff and surf rescues. In the 80s, I was the sergeant-in-charge for the Sheriff’s Helo-SAR unit and developed and taught a Cliff/Surf/Swiftwater/Flood training program for department members and other local first responders. In the 90s, I was the River Substation sergeant, which had responsibility for the river and coast. And in my last assignment 2000-06, I led the Marine Unit.
The sounds, sights, smells, touches and even the taste in my mouth all kicked off tangible right here/right now memories of prior rescues, recoveries and resuscitations. And with these, my poor, hundred-year-old adrenal glands just kept pouring it to me. I’m surprised I was able to function at all.
Tom McConnel, our chief pilot during much of the 80s and 90s used to refer to the “terrible beauty” of these events. They were terrible, of course, due to the injuries and frequent deaths involved, but beautiful in the cooperative efforts of disparate individuals and groups, to help, to somehow make it better.
The dogs did get fed, eventually.
PS: I did see one person with her phone/camera out, but did not have access to any photos when I wrote this (at 0300). So in the theme of this post, I threw in an old favorite from 1979 — Angel II, Black Point / Sea Ranch, pilot Sgt Keith Gunderson (RIP), left skid Deputy Dennis Duckett / “King 2“, right skid Deputy Dave Nagle / ”King 1”