It was Christmas Eve, 1986 and I was on duty at Coast Guard Station New York, missing my family. We lived on Governors Island in New York Harbor, off the tip of Manhattan, right across from the Statue of Liberty. Even though I would go off duty on Christmas morning at 10 AM, and could quickly walk the half mile to my apartment to be with Marti and the kids for opening the presents, I was a little sad that I wasn't able to see the kid's excitement and tuck them into their beds.
It was quiet all day and as night fell, I hoped for more peace and quiet. I watched the tugs and barges chugging up the channel between Governors Island and Brooklyn, their lights reflecting on the water. Even though it was Christmas Eve, the never ending demand for fuel and supplies never gave the tugboat community a holiday.
After midnight, I decided to hit the rack, I walked past the station Christmas tree to my bunk and went to sleep.
About 3 AM, the Officer of the Day (OOD) shook me awake and said we had a Medevac, so come quickly down to the Comcen (Communications Center). He went and roused the rest of the duty boat crew. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes, quickly pulled on my uniform and boots and hustled down to the Comcen.
The duty boat crew ran down to the 41 foot Utility Boat and lit off the engines. I entered the Comcen and was followed in by Erwin, the duty EMT. Sam, the OOD, gave us a briefing on what was going on. We poured over some nautical charts to determine about where out on the ocean we'd have to go for the Medevac.
A large fuel tanker was heading in towards New York with a crewman that had a medical emergency. The crewman had some kind of seizure and had been unconscious and unresponsive for more than a day. The vessel's captain had decided to alter his original course and head towards New York to get the sick crewman off the ship and to a hospital. We were to get underway and head out of the harbor to the open ocean, meet the tanker and get the crewman to shore and to a hospital.
Erwin and I pulled on our bright orange Mustang suits (cold water protective coveralls). As the boarding officer, I gathered my weapon, portable radio, duty belt and grabbed a backpack with medical supplies. Erwin grabbed an additional backpack of medical gear and we ran out in the bitter cold night to the 41. As soon as we stepped aboard, the crew cast off the lines and we headed out of the harbor.
Tony, the duty Cox'n (traditional nautical term for the boat commander) had already been talking on the 41's radio with Sam in the Comcen and gave us an update. The tanker was about 10 miles out of New York harbor and we'd be meeting up with it in about an hour. The seas were running about six feet with strong wind gusts, it would be a pretty rough ride.
Erwin and I checked and rechecked the medical gear, the rest of the crew readied extra lines and the Stokes litter, a basket type stretcher that a person can be transported in. We talked, wondering what kind of medical emergency we'd be facing as the 41 sped out to sea, cutting through the heavy waves.
Tony was able to raise the tanker's captain on the radio and they conversed to make arrangement for our rendezvous. We picked the tanker up on the radar, and strained our eyes to see the ship over the horizon.
Finally, we saw the lights of the tanker, the red and green sidelights and the white lights on the mast. The deck was awash with floodlights, lit up like a sunny day. Tony directed the tanker's captain to change course slightly and slow down to the slowest possible speed that he could and still maintain steering control. With the course change, it would give us a lee, some protection from the waves and the bitter cold wind by blocking them with the tanker's towering hull.
We came up from behind the tanker and headed down along the tanker's port side towards a Jacob's ladder, basically two parallel lines (ropes) with boards placed horizontally between each line as steps in a ladder. The tanker was huge, over 800 feet long and was riding high in the water. As we drew alongside, we passed the stern where I could see the tops of the giant propeller's blades cutting the surface of the water. I realized that the climb up the Jacob's ladder was a matter of life and death, one slip and a fall into the water would result in meeting those propeller blades.
To make matters even worse, despite the lee from the tanker's hull, the waves were still quite high and the 41 was being tossed up and down four or five feet. As we drew alongside the Jacob's ladder, Erwin I and went up to the 41's bow with another crewman. Tony matched the tanker's speed, then carefully nosed the boat up to the ladder. I watched the bottom of the ladder go from being over our heads as our boat dropped down on a wave to being right at our feet when the boat went up on the next wave.
Erwin timed the waves right and caught the ladder and started climbing up the tanker's hull. I looked up at the deck which was at least 50 feet over my head and waited for my turn on the ladder. Looking down at me over the tanker's rail were the faces of maybe a dozen of the tanker's crew. Timing the waves just right, I leaped up at the ladder and caught it, I started climbing up with my fingers holding on with a death grip. As I made it to the top, a bunch of hands grabbed on to me, the tanker's crew pulled me safely over the railing. As I stood up and caught my breath I looked over to Erwin, we both shook our heads, it was quite a hairy climb to say the least.
A crewman came and led us into the tanker's superstructure past the crowd of other crewmen. They were men from all over the world, all types of sizes, shapes and colors, very common on ships sailing the ocean. We climbed up several flights of stairs and were led into a compartment where a man lay on a bed. Erwin and I put down the medical backpacks and Erwin went to work.
The man looked very Italian or Greek, he had curly dark hair and a black beard. Erwin checked the man's vital signs. The man's lips were tinged blue, his skin was very pale and he was struggling for each breath. Gathered around us were a bunch of the crew watching our every move, very concerned about their friend.
Erwin checked the man's pupils, listened to his heartbeat and took a pulse. He reached for my backpack and pulled out an oxygen tank and put an oxygen mask on the man. In a couple of minutes, his color got better and his lips lost their blue tinge. Erwin said the man was stable enough to move and even though many of the crew couldn't understand his words, they got the gist of it and smiles and head nods circled around the room.
I told Erwin I'd go out on the deck and radio the 41 to send up the Stokes litter. When I got on deck, the Stokes litter was already there, some of the tanker's crew had already pulled it aboard from the 41. I talked to Tony on my portable radio, gave him an update and to get ready to receive the Stokes littler. I looked over the side at the dark, cold water and took a deep breath, this was going to be a tough process.
Some of the crew grabbed the Stokes litter and followed me back to the room. We gently lifted the man from the bed and carefully strapped him into the litter, along with the oxygen tank, making sure he was covered with warm blankets. Some of the crewmen picked up the litter and helped carry it down the several flights of stairs. As I walked down the stairs my mind was racing, what was the best way to lower the man the 50 some feet from the tanker's deck to the pitching 41 below? I shuddered to think what would happen if things went wrong.
As we came out on deck I saw, much to my relief, a large, ocean going tugboat right alongside the tanker, tucked in tight alongside the hull. Tony had contacted the passing tug on it's way to pick up a barge and asked them for help. In the tradition of saving lives as sea, the tug's captain quickly agreed.
By the tug laying tight alongside the tanker, we only had to lower the Stokes litter about ten feet to the tug's upper bridge deck. After we got the litter that far, some of the tug's men and crew from our 41 carried the man down to the tug's main deck and then handed him, still safely tucked in the litter to the deck of the 41. Erwin and I quickly climbed down and jumped back on the 41.
After casting off, Erwin contiuned to monitor the man's condition, I went inside the 41's cabin to talk to Tony. Arrangements had been made to meet an ambulance at a marina in Staten Island, where the man could be taken to a hospital. I breathed a sigh of relief, the worst was over and as I relaxed a little I felt my clothes were soaked from my sweat despite the piercing cold.
About 45 minutes later, we pulled into the marina where the ambulance was waiting. We tied up to the dock and were met by the paramedics, who helped us transfer the man from our litter to their stretcher. We followed them to the ambulance and watched as they assessed the man. An IV was inserted into the man's arm and as the paramedics got ready to transit to the hospital, the man opened his eyes and looked around. The paramedics told us if we hadn't gotten the man off the tanker, he wouldn't have lived.
Erwin and I stood there for a minute after the ambulance left, each of us lost in our thoughts as our minds replayed the experience. Then we looked at each other, shook hands and headed back down to the boat for the ride back to the station.
As we pulled into the station docks, the first rays of the sun were peaking over the horizon. We spent the rest of our shift filling out the required paperwork documenting the rescue.
When I got off duty, I hurried home to my family for our Christmas morning. As Marti and I enjoyed watching the kids open their gifts, I realized the gift my crew and I had given the man from the tanker, we gave him back his life, we saved him in his time of need. It made the meaning of Christmas more special to me that morning, remembering how our Heavenly Father gave us the gift of his son, Jesus, that we might have life everlasting by believing in Him.
Merry Christmas to all, may your time with your family and friends be very special.