FAIRBANKS - On Dec. 8, 2004, the Selendang Ayu, a 738-foot long Malaysian owned freighter was traversing the Bering Sea during a massive storm when it lost engine power and started drifting toward Unalaska Island. Bound for China from Seattle, the ship — loaded with soybeans and carrying nearly half a million gallons of fuel — was on a collision course with a rocky beach that would easily tear it to pieces. The lives of the captain and 26 crewmen, mostly from India and the Philippines, were in imminent peril.
Situations such as this are a large part of why America has a Coast Guard. And in “On the Edge of Survival,” Spike Walker’s account of the dramatic rescue that ensued that day, we learn just how far the people who make up that often overlooked branch of our armed services are willing to go to save lives on the open seas.
Walker jumps right into the action on page one, detailing the situation that faced the men who took off from Dutch Harbor in an attempt at averting tragedy. The author provides only the briefest biographical sketches of the major players in the drama as they head out to sea. He’s primarily focused on the action, and this story has plenty to offer.
The rescue crew confronted a variety of problems, but the biggest one was the storm itself. Barreling out of the Arctic, the storm brought high winds, snow, rain and waves large enough to turn the crippled ship nearly sideways. Adding to their troubles was the fact that the ship’s captain had only a limited command of English, making radio communication difficult.
When the guardsmen first arrived on the scene, the plan was to launch a towline from their cutter and try to drag the ship out of danger. But the line was lost by the crew onboard the ship when the seas surged.
The ship then dropped anchor in an effort at arresting its drift, but the chain broke and the vessel lurched toward the rocks. At this point it became apparent that the crew had to be removed one at a time via baskets lowered from the helicopters on the scene. This sort of rescue is difficult even under the best of circumstances, but in the midst of a violent winter storm it’s nearly impossible.
The ship’s captain, who didn’t appear to grasp the gravity of the situation, didn’t help. Convinced that his engineers could restore engine power, he was hesitant to let his crewmen be evacuated. After considerable persuasion, he finally allowed all but his most essential men to depart, and the rescue commenced. Yet still the crew seemed unaware of the danger they faced, as many were more concerned with getting luggage into the helicopters than they were with getting themselves pulled off the ship.
After a good deal of time had elapsed and the patience of the rescuers had been heavily tried, the bulk of the crew was finally removed to safety. But eight men remained onboard with the captain when the ship finally hit the rocks. At this point the danger escalated, as sinking became a serious possibility and the waves that had been severely rolling the ship now attacked the stationary craft relentlessly.
One of the helicopters returned to finish the rescue job, but the men onboard the ship refused to climb into the basket when it was lowered. Frustrated at their intransigence, the helicopter crew ultimately sent down their rescue swimmer, Aaron Bean, who started herding the men into the basket to be hoisted up.
The operation was finally moving along, and everyone but the captain and Bean had been removed from the ship, when a monstrous wave rolled up and drenched everything, including the H-60 helicopter. The chopper lost power and plunged downward, bouncing off the ship and into the sea.
The chopper crew, equipped with survival gear and trained in how to react in such emergencies, managed to escape the wreckage, and all were ultimately pulled from the water by another helicopter. The crewmen that had been evacuated from the ship weren’t so lucky, and only one was found.
Meanwhile, Bean and the captain were trapped aboard the ship. While awaiting rescue they fought waves that washed over the deck, as well as rain, wind and relentless rocking. And then the ship suddenly split in half. This is the sort of stuff one associates with Hollywood blockbusters, but in this case, it actually happened. Were the men rescued? Read the book and find out for yourself.
“On the Edge of Survival” is a book in search of a movie, and if it ever gets made, it will be a good one. As an author, Walker is tightly focused on the sequence of events, and he doesn’t let himself get sidetracked by extraneous details. This is both good and bad, because on the one hand this is a definite page-turner, but on the other hand, many aspects of the story remain untold (this isn’t entirely Walker’s fault; the ship’s captain refused to be interviewed, so we never get his side of the tale).
The men who went out and rescued the crew of the Selendang Ayu are heroes in every sense of the word, and Walker’s vivid account of that fateful night in their lives will keep you on the edge of your chair and reading well past your bedtime.
Freealnce writer David A. James lives in Fairbanks.