Ryan Shuck needed a miracle. For the past two hours, bobbing in the middle of the Bering Sea, Shuck had grown colder and colder. Snow fell from the night sky. Thirty-foot swells crashed over him. And slowly, his neoprene survival suit was filling with icy water.
It was Easter 2008. The Alaska Ranger, a 200-foot-long fishing vessel, had just sunk, dumping its crew 120 miles off of the Aleutian Islands.
Shuck, a 31-year-old Spokane man, was all alone. When the ship went down, he got separated from the other men, and now the swells pushed him farther into the darkness.
A seagull swooped down, hovering over his head. Shuck lifted his nearly frozen arm and tried to scare it off. He thought the bird was waiting for him to die. He worried that as soon as his arms and legs froze stiff, the seagull would pounce and begin eating him alive.
It was then that the stranded fisherman started to cut a deal with God. "Before my hands and legs don't work anymore, I'm going to unzip my suit." Shuck was not going to get eaten by that bird; he would end his own life first. "God, you have one hour," he said. "This is what I'm going to do if you don't do something."
The night before, Shuck and the rest of the 47-member crew hauled food and other necessities from a loading dock near Dutch Harbor. They had just finished fishing for yellowfin and were getting ready to go out and fish for mackerel. Shuck finished his shift and headed to his room. Snow dusted the deck. The moon was bright and each violent swell somehow felt calming. "It was a night to see," Shuck recalls.
A former logger, Shuck joined the Ranger's crew about a year ago. It was tough work, but it was a decent way to make money. On a ship, you have nowhere to spend your cash so you come home with a thick wad.
At first, March 23, 2008, had been just another day. Then at about 2:30 am, an alarm sounded across the ship. On Sundays, they often tested the alarms on the ship, also known as a trawler. Shuck woke up for a moment then fell back asleep. The alarm rang again -- not in a short spurt like before -- but in a long continuous burst.
Shuck got up and went on deck. Somebody said the rudder room was on fire, but then a crewman ran across the deck drenched with water. How could there be a fire if people were soaking wet? Shuck thought. The rudder room was in fact taking on water -- quickly. The crew sealed it and readied to abandon the ship if necessary.
Fishing vessels must carry one orange, neoprene survival suit for every person onboard. The suits are designed keep the body warm in icy waters for up to six hours. They work pretty well -- as long as they fit properly. Shuck's didn't. He's 5-foot-6, but got a jumbo-sized suit. It wouldn't seal correctly.
The men gathered on deck and took turns going into the ship's wheelhouse to get warm. The ship's captain and the mate radioed for help.
"Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. This is the Alaska Ranger. 5, 3, 5, 3 North, 1, 6, 9, 5, 8 West. We are taking on water in our rudder room."
On St. Paul Island, 230 miles to the north, Coast Guard helicopter pilot Steve Bonn heard the call. He was the only officer awake and went to roust his three-man crew. They didn't believe him when he told them about the call. "They were saying, 'Get the hell away from me,'" Bonn recalls.
The Ranger's sister ship, the Alaska Warrior, also received the mayday call, as did the Coast Guard Cutter Munro. The two ships now steamed toward the Ranger, but they were hours away.
Joey Galbreath stood on the deck and pulled on his own survival suit. His feet wouldn't fit into the booties of the suit. His arms didn't reach into the gloves. The 37-year-old also got stuck with a jumbo suit and now looked like a toddler in a pair of oversized orange footie pajamas. He waited outside of the wheelhouse for a chance to get warm.
Shuck, meanwhile, left the wheelhouse and stepped onto the deck. The power abruptly shut off. Lights went out and the ship slowed. Then the power came back on and the ship jerked in reverse for some reason. It began to take on water faster than before. The front of the ship lifted out of the water. The ship listed to the right and felt like it was going to roll over.
The men tumbled like orange boulders, rolling across the deck. Everyone was yelling, "Abandon ship!" Someone tried to deploy one of the life rafts, but with the ship still in reverse, a line snapped and the raft drifted away. A second raft failed. A third ended up in the water, but with the ship continuing in reverse, the raft trailed the front of the ship on a 50-foot line.
Shuck watched as one man climbed down a rope ladder and tried to reach the trailing life raft. The wind threw him against the side of the ship and he fell.
A crewman approached Shuck holding a safety light. "Put this back on me," he told Shuck. The light's clip was broken.
Shuck held out a strap attached to his own suit. "Just try to hang onto it," he told the crewman. "I'll strap this to you when we get into the water."
But as the crewman stepped down the ladder, the ship jerked and the man flew into the air and overboard -- without Shuck or a light to mark his position.
Having watched what happened to the other man, Shuck decided he wouldn't use the rope ladder. Instead, he climbed over the rail and jumped into the water below. Once he hit the ocean he started to swim. The life raft headed directly towards Shuck. He reached out and grabbed its sides and hung on.
The wake of the ship suddenly carried him under the raft and he found himself suction-cupped to the underside of the inflated boat. He couldn't breathe, and streams of cold water seeped into his suit as he tried to break himself free. He shot out from under the raft. He could breathe again, but he found himself alone floating in the Bering Sea.
Galbreath watched as his fellow crewmen leapt off the deck into the ocean. Word spread that they were down to one raft and it could hold 20 people at most. People started yelling louder. "Jump, jump. Abandon ship."
Galbreath climbed over the railing. He prepared himself for the jump. What a "shit sandwich," he thought. He could either stay on board the doomed vessel or dive into the icy water. No choice. Galbreath let go of the railing and fell into the water. He expected a hard thump, but was struck by the sea's softness.
The minute he landed he took off. He wanted to reach one of the rafts and got near one, but couldn't grab it. His hands didn't fit in his suit's gloves.
"Oh, I'm dead. I'm screwed. That's it."
Moments later, three men swam up to Galbreath. They all linked arms. Hellbent on reaching the raft together, they kicked their legs toward one. But as soon as they got closer, waves rolled over them. The raft moved farther away.
Galbreath's suit had taken on a lot of water, weighing him down. The men gave up swimming for the raft. They gripped onto each other and prayed.
By the third hour, Galbreath started to go in and out of consciousness. He kept swallowing water and puking it out. At one point, one of the men next to him pointed to a man floating near them. Galbreath could tell the upside-down man wasn't moving.
Shuck was about to give up on God. He got ready to unzip his survival suit and end it. He had been floating for close to three hours. His body was failing. Then he heard it: the propeller of a Coast Guard chopper.
Bonn, the Jayhawk helicopter pilot, and his crew wore night vision goggles and had fought through snow squalls on their way to the Ranger. And finally, shortly after 5 am -- about two and a half hours after Shuck heard the ship's alarms -- the helicopter reached the scene. The crew first spotted a life raft with a group of people waving at them. Then they saw about 20 scattered, flashing lights. Bonn bypassed the raft and went to rescue people "in the drink" first.
Hovering above Shuck, flight mechanic Robert Debolt prepared to hoist rescue swimmer O'Brien Hollow down into the water. When Hollow reached him, Shuck recalls him asking, "Can you put your hands at your sides?"
"I can do anything you want me to," Shuck replied.
Now harnessed, Shuck and Hollow were pulled into the helicopter. Onboard, Shuck took a deep breath. He slumped over in relief.
Soon, the belly of the helicopter was filled with blue men in orange suits. The floor of the helicopter became icy and wet. The pilots spotted a string of men linked together. Debolt once again lowered Hollow down.
Hollow swam to each of the men to see who needed help the most. He sized up Galbreath. The panicked fisherman had fainted. "This one's going first," Hollow said.
He signaled for Debolt to lower a rescue basket. Once inside the copter, Galbreath was in and out of consciousness. With a full load of hypothermic men, the helicopter needed to find a place to unload so that it could go back and rescue more.
They flew to the Warrior, but couldn't get low enough to safely drop off the men. They then flew to the Coast Guard cutter Munro, where the men were lowered one by one.
The copter was running low on fuel and had to refuel in air -- neither easy, nor common. "In-flight air refueling is extremely rare," Bonn would say later. "You're lucky if you get to practice that a couple times in your career."
The helicopter returned to the site and picked up more men. The crew on the Warrior also pulled up another 20. The crew of the Ranger was accounted for: Four dead, one missing, 42 survivors.
On the Munro, Galbreath's body temperature was 88 degrees. "All that I remember was that they stripped my clothes off and I was shaking so bad that I thought my back was going to break." It took 45 minutes to raise Galbreath's body temperature a single degree. Medical personnel scrambled to save him as he slipped further into hypothermic shock.
Shuck, wrapped in a warm blanket, sat in the galley, relieved to be alive. His crewmate, shaking and barely breathing, was probably going to die. While Shuck would usually be empathetic to a friend in trouble, he couldn't help but sit there numb, drink his warm apple cider and be thankful that it wasn't him.
A week later, the 42 survivors -- including Galbreath -- were back on land, in a swanky hotel on Kodiak Island. They were given pretty much a free pass to do whatever they wanted in town, and many of them spent that time marooned in a self-imposed stupor. After partying, Shuck came home to Spokane and his girlfriend.
Galbreath ended up in Seattle, where he spent that next month doing everything he could to stay awake. "Every time I went to sleep I ended up back in the water," he says.
He landed in a psychiatric ward. When Shuck heard about Galbreath's condition, he called, offered to put him up for awhile and drove to Seattle to pick him up.
Both men are now trying to heal and lean on each other for support. Shuck's thumb was broken and healed crooked. He also has a neurological condition in his foot called Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy, or RSD. Galbreath also suffered nerve damage, in his hands. Despite being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, both say that they're doing better than most of the rest of the crew.
They now spend their time seeing physical therapists and psychiatrists and working on getting better. They each receive $600 per month. The fishing company's insurance provider is covering their medical bills.
Both fishermen say that until recently they were still in shock. Sitting at a table drinking root beer at a North Division A & amp;W recently, Shuck looked emaciated. He says that with all the psychotropic medicines he takes he has a hard time eating.
Galbreath seems very alert and talks positively about the experience during the sinking of the Ranger. "Now I get a chance to try new things. There was a lot of things I was afraid to do, I was afraid to express. I've realized that life is too short and I've been granted a second chance," Galbreath says. "Everyone thought I was going to die. I survived because I had a will to live and because of God."
More than 20 personal-injury suits have been filed against the Fishing Company of Alaska -- the owner of the Ranger and the Warrior -- including those by Shuck and Galbreath. The family of Captain Eric "Pete" Jacobsen, who died, has also filed a wrongful-death suit against the company. Chief engineer Daniel Cook, mate David Silveira and crewman Byron Carrillo also perished during the sinking. The body of the fish master, Satoshi Konno of Japan, was never found.
The Coast Guard rescue of the crew of the Alaska Ranger is now considered one of the most extreme in its history. "This was one of the most complex rescue missions we've ever done. The men floating in the water and in the life rafts in the high seas with the snow -- it's amazing that that many people survived," Bonn says. "This is the highest ranking and most demanding mission I've ever been involved with."
The cause of the sinking is still under investigation. One theory is that the ship's rudder was cracked in February when going through ice too fast. The Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board are holding hearings to figure out what happened.
Several crewmembers have testified that the boat was not exactly "dry." Alcohol on fishing boats is prohibited and if it's found that drinking occurred on the vessel, that could dramatically increase the Fishing Company of Alaska's liability. Shuck admits to occasionally drinking onboard and seeing other crewmembers boozing.
Meanwhile, a main piece of evidence -- the Ranger itself -- sits a mile under water.
Nowadays, when the two survivors aren't seeing psychiatrists and doctors, they're working together on the 12 steps of sobriety. Floating for three hours in the ocean gave both guys a reason to stay dry for good. Both admit to past alcohol and drug dependency issues and say that the miracle of their survival has given them a reason to keep clean.
Shuck is forever changed. Being rescued has convinced him that God exists. "I believe in miracles now. It was a miracle."
Shuck calls his Alcoholics Anonymous mentor about once a week. They talk. The mentor keeps Shuck off booze and comes over and teaches him how to play guitar. "I used to be a social drinker. Now I talk with him and play my guitar."
Both survivors say they'll never step on a fishing boat again. "I've realized that money's not everything," Shuck says. "I fished so that I could get money, and look where that got me."
Shuck wants to start a fund for injured fishermen like himself because he says that $600 a month just isn't enough to live on. Galbreath adds, "If I was still in Seattle, I'd be living in a shelter."
Galbreath now lives in an apartment in downtown Spokane and feels like he's getting better. Then, every once in a while, he hears a helicopter in the sky. "I get chills. I can't help but think about that night out on the water," he says.
Eventually they want to invite the surviving crew for a reunion. Right now most of the men are still in shock and are trying get their lives back together. They write each other and chat about it online. It may take another miracle but they know that they'll see the crew all together again.
On Monday, Shuck and Galbreath met Bonn, the Coast Guard pilot whose helicopter pulled the two from the sea. Galbreath spotted Bonn walking from a distance in Riverfront Park. His eyes lit up as the pilot stretched out his hand. "Nice to meet you. I'm Steve Bonn."
"I normally don't get to meet the people I rescue. Usually, they get put in the back of an ambulance -- or, in your guys' case, set on the deck of the cutter -- and I fly off and that's it," Bonn says.
"It was kind of sickening when we realized how many people were floating and freezing in the water. It was surreal how everybody was floating, and we just saw these lights blinking across the water. I'm really glad to see you guys walking around," he says.
The three men spent the next 45 minutes laughing. While stories passed between them, they acknowledged the life-long bond that the Ranger's crew shares with the rescuers.
"You get a strong bond when you go through something that we did," Bonn says. "Everybody becomes part of a family."
Bonn recalled driving through snowdrifts to get to his helicopter from the base on St. Paul Island. Shuck added how he had never been happier to see anyone when he saw the helicopter come out of the horizon.
"That was amazing," Bonn says. "You and the next couple of guys we pulled out were high-fiving each other. After that we were pulling out some seriously cold men. ... We had this one guy that wouldn't let go of the basket."
Galbreath replies: "That was me."