Friday, March 11, 2011

Rescue at Sea

The Waccamaw was enroute from Norfolk, Virginia, to Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico, when the distress call came.  Three retirement-aged men had left New York on a sailboat heading southeast in rough weather, and one of them had suffered a heart attack at sea.  His companions recognized the symptoms and knew that he urgently needed hospitalization.  They got him reasonably comfortable and called for help; otherwise, there was little that they could do.  In the middle of a warm but stormy November night, then, the Waccamaw was summoned to the rescue.

Such an event is an all-hands operation.  Because it involves humanitarian service, everyone’s participation is mandatory and no one gets paid overtime.  I was roused out of my bunk and told to report to the bridge for instructions.  There I met Captain Rigobello.  He explained what had happened and what we needed to do.  He and I by this time had known each other for a while.  Previously he had been chief mate on the Rigel when I was quite junior; now he commanded the Waccamaw, and I was his second mate.

We needed to go to a certain latitude and longitude to rendezvous with the sailboat and evacuate the patient.  It was not too far away, but preparations had to be made and the time was short.  The bosun and the deck seamen unlashed a cargo boom and readied a medevac litter—a metal stretcher that form-fit the human body to hold incapacitated arms and legs in place—for swinging over the side and lowering to the sailboat.  The nurse—the Waccamaw was one of only a few ships in the fleet to carry one—readied the ship’s small hospital and stood by to examine the patient when he arrived on board.  The Chief Engineer summoned extra engine room crew for maneuvering at sea—boiler-fired steam turbine engines by their nature required extra manpower when called upon to go from full ahead to dead stop and then perform small ahead and astern movements to hold the ship reasonably stationary.  Extra lookouts were posted on the bow and on the bridge wings, too.  We did not know if this sailboat carried lights, and whether or not it did, we would still be searching for a very small object in a very great expanse.  We had to find this boat without running it over.

The men on the sailboat saw the Waccamaw before anyone on the Waccamaw saw the sailboat.  Out of the gloom of the night it approached the ship’s starboard side.  Captain Rigobello took up a position in the corner of the bridge wing from which he could supervise the rescue operation, monitor the movements of both vessels, and issue engine and rudder commands.  The Waccamaw’s deck lights were turned on, and a searchlight was trained on the sailboat.  Her white hull and superstructure contrasted brilliantly with the blackness of the water.  This visibility would make a difficult job easier.

The Waccamaw was brought to a stop.  With a full load of oil, she sat low in the water and provided a reasonably stable work platform.  The sailboat, however, rode over the crests and down into the troughs of all the waves.  They were coming in steady succession and ran about ten to twelve feet high.  It was not an unbearable seaway for a big ship, but the little sailboat, maneuvering with an inboard engine, was constantly running uphill and downhill while simultaneously lurching from side to side.  Lowering the medevac litter to it was easy for our crew.  The sick man’s two friends aboard the sailboat had the difficult job of putting him in the litter and strapping him securely into place from a wildly bouncing boat, hopefully without knocking themselves unconscious in the process.  If one of them fell in the water, what would we do then?

Fortunately, these two fellows had the presence of mind to tie themselves to their boat and to put on inflatable life preservers.  They also had the good sense to push the medevac litter away from their boat when it appeared that its supporting cable was about to become entangled with the sailboat’s mast and rigging.  After many frustrated attempts to grasp the litter and load the patient into it, they began to show signs of fatigue.  Then, providentially, a lull came in the wave train, and the water between the ship and the sailboat became relatively calm.  In this brief interval, the two men worked quickly.  They grasped the litter, pulled it inboard, dumped their companion into it, tied him down tightly, and then motioned to the Waccamaw’s deck crew to haul him away.  No sooner did the litter with the patient in it get clear of the sailboat than the waves resumed in full force and the little boat bounced around out of control.  The two fellows aboard held on for dear life as their boat lurched beneath them. One of them stepped to the engine and rudder controls.  They both called out their thanks to us as they started away.  It was hard to hear them over the wind, but we knew what they meant.

With the patient safely hoisted aboard and being examined by the nurse, Captain Rigobello let out a sigh of relief.  The worst part of the worry was over.  Next the Waccamaw would proceed at maximum speed to a point seven miles south of Bermuda.  There, a helicopter from the American naval base would meet the ship, evacuate the patient, and convey him to a hospital ashore.  In the meantime, our nurse would attend to him.

The next day was Sunday.  The weather abated as the Waccamaw proceeded northward toward Bermuda, and by the time the island came into view, the seaway had become comparatively mild.

The patient had been aboard just over 24 hours when the Waccamaw arrived at the rendezvous point in the soft light of dawn.  The chief mate and the deck crew stood by on the helicopter pad just forward of the bridge.  The Waccamaw was certified to transfer personnel and cargo to and from helicopters as they hovered, but she was not certified, nor did she have the facilities, to land them on her deck.  I was on watch on the bridge.  Captain Rigobello was also on the bridge, and he was not happy.  Overnight the patient’s condition had worsened.  The nurse was very worried about him.  He cared for this man as well as he could, but he was not a heart surgeon, and the ship’s hospital had only limited equipment.  Both Captain Rigobello and the nurse wanted to get the patient ashore before it was too late.

At last, the helicopter came into view.  It approached the Waccamaw on her starboard side, guided by a flight deck crewman’s hand signals. As the helicopter hovered over the deck, a Navy medical man was lowered from a side door down to the Waccamaw.  The helicopter then withdrew to maintain a holding position over the water, while the chief mate escorted the medical man to the hospital to consult with the nurse and examine the patient.

After several minutes, the mate, the nurse, and the patient emerged onto the flight deck.  The helicopter returned and hovered over the ship again.  A line was lowered to the deck.  The Navy medical man hooked it up to the medevac litter that contained the patient, and then he was hoisted up to the helicopter.  The medical man went up next.  Everyone aboard the ship and the helicopter waved good-bye to each other, and then the helicopter flew away toward Bermuda.  With her role in the rescue operation now complete, the Waccamaw set her engines on full ahead and turned southwestward toward Puerto Rico.

By Monday afternoon, the Waccamaw had travelled well to the south on her track line toward the Caribbean.  While thus enroute, she received a radio message from the American naval base in Bermuda.  This missive reported that the patient had undergone surgery and was recuperating very well.  It further asserted that the Waccamaw had delivered him to Bermuda just in time.  His condition on arrival in the hospital was so poor that had he been delayed at all he most likely would have died.  The patient, his family, and the medical staff all expressed their gratitude to the crew of the Waccamaw for their service.  Captain Rigobello was visibly relieved—even jovial—after receiving this good news.

It gave me a good feeling to have participated in a small way in this operation that had such a happy outcome.  In retrospect, I saw that several important factors enabled it to turn out so well.  First, the Waccamaw had been in the vicinity when the emergency call came from the sailboat.  Furthermore, the Waccamaw carried a nurse, which was unusual for a ship; the wave heights diminished momentarily when the patient’s companions were loading him into the medevac litter, making his transfer to the ship possible; the Waccamaw was not far from Bermuda, where complete medical and surgical facilities were available; and the patient’s sea transport was capped off by a ship-to-shore air transfer, which accelerated his arrival at the hospital.  Too many good circumstances to be merely coincidental contributed to the success of this operation.  If a voice from Heaven could have been audible above the wind and machinery noise that night, I imagine it would have said, “be of good cheer, little children: for I am in your midst, and I have not forsaken you” (D&C 61:36).

Finally, the people involved in the rescue cared about what they were doing, and they did their jobs very well.  This attitude of care and concern was perhaps best personified in Captain Rigobello.  Normally a very pleasant and congenial shipmate, he became taciturn and mildly irritable during this operation.  Worry was written all over him.  Little wonder when one stops to consider the many things that could have gone wrong with a man’s life hanging in the balance.  Like the good shepherd, though, and in the highest tradition of the seafaring profession, Captain Rigobello interrupted his voyage and sailed out of his way to save the life of a child of God.

I could not help but contrast this operation to another that had taken place aboard the Rigel a few years earlier.  That time the crew had placed the remains of a dead man in the sea.  This time, happily, the crew of the Waccamaw pulled an all-but-dead man from the sea in order that he would have new life.

In the Church, we do the same thing.  We do not literally pull people out of a stormy sea, but we do maintain a large crew of Bishops, missionaries, home teachers, and visiting teachers to pull people out of the storms of the secular world in order that they would lead new lives in Christ.  The Lord promised his Apostles Peter and Andrew, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matt. 4:17).  The crew of the Waccamaw became fishers of a man that windy and turbulent November night, and the man who was “fished” went on to lead a new and healthier life.  In the spiritual sense, all of us can be “fishers of men” and enable them also to lead new and healthier lives in the Gospel.

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