Survivor, rescuers gather to commemorate rescue 25 years ago
Twenty-five years ago Monday a daring air-sea rescue saved seven souls from a watery grave off Sledge Island. Their Piper Navajo had run out of gas on a return trip from Lavrentiya, Russia and when the engines quit they ditched into the frigid waters of the Bering Sea.
A group of missionaries in four planes had flown to Lavrentiya with food, medicine, and Russian language Bibles and spent a week there, preaching and singing and caring for the local people. A plane with seven of the missionaries, including gospel musician Dave Anderson, was to leave first, a day before the other three planes.
Seated on a couch at the Nugget office last Friday, Dave Anderson told the tale of sitting in the Navajo on the tarmac at Lavrentiya when one of the other missionaries said “Hey, they’ve got some room in here.” With that seventeen empty five-gallon av-gas cans were loaded into the plane. Ten were behind the back seat and the remaining seven in the aisle.
Those empty fuel cans were to become lifesavers. “We flew from Providenya to St. Lawrence Island and a man named Rodney came out from the village and stamped our passports and then we were flying to Nome, refueling, and heading up to do a concert in Shishmaref,” related Anderson. But 45 minutes into the hour and a half flight the right engine quit. The pilot radioed to the Anchorage Flight Center that he’d lost an engine but said he didn’t want to declare an emergency. “I think we can make it to Nome with one engine,” he told the controller over the radio. About ten minutes later they had descended from 7,000 feet to 3,500 and the other engine quit. The flight center asked him for his location. He gave them the latitude and longitude and then the plane was in the water. “We hit the water at 90 miles an hour,” said Anderson. “We got out of the plane in a minute and a minute later the plane sank. We were 22 miles from Nome and we were two miles west of Sledge Island.”
The controllers in Anchorage assumed the seven aboard the downed plane were doomed, but then they saw a dot on their screen. It was a VFR flight they couldn’t contact so they called Nome Flight Center to find out who it was. Nome replied it was Terry Day, Bering Air flight 4666 and gave them his frequency. Day was now half-way between Sledge Island and Nome and when they told him of the downed Navajo he turned around.
“I had two people on board,” said Day after a meal with the survivors and some of the rescuers Sunday evening in Nome. “I’d seen a splash about two or three minutes before that and I thought it was a whale. So I said ‘Maybe that’s what I saw.’ So I didn’t go to Sledge Island, I bypassed it and went a little bit to the left where I thought I’d seen that splash. I started circling, and then I increased my circle, and then Steve Flowers, one of the two passengers, after one of our circles said “I just saw somebody!’ I made a sharp left bank turn and then I saw him and then I just continued and kept him in sight. A couple of times we lost them in the white caps. They didn’t have anything bright on.”
Flying at 500 feet Day was able to see at least three survivors waving their hands and splashing them in the water to attract his attention. Day circled them and told Nome that the three in the water would need a helicopter right away. “These folks were cold and getting colder,” he said. At this time Day was getting low on fuel.
Vic Olson of Baker Aviation was on his way to Shishmaref and had plenty of gas so he volunteered to help. As soon as he was in line behind Day and had the people in the water spotted Day headed for Nome. He landed, got rid of his passengers, refueled and flew halfway to Sledge Island, where he relayed information from the scene via radio.
In Nome Eric Penttila, pilot for Evergreen Helicopter, had just finished dinner and was headed for camp when Jay Langton from Nome Flight Service called. He told Penttila that a plane had reported being low on fuel and was probably going to have to ditch. Penttila called mechanic Jerry Austin and the two raced down to the hanger to fire up their helicopter. When Nome Volunteer Fire Department’s Doug Doyle showed up and asked if they could use a firefighter Penttila said he needed “the strongest, biggest one you’ve got.” Twenty minutes later Randy Oles was there, jumped aboard the helicopter and in 20 minutes they were off Sledge Island, being directed by Vic Olson toward the downed travelers.
The survivors of the ditching had now been in the cold water for around forty minutes. Water temperature was estimated to be between 41°F and 45°F. At those temperatures a person can’t last very long. “My wife and I were the last two out of the plane,” said Anderson. “We got out through the emergency exit, still on the wing, hoping the plane was going to float for a while. It didn’t. It disappeared.” There was no inflatable raft, not even life jackets aboard the plane. The empty gas cans became their lifesavers. “And we were hanging on to our gas cans.”
A nearby ERA helicopter piloted by the late Walter Greaves was doing geophysical survey work for a Canadian company. They were contacted and immediately left their survey gear on a mountain top and headed for Sledge Island. Between them and the Evergreen helicopter they had none of the apparatus normally used in a rescue of this type. The firemen had loaded seven body bags into the Evergreen ship under the assumption this was to be a recovery operation rather than a rescue.
When they arrived at the rescue site the helicopters hovered low enough that their bellies were touching the swells. “I didn’t expect to find anybody alive,” said Randy Oles. “So I said to myself ‘This is going to be interesting as I was opening the door to crawl out.’ Then the rest of it goes pretty quick.” He was on the skid until they got back to Nome, probably around 40 minutes. “I kind of lost track of time.”
“The two guys in the Evergreen helicopter got out, stood on the skid, and tried to reach out to us,” said Anderson. By now the cold was affecting the people in the water. They were lucky they could still hang onto the lifesaving gas cans. “The wind velocity under a helicopter is a 110 miles an hour. And the noise and the water spray is just unbelievable.” Anderson had made his way to his wife in the water but she drifted away. He tried to reach her again but now his arm wouldn’t paddle.
With much effort Oles and Austin hauled people aboard. Dave Anderson was the second on board and the helicopter took the two to the top of Sledge Island, left them there, and returned to rescue more people. “Some of us would have died if there’d been one helicopter, some of use would have died if Sledge Island hadn’t been there,” said Anderson.
The ERA helicopter, with surveyor Dave Miles out on the skid, was able to lift Anderson’s wife Barbara up but couldn’t get her inside the ship. Miles grasped her around the neck with his legs and they headed for the summit. But close to the beach he lost his grip on her and she fell back into the water, this time with no gas can for flotation. Greaves flew to the beach and Miles got out and walked into the sea to get her. He was able to pull her into shore, took off her heavy coat and helped get her circulation going again. Greaves went back out and located the last of the people in the water but with nobody on the skid the Evergreen helicopter came to pull him out. “Without Randy Oles we never would have fished them out,” said mechanic Austin. “He was just physically lifting them up onto the skid tube.” The Evergreen helicopter stopped at base of the island to pick up Barbara and Miles and delivered them to the summit of the island, where all seven survivors were now gathered. Four were loaded into the Evergreen ship and the others went into the ERA helicopter. With their dangerously hypothermic cargo they headed for Nome.
“Without Randy Oles we never would have fished them out,” said Jerry Austin. “He was just physically lifting them up onto the skid. He’s strong.”
“A lot of times when I get called out it’s a fatality,” said Eric Penttila to the Nugget reporter 25 years ago. He is now retired and spends three months a year in Nome. “Very seldom do we go out and save lives like we just did, so that’s a pretty good feeling. It was fortunate that the wind conditions were out of the North. If it had been a south wind the seas would have probably been higher and it would have been almost impossible to fish them out.”
At Evergreen’s hangar the helicopters were met by Nome Volunteer Ambulance Service and the NVFD Search and Rescue and transported to Norton Sound Hospital. Kevin Ahl was one who helped with the transportation. Initial reports from the hospital said five of the seven were being treated for first degree hypothermia.
Nearly every year for the past 24 years Anderson has made a phone call to each of the rescuers. “We want to honor them every way we can,” he said. “And that’s why the dinner. We want to honor the people who risked their lives to save us.”
Anderson reports the experience was very traumatic, what he calls “PTSD territory.” “My emotional system has never been the same,” he said.
“We believe that this is a God event,” he said. “We believe with all our hearts that this was organized by God who said ‘I want these seven people rescued and put into action to do the flying, to do the reaching out to us,’ and allowed this to happen two miles from Sledge Island because if you add up all the what ifs in this story you’d have to say ‘There are so many coincidences here that it’s just amazing. And we believe it was not coincidences, it was divine direction.’”
“From a Christian standpoint,” continued Anderson, “I have made a point of saying hundreds and hundreds of times ‘God is the God of overwhelming circumstances in our lives.’ And for nobody in my audience will it ever be the Bering Sea. But sitting in my audience is somebody who is facing an overwhelming circumstance of a totally different kind. And I’m there to remind them that their lives are in God’s hands. Whether it’s the Bering Sea or whether it’s the loss of their loved one or some kind of disappointment or reversal in their life. A lot of people have drawn a lot of courage from hearing this story.”