It was 2:52 am on March 23, Easter morning, when Coast Guard Station Kodiak picked up the distress call from a point almost 800 miles west, in Alaska's frigid Bering Sea.
"Roger. Good copy on position... Request to know number onboard, over."
After a static-filled pause, the answer came through loud and clear: "Number of persons: 47."
Capt. Peter Jacobsen was in the crowded wheelhouse of the 189-ft. fishing vessel. When the trawler's emergency alarm had first sounded about an hour before, crew members descended below decks to see water rising fast in the ship's stern compartments. They had pulled out a pump, but the effort soon looked futile. Now Jacobsen, 65, a veteran captain who had been fishing in the Bering Sea for 23 years, was making calls to his ship's sister vessels, repeating the coordinates of the Ranger's position 120 miles west of the Aleutian Island port of Dutch Harbor.
Two hundred and thirty miles to the north, pilot Steve Bonn was in the middle of a late-night Xbox duel when the phone rang in the Coast Guard's tiny outpost on St. Paul Island. Bonn, 39, had served as an Army Blackhawk pilot before joining the Coast Guard eight years ago. He was now four days into a two-week shift at the isolated base, where squads of rescuers stand by for emergencies involving the nation's largest—and most danger-plagued—fishing fleet. Bonn rushed to the barracks to wake his crew: co-pilot Brian McLaughlin, 30; flight mechanic Robert Debolt, 28; and rescue swimmer O'Brien Hollow, 33. Within minutes, they had loaded into SUVs, sped through 3-ft. snow drifts to the hangar and were fueling up a 14,500-pound HH-60 Jayhawk helicopter.
Craig Lloyd, 46, captain of the Coast Guard cutter Munro, was on patrol near the ice edge south of the barren Pribilof Islands when the mayday call came through. He ordered engineers to switch the 378-ft. cutter from its standard diesel engines to Pratt & Whitney FT4A engines, similar to the ones that power Boeing 707s. Several of the 160 crew members onboard were jarred awake in their bunks as the 18,000-hp turbines kicked in, and the Munro began tosprint toward the sinking ship at a speed of nearly 30 knots, or 35 mph.
David Hull struggled to pull a bright-red survival suit over the sweats he had been sleeping in minutes before. The thick, neoprene "Gumby" suit, which looks a little like a child's footed pajamas, has a zipper up the front that is supposed to form a tight seal at the neck to keep the body dry. But as Hull stepped into the flopping legs of the oversize suit, he felt his thermal socks soak through. Inside, there was already standing water.
A 28-year-old who grew up in the Seattle suburbs, Hull had spent three years as a fish processor on the Alaska Ranger. The so-called head-and-guts vessel has a factory below decks where the catch is partially prepared for sale; it is roughly twice as long as the average king-crab boat the region is known for. Hull had been asleep on his "rack" in the bunk room that he shared with three fellow fishermen when another crew member opened the door: "Get your suits on. We're flooding." Like the rest of the crew, Hull had reported to a muster station near his designated life raft on the ship's deck. Now the anxious men were cycling through 5-minute warmup shifts in the wheelhouse, where they could barely recognize each other in the bulky, hooded suits.
Outside, the deck was slick with ice, and waves were beginning to crest over the stern. The temperature was only 12 F. As Hull leaned against the front window of the wheelhouse, awaiting his turn, the Alaska Ranger went dark. Oddly, it seemed to shift into reverse. Then the trawler took a sudden, violent list to starboard. Hull lunged for an icy rail and held tight as crew members clinging to the rail below him gazed up in horror. "Don't let go, don't let go," he heard someone yell. If he lost his grip, Hull would hurtle down the deck like a bowling ball, knocking the men into the sea.
Amid the chaos, the captain issued the order: Abandon ship. The men struggled to launch the ice-crusted life rafts. They had been told that they would lower ladders to board the rafts in an emergency. But because the Ranger was moving astern, the rafts shot toward the bow instead of floating in place near the side of the vessel. Hull watched them drift away. Then he jumped. He swam for the closest raft, hauled himself in, then peered out of the tented shelter. All around, the lights attached to his friends' survival suits were spreading out in the 32 F water, blinking in and out of view as the men bobbed up and down in the 20-ft. swells.
One of those lights belonged to Ryan Shuck, a soft-spoken 31-year-old from Spokane, Wash., who had joined the crew of the Alaska Ranger 10 months earlier. Shuck had been one of the first to jump. He'd leaped from the middle of the ship—and was quickly sucked under and beyond his raft. Now he was farther downwind than anyone else. Gazing back in the trawler's direction, he could see the tiny, solitary beacons flickering among the waves and, by the light of the moon, the outline of the vessel bulging out from the ocean. Shuck watched as the bow of the Alaska Ranger turned up toward the sky. Eerily, the lights in the wheelhouse flickered on for a brief moment. And then, in a matter of seconds, the ship disappeared, sinking swiftly below the waves.
For the full account of this rescue, pick up Kalee Thompson's latest book, Deadliest Sea: The Untold Story Behind the Greatest Rescue in Coast Guard History.