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What a Hero is

Bill Shires was my room mate, long ago, and a good friend

No Promises

Terry and his brother Todd were crewing for groundfish on the forty-eight-foot trawler Odyssey off the Oregon coast. When a strong southwester started blowing, skipper Gary Cutting decided to weather it out. The boat, a new one and well tested, slammed and rolled, but fishermen in northern waters have always accepted this as part of the work. Suddenly a big wave hit the boat broadside. Todd, on watch, had just made himself a snack. The skipper was dozing in a bunk near the wheel, and Terry lay asleep against the bow in the cramped fo'c'sle. A later investigation determined that the wave knocked off one of the six-hundred-pound steel trawl doors chained to either side of the boat, and the sudden weight loss on a single side tipped the balance.

No one had time to put on his survival suit. According to Terry: "It felt like the boat was immediately on the verge of tipping over. I jumped out of bed. By the time I got to the top and reached the radio my brother had shut off the engine. Then another wave hit, just immediate-like, and we rolled over. Didn't have time at the radio for a Mayday. It was like, for me, like being from a dead sleep to being upside down." Terry, thirty-five, was a short man with a kid's brightness. He discussed his ordeal a week later with such a quiet, steady voice that he might merely have watched it on TV.

"Then we kind of panicked, all three of us there. Tried to get the door open, the door leading from the galley to the deck, get out fast as we could. The door wouldn't budge. Water pressure, I guess. Then we tried to bust the window open, but it's got that bulletproof Plexiglass stuff. Beat at it with a frying pan." Remember, these men were now in a boat with everything tumbled into reverse. They stood on the former ceiling, with the deck they had walked upon seconds before now bumping their heads and every familiar object that had not broken loose hanging over them the wrong way. "Then Todd opened a drawer that had in it our really big frying pan-everything inside tumbled upside out-and beat at the window. Todd's a big guy. He broke off the frying pan handle but the window didn't budge."

It had to be the two-part Dutch door or nothing, even though it would flood them immediately and require a frenzied swim to the surface. "We tried to figure out which way to turn the handle from upside down. Just got it cracked enough to let water in. A wave slammed and crushed our fingers-a couple of mine still won't hold anything-but we held on 'cause it was the only way out. We finally got the door partway open. But by that time water was up to about our waist, and we'd got disorientated."

Soon, the water was up to their chins. "We were kind of floating. Sometimes we had to hold our breath when the water washed over our heads." The hatch to the engine room was a little trapdoor less than two feet square. A short ladder inside, built to lead down to the engine and bilge, now led up at least to a space above them that still had air. "Gary was still obsessed with getting out the door. But we had to go up. I said 'Let's go.' I'm not sure but I've been dreaming this, but I think Gary just shrugged me off. So Todd and I went up to the engine room, popped right up, and just stood there and waited, on like a little mantelpiece. Waited for the skipper to come up. We figured he was right behind us."

The Mason brothers made it up to the engine space none too soon. "We didn't have time to even look around when there was this big whoosh. The door had come loose evidently, 'cause the cabin below us got completely full of water. We figured Gary had got out. But then, in the cold water, we wondered what happened to him. Anyhow, I thought we were dead. Plenty of guys I've known, fishermen, they've been drownded. So, I figured, now it's my turn. Will I see God? Then we stayed floating, like gettin' a reprieve. If somebody found us."

They had capsized around 3 p.m. It was mid-June, so the days were long. Daylight, seen as a glow through the engine-room hatch, slowly faded. For a rescue to start, somebody first had to find them. But the Odyssey had been fishing alone. How long before somebody missed them, even their wives? (Both men were separated but, with children, were still in touch; fishing and an easy home life do not always go together.) There was no comfort except for being still alive. Terry had burned his arm against a hot engine pipe as they climbed to safety, and they could barely move their fingers after crushing them in the door. And, Terry added, "We were completely saturated with oil, black oil." At first the engine radiated heat, but the metal soon cooled. The sea temperature was fifty-six degrees. "We could crawl up out of the water on a ledge but it was still cold. We was only wearing sneakers, jeans, and T-shirts-you know, the cabin had been warm inside when it happened, we weren't on deck hauling nets. So we kept moving our hands and arms to stay warm." A broken vent pipe let in a trickle of fresh but frigid air, and also water. Alternately they plugged it with a sock or opened it for ventilation.

The brothers muttered contingencies to each other. If the boat hit rocks and ripped apart...if the waves rolled the boat to a new angle and flooded their prison...if nobody came to rescue them. . . . "The only answer to any of it was, to swim for it, under the water," Terry said. They practiced holding their breaths. "I had to go under once to find something to stick in the door. Scary." His voice tightened for the first time. "I don't like to swim, don't like the water that much."

By a fluke, some people on a sailboat lost in the same storm had radioed the Newport, Oregon, Coast Guard for help. The Coasties had their hands full escorting boats out of the weather, so they asked for an exact position to help them reach the boaters. The boaters thought they saw an orange vessel tossing in the waves and approached it hoping to get a radio fix. It was the overturned Odyssey, discovered against all odds before darkness would have made a search impossible until morning. The message, according to newspaper accounts, reached the Coast Guard at 6:27 p.m., three and a half hours after the accident.

The Coast Guard dispatched a helicopter, the first of many heroic acts during the night, because this was no weather for safe flying close to the surface. The chopper reached the scene at 7:16 p.m., radioed the exact position, and began to shine a powerful light around the water, looking for survivors. A special Coast Guard self-righting lifeboat arrived from Newport at 8:10 p.m. In the furiously raining twilight, with whitecaps snapping over the water, Petty Officer Second Class Richard White volunteered to have the helicopter raise him in a harness from his boat so that he could crawl onto the Odyssey's rolling, pitching, slippery hull and tap on it for survivors. Terry and Todd tapped back strongly with a piece of pipe they had nursed for hours in hopes that someone might come. Except for the taps, the only sound that had filtered through the overturned hull had been the throb of the helicopter rotors.

In Newport, a close-knit fishing community, people began rushing supplies and equipment to the waterfront and the airstrip, much of it helter-skelter since nobody knew what the rescuers would need specifically. Some fishermen set out in their boats to see if they could help, while others prepared to go if the Coast Guard failed. The wives and ex-wives of the three men gathered in the Coast Guard operations office. Other family members waited by their marine radios. (Terry and Todd came from a family of thirteen.) Eventually word of two survivors reached the community, but no one knew which of the three they were. In town one of the churches opened its doors, and throughout the night people came to pray. And, of course, the media arrived in force with lights and cameras.

The Coast Guard reviewed the options, all of them dangerous in the storm and darkness. They could try to cut a hole in the hull, but the bubble holding the boat afloat might go in the process before the men could be pulled out, or the heavy equipment needed to do the job in a heaving sea might send the boat down. They might tow the boat to shallower water, but this would take a long time while the vessel might swamp and sink during the rough trip. Or, a diver could go in with breathing apparatus and take them out. A diver posed the least risk if a willing, qualified one could be found.

The first two divers flown to the scene studied the conditions and decided they could not do the job. Two commercial salvage divers, Bill Shires and Pat Miller, agreed to have a look, but they lived miles away. A local pilot flew them to Newport (dangerous in itself during the storm). "It was one of those eerie evenings," Shires recalled, "The wind's blowing about forty-five, rainstorms, squalls going back and forth." Everyone knew the importance of speed since the Odyssey could sink at any time, but steps had to be taken deliberately. After a quick briefing with the owner of a similar boat, Shires declared that he needed to assess the situation on site. One of the Coast Guard's two helicopters flew Shires and Miller to the scene. They wore wetsuits, ready to go. It was already past midnight.

Later, in the safety and comfort of a warm room, Bill Shires, a thickset man graying at the temples, remembered some of it. "Opened up the helicopter door, we're sitting there with a full set of diving gear on, looking down through the squalls at lights playing on this hull. You'd see the hull drop off the waves and go back up again and bob like a cork. It was frightening, nothing like I'd been into before. The chopper pilot says: 'You going to go?' I said yes, get me down within ten feet of the water. So Pat and I went."

In the dark and cold water, illuminated by searchlight beams from boats and aircraft, Shires discovered that a loose net on deck had encased the furiously surging boat like a bag. They cut through and swam under the deck (which was heaving over their heads). Half of the Dutch door swayed open. Evidently Gary Cutting in his desperation had succeeded. They tugged open the other half and tied back both sections.

Inside, debris tumbled in a chaotic stew-anything loose, from baloney and shirts to chairs. Shires tried to enter and explore, but the flotsam bumped his head and tangled his gear too dangerously. He passed objects item by item to his partner, who carried them to the hole in the net for release. "We got tangled up in a bunch of netting, in gear. I got vertigo because the boat...she'd drop off the waves and the hydraulic surge-pressure came up just like a plunger to shove you forward into the boat. Then she'd roll anywhere from sixty to eighty degrees. So I was inside this washing machine goin' around, tryin' to figure what next while I got nauseated, got disoriented, got wrapped three times in my own safety line." After clearing the cabin Shires searched but found no bodies or survivors. Despite a superhuman push by rescuers, more than four hours had elapsed since the young Coast Guardsman had heard the taps from inside. Possibly since then the men had died and been washed away.

Shires returned to the surface, exhausted. After a quick rest he pulled himself together for another try, this time on the exposed hull. He strapped a four-pound hammer to his belt and returned with Miller. "Now remember this thing is an upside down boat, completely slick, in probably fourteen-foot seas. Every time the boat drops off a swell she goes underneath. Pat's about six-one. He grabs the rudder shaft and makes himself a human ladder and I just crawled over his body. I hugged along the keel, tapping on the compartments. And at midships I got this response back. So I did it again. And all of a sudden I could hear this frantic tapping inside."

Inside the boat, crouched and shivering, Terry and Todd had watched the diver's light as it edged the rim of the trap door beneath them, but they found no way to communicate through the barrier of water. They had a curious illumination of their own, caused by phosphorescent plankton that emitted greenish, glowing speckles in the water sloshing against the hull. "That glow," Terry remembered, "it didn't make us feel any better, it was too spooky." A long dearth of action followed the glimpse of the exploring light. "We wondered if the guys outside had given up. When we heard those taps over our head, I guess we banged back like hell."

Shires, outside, returned to the support boat to prepare for a third trip. He had brought with him a load of dive equipment-"I mean I threw in everything, you don't know what you're going to run into." The survivors would be scared and tired, he assumed, and probably had no dive experience. Thus he couldn't risk "buddy breathing"-sharing the mouthpiece to his own regulator by passing it back and forth under water-which required training and discipline. He needed to attach an "octopus," a second breathing line, to his regulator. The only other equipment available to him was Pat Miller's. After Miller had stripped down his own regulator to provide the octopus, he could assist Shires only from the surface.

Shires had tied a down line all the way into the Odyssey's interior, and had attached underwater lights along it every ten feet. "I could watch those lights swing as I worked my way back in." He found the hatch to the engine compartment swollen shut from the water, its handle only a finger-hold lever. "Well, the air had locked and compressed it shut. I placed one finger in the crack of the door. It crushed the finger, but allowed the engine compartment to depressurize. I finally with a real strong sense of urgency, I got it pulled down. I started to work my way up. All of a sudden I saw this hand coming down. It had life, it grabbed me, it scared me. Then I had to work my way through this twenty-two by twenty-two-inch opening in a wetsuit, diving tank, all kinds of regulators. I work my way up. Just as I begin to break water I shine my light up. And I see two sets of eyes."

Up to their chests in water, in a mist of smoke and diesel fumes, the brothers received a brief course in scuba diving. "No mystique, scuba's just basic, a way to get to the work site. So I told these two guys: 'You follow instructions, you live; you don't, you die. Pretty basic course we're goin' to have here today, folks.'" The audience at the Seattle Fish Expo to whom Shires was recounting his experience laughed for the first time. They did it with a relieved heartiness. Most were fishermen, men with muscles bulging from plaid shirts. For the moment they sat agreeably close to food and shelter, but they could project themselves onto the storming dark water.

Shires gave Todd the regulator to demonstrate. "He puts it in his mouth, sucks it, says: 'I can't get no air.' I figured the guy was just stressed out. But he hands it back, and low and behold, I can't get air out of the bottle either!" He had ruptured part of the bulky scuba system trying to come up through the narrow opening. "My tank's empty. And now, the guy that's going to make the rescue, he becomes the victim. I'm trapped also inside this boat. Yes, if you're wondering. I felt a sense of real despair."

He did not tell the brothers, but merely said that he needed to go out for more equipment. "I had to make about a forty-five-foot run through the interior of this boat with no air. I'll tell you what, this was one time I prepared. I stripped the gear off, I opened up my knife blade...took three breaths, made a submersion, and started down that line. I can still see those lights swinging." There was a turn to negotiate in the cabin, then a hand-over-hand crossing under the deck to the opening in the fishnet, then a potential snare from cables that had been attached to the boat if he tried to surface before clearing them. He made it, completely exhausted.

Shires recovered himself as quickly as he could. The water in the compartment had risen a rung on the ladder from opening the hatch and time might be running out. Only the bubble of air kept the boat afloat. He decided to return himself since he knew the way in. Carrying individual air bottles and regulators from his stockpile, he faced the brothers again. "Inside there, I know if we lose the bubble we're all gone. I didn't ask who had the most kids or anything like that. I just said: 'You're [Todd] first, you're [Terry] second.'"

He strapped the gear onto Todd and explained how he was to follow the lighted line hand over hand. But, also: "Return to the refuge if anything goes wrong." Todd did panic. "But he made the right decision and went right back. We had a little discussion about get your act together, if you want to get out of here you've got to do what I tell you to. So once again we went down into the interior. I pulled him down by his legs, grabbed his hand." They groped through the net and to the surface.

Shires was sensitive enough to Terry's plight, left alone in the dark, half-submerged in oily water rising around him, to return immediately despite his own fatigue. "Well," Terry admitted a week later, "I don't remember much about that wait. Don't want to, I guess." Strapped into the gear and swimming out, Terry panicked and started groping toward the forepeak: a dead end. "So," said Shires, "I wrassle him back in and turn, made sure that I was in position. I'm prepared to drown him and hope that my topside crew'll be ready to rescue him."

Shires' listeners gasped. He knew he needed to explain. "That's a terrible terrible burden to place on anybody. But in a situation like this where that man's panic might kill you both, you've got to take control of him and hope that your topside crew's prepared." He looked firmly at the faces of fishermen watching him. "I've worked in this ocean. She's an equal opportunity killer." One large man nodded. "I've seen her," Shires continued, "I've seen her kill captains with all kinds of moxie as easily as the guys without brains."

Terry pulled himself together, although he remained disoriented. "Just as he broke the cabin," Shires concluded, "he wanted to go up, and up was upside down and there was the debris. He forgot his instructions, let go the line, and went right into the snare of nets. I pulled him back. After that he saw lights on the surface and headed toward them, hands on the line like I'd told him. You can count on it, the guy's always going to swim toward the light. And he made it."

Later that year the Coast Guard awarded Bill Shires and Pat Miller the Gold Lifesaving Medal, its highest civilian award for valor.

Back home in Newport, people rejoiced at the rescue of the Mason brothers and grieved at the loss of Gary Cutting, whose body was never found. "But you get tired of walking down the street," Terry said a week later. "Everybody wants to know the story, and you've got to tell the whole story." He talked to me the day of Gary's memorial service. After hesitating, he added quietly: "I didn't go. Didn't think I was up to that. You think you're OK, then you get despondent. I couldn't go to sleep last night. . . . But now that the memorial service is over. . . ."

I asked Terry if he felt any guilt and assured him it was natural. His voice came closest to breaking. "Maybe I could have pulled him...You know, back there, maybe forced him. . . ."

After the Odyssey disaster Terry declared: "Guess I'm just happy to be alive. I've been on a couple of boats when I thought they were going to sink, but nothing like this. Kind of ironical, my thirteen years of fishing, and thirteen hours down there." After a pause: "I don't think I'll go back fishing. I don't want to die that way." But Terry remained a fisherman, whether by choice or circumstance. Four years later his boat went down. This time he drowned.

Excerpted from the book "Their Fathers' Work", by William B. McCloskey: