Adapted from Sebastian Junger’s riveting best-seller, The Perfect Storm, this article originally appeared in the May 1997 issue of Esquire. You can find every story we’ve ever published at Esquire Classic.
It was as if their helicopter had slammed into a mountainside. One minute, they were pounding home through the darkness; the next, they’d been blown practically to a stop. Flight manuals ricocheted around the cabin, and the five crewmen were thrown against the ceiling and then back down into their seats. Rain hammered off the windscreen like grapeshot. In zero visibility, they’d run into a wall of storm clouds ten thousand feet high, and the pilot, Dave Ruvola, hadn’t even been told it was there.
Ruvola and his four mates were flying an Air National Guard H-60 helicopter back from a failed rescue 290 miles off the coast of Long Island when the wind hit. That afternoon, a solo yachtsman had radioed that he was going down in stormy seas and needed help, and they’d streaked out there to save him. When they’d arrived, though, it was clear there was nothing they could do—seas were seventy feet and the winds were beyond hurricane force. A hoist basket could never be maneuvered onto the deck of the man’s small sailboat, and rescue swimmers didn’t stand a chance jumping into such huge seas. The man was eventually picked up by a Romania-bound merchant ship. Dave Ruvola swung his helicopter for home.
Also on board were copilot Graham Buschor, flight engineer Jim Mioli, and pararescue jumpers John Spillane and Rick Smith. They were some of the most highly trained rescue men in the country, and now they were in even worse straits than the man they’d tried to save. They needed one more refueling to make it back to shore. The helicopter they were flying was designed to be refueled in midflight, but conditions were now so severe that Ruvola could barely control the aircraft, much less link up to a three-foot-wide funnel hanging off the back of a tanker plane. In technical terms, their helicopter was doing things “without input from the controls”; in human terms, the men were getting slammed around the sky.
For forty-five minutes, Dave Ruvola tried, and failed, to hit the funnel. It was something he’d done hundreds of times in his life, but now it was like trying to throw a dart down a gun barrel. It was pure dumb luck. After twenty or thirty attempts—a monstrous feat of concentration—Ruvola radioed the tanker pilot that he was giving up. They were five thousand feet in the air with no visibility and roughly twenty minutes of fuel left; if he started now, he might be able to make it down to sea level before the engines quit. Otherwise, they’d just fall out of the sky.
Dave Ruvola dropped the nose of the helicopter and started racing his fuel gauge down to the sea.
They had run into what many meteorologists consider to be the storm of the century: In late October 1991, a hurricane named Grace collided with a freak low-pressure cell over the North Atlantic and created a meteorological maelstrom that turned the East Coast of the United States into a single storm zone. An American fishing boat was lost with all hands off Nova Scotia. A ninety-foot schooner went down off Maryland. Two lighthouses were extinguished by huge seas off New Hampshire. President Bush’s vacation home in Kennebunkport, Maine, was trashed by thirty-foot breakers. A man was swept to his death off coastal rocks in Rhode Island. Another man died trying to surf twenty-foot shore-break in Massachusetts. And near the storm’s center, data buoys registered wave heights of more than one hundred feet—among the very highest readings anywhere, ever.
While Ruvola flew blindly downward through the clouds, Buschor issued a Mayday on an Air National Guard emergency frequency and then made radio contact with the Coast Guard cutter Tamaroa, fresh off another rescue seventeen miles to the northeast. Back at Suffolk Air National Guard Base, where Ruvola had been headed, dispatcher Jim MacDougall received—simultaneously—Buschor’s SOS and a phone call from Spillane’s wife, who wanted to know where her husband was. She’d had no idea there was a problem and just happened to call at the wrong moment. MacDougall was so panicked by the timing that he hung up on her. At 9:08 P.M., a dispatcher at Coast Guard headquarters in Boston took a call that an Air National Guard helicopter might go down and scrawled frantically in the incident log: “Helo & 130 enroute Suffolk. Can’t refuel helo due vis. May have to ditch. . . . Stay airborn how long? 20-25 min . . . LAUNCH!”
Pararescue jumper John Spillane, watching silently from the left-hand scanner’s seat, was sure he’d just been handed his death sentence. He was not a man who scared easily—once, while diving, he’d run out of air under an oil barge in complete darkness and hadn’t lost his cool—but this situation looked hopeless. He knew it was hard even to find people at sea in these conditions, much less save them. They were almost guaranteed to die.
The copter finally broke out of the clouds at 9:28, only two hundred feet above the ocean. Ruvola continued dropping until he was right over the wave tops, where he tried to set up a low hover without getting batted out of the sky. The crew members, meanwhile, scrambled through their last-minute ditching checklists. Spillane slung a canteen over his shoulder and clipped a one-man life raft to its strap. Jim Mioli slid the nine-man life raft to the edge of the jump door and waited for the order to push it out. Rick Smith, draped in survival gear, squatted at the edge of the other jump door and looked over the side. He looked down at an ocean so torn by wind that he couldn’t tell the difference between the crests and the troughs. For all he knew, they were jumping three hundred feet.
At 9:30, the number-one engine flamed out; they’d been in a low hover for less than a minute. Ruvola called out on the intercom: “The number one’s out! Get out! Get out!” The number two was running on fumes. This was it. They were going down.
The protocol for ditching called for copilot Buschor to remain on board with the pilot, but Ruvola ordered him out because, he decided, Buschor’s chances of survival would be higher if he jumped. Ruvola had to stay at the controls until the end to make sure the helicopter didn’t fall onto his crew. His chances of getting out of the helicopter before it sank were minimal, but that was beside the point; every crew member has a job to do during a ditching, and his job was to land the aircraft safely. Buschor looked at the radar altimeter, which was fluctuating between ten feet and sixty feet, and realized that the timing of his jump would mean the difference between life and death. Ruvola repeated his order to bail out, and Buschor stepped out his door onto the footboard and flipped his night-vision goggles down. Now he could watch the waves roll underneath him in the ghostly green light of enhanced vision. He spotted a huge crest, took a breath, and jumped.
The helicopter was suddenly quiet without the number-one engine. In back, Mioli shoved the life raft out the right-hand door and watched it fall, in his words, “into the abyss.” The visibility was so bad that he didn’t even see it hit the water, and he couldn’t bring himself to jump in after it. Without telling anyone, he decided to take his chances in the helicopter. Spillane spotted Rick Smith at the port door and moved toward him. “I’m convinced he was sizing up the waves,” Spillane says. “I wanted desperately to stick together with him. I just had time to sit down, put my hand onto his shoulder, and he went. We didn’t have time to say anything—you want to say goodbye, but there’s no time for that. Rick went, and a split second later, I went.”
According to people who have survived long falls, the acceleration of gravity is so heart-stoppingly fast that it’s more like getting shot downward out of a cannon. A body accelerates roughly 20 miles an hour for every second it’s in the air: After one second, it’s falling 20 miles an hour; after two seconds, 40 miles an hour; and so on, up to 130. At that point, the wind resistance is equal to the force of gravity, and the body is said to have reached terminal velocity. Spillane probably fell sixty or seventy feet—a little more than two and a half seconds of acceleration. He plunged through the darkness without any idea where the water was or when he was going to hit. He had a dim memory of letting go of his one-man raft, and of his body losing jumping position, and of thinking, My God, what a long way down. And then everything went blank.
In official air National Guard terms, the rescue these men had embarked on was categorized as an “increased risk” mission, meaning that the weather conditions were extreme and civilians were in danger of perishing. The rescuers, therefore, would accept a higher level of risk than usual in order to save them. Among the crews, these missions are referred to as “sporty,” as in “Boy, it sure was sporty out there last night.” In general, sporty is good; it’s what rescue is all about.
Wartime, of course, is about as sporty as it gets, but it’s a rare and horrible circumstance, one that most pararescue jumpers don’t ever experience. (The Air National Guard is considered a state militia—meaning its state funded—but it’s also a branch of the Air Force, and therefore, Guard jumpers are interchangeable with Air Force jumpers.) The wartime mission of the Air National Guard is “to save the life of an American fighting man,” which generally means jumping behind enemy lines to extract downed pilots. When pilots go down at sea, the guardsmen jump with masks, fins, and snorkels. When they go down on glaciers, they jump with crampons and ice axes. When they go down in the jungle, they jump with two hundred feet of tree-rappelling line. There is, literally, nowhere on earth an Air National Guardsman can’t go. “I could climb Everest with the equipment in my locker,” one guardsman said.
All of the armed forces have some version of the pararescue jumper, but the Air National Guard jumpers and their Air Force counterparts are the only ones with a peacetime mission as well. Every time the space shuttle is launched, an Air Guard C-130 from Long Island flies down to Florida with a full rescue crew. An Air Guard base in Alaska is permanently on alert—“fully cocked and ready to go”—and the other two bases, in California and on Long Island, are on standby.
It takes almost twenty months of full-time training to become a PJ, after which you owe the government four years of active service, which you’re strongly encouraged to extend. There are about 350 PJs around the country, but developing them is such a lengthy and expensive process that the government is hard put to replace the ones who are lost every year. During the first three months of training, candidates are weeded out through sheer, raw abuse. In one drill, the team swims its normal four-thousand-yard workout, and then the instructor tosses his whistle into the pool. Ten guys fight for it, and whoever manages to blow it at the surface gets to leave the pool, his workout ended for the day. The instructor throws the whistle in again, and the nine remaining guys fight for it. This goes on until there’s only one man left, and he’s kicked out of PJ school.
After pre-training, the survivors enter a period known as the pipeline, during which the PJs learn to parachute, climb mountains, survive in deserts, resist enemy interrogation, evade pursuit, and navigate underwater at night. By this point, the dropout rate has climbed as high as 90 percent. The pipeline is ruthless; in dunker training, for example, the candidates are buckled into a simulated helicopter and plunged underwater. If they manage to escape, they’re plunged in upside down. If they still manage to escape, they’re plunged in upside down and blindfolded. The guys who escape that get to continue training. The rest are rescued by divers and sent away.
When John Spillane hit the Atlantic ocean, he was going about fifty miles an hour. Water is the only element that offers more resistance the harder you hit it, and at fifty miles an hour it might as well be concrete. Spillane fractured three bones in his arms, one bone in his left leg, and four ribs, and he bruised his pancreas and nearly ruptured a kidney. The flippers, the one-man raft, and the canteen were all torn off his body by the sea. Only his mask, which he wore backward with the strap in his mouth, stayed on. Spillane didn’t remember the moment of impact, and he didn’t remember the moment he first realized he was in the water. His memory went from falling to swimming, with nothing in between. When he understood that he was swimming, that was all he understood—he didn’t know who he was, why he was there, or how he got there.
When Spillane treats injured seamen offshore, one of the first things he evaluates is their degree of consciousness. The highest level, known as “alert and oriented times four,” describes almost everyone in an everyday situation. They know who they are, where they are, what time it is, and what’s just happened. If someone suffers a blow to the head, the first thing he loses is recent events—“alert and oriented times three”—and the last thing he loses is his identity. A person who has lost all four levels of consciousness, right down to identity, is said to be “alert and oriented times zero.” John Spillane was alert and oriented times zero. His understanding of the world was reduced to the fact that he existed, nothing more. Almost simultaneously, he understood that he was in excruciating pain. For a long time, that was all he knew. Until he saw the life raft.
It had been pushed out of the helicopter by Jim Mioli, and it inflated automatically while falling. Now it was scudding along upside down on the wave crests, the sea anchors barely holding it down in the eighty-mile-an-hour wind. “I lined up on it, intercepted it, and hung off the side,” says Spillane. “I knew I was in the ocean, in a desperate situation, and I was hurt. I didn’t know anything else. It was while I was hanging on to the raft that it all started coming back to me. We were on a mission. We ran out of fuel. I bailed out. I’m not alone.”
While Spillane was hanging off the raft, a gust of wind caught it and flipped it over. One moment, Spillane was in the water, trying to figure out who he was; the next, he was inside the raft. Instantly, he felt better. He was lying on the nylon floor, evaluating the stabbing pain in his chest, when the storm gods flipped the raft over again, dumping Spillane back into the sea. He was flipped in or out of the raft a total of four times before he was tossed into the water for good, as the raft went cartwheeling off across the waves.
After an hour of making mental farewells and trying to keep the seawater out of his stomach, Spillane spotted two strobe lights in the distance. The survival vests airmen wear have strobes on them, and this was the first real evidence Spillane had that someone else had survived the ditching. His immediate reaction was to swim toward the lights, but he stopped himself. There was no way he was going to live out the night, he knew, so he might as well just die on his own. “I didn’t want them to see me go,” he says. “I didn’t want them to see me in pain. What finally drove me to them was survival training. It emphasizes strength in numbers, and I know that if I’m with them, I’ll try harder not to die. But I couldn’t let them see me in pain, I told myself. I couldn’t let them down.”
Believing that his and his crewmates’ chances would be slightly less negligible in a group, Spillane slowly made his way toward the lights. After a couple hours of swimming, he finally got close enough to make out their faces—it was Dave Ruvola and Jim Mioli, roped together with parachute cord. Ruvola seemed fine—he’d escaped the flooded helicopter on one lungful of air—but Mioli was nearly incoherent with hypothermia. He’d been so preoccupied with trying to ready the life raft that he hadn’t been able to put on his survival suit, so the only insulation he had was a thin Nomex flight suit. His chances of lasting until dawn were even lower than Spillane’s.
Spillane swam up, greeted his friends, and grabbed the strap on Ruvola’s flotation vest. Then he settled down to face the next few hours as best he could.
The first mayday from Ruvola’s aircraft reached Coast Guard headquarters in Boston around 9:30 that night, seconds before the first engine flamed out. The response was massive and instantaneous. Within minutes of the ditching, rescue craft from Florida to Maine were being readied for deployment. A Falcon jet and an H-3 helicopter were launched from Otis Air National Guard Base on Cape Cod twenty minutes after the call. An hour later, a Navy P-3 jet was readied for launching at Brunswick Naval Air Station in Maine. (The jet was infrared-equipped to detect heat-emitting objects, like people.) At 10:23, Boston requested a Coast Guard cutter, the Spencer, and even considered diverting an aircraft carrier. The Coast Guard cutter Tamaroa, one hundred miles off Montauk, Long Island, had received the SOS and changed course before Ruvola had even gone down.
The first aircraft on the scene was the Falcon jet out of Cape Cod; it arrived ninety minutes after the ditching, and the pilot immediately set up what is known as an expanding-square search. He moved slightly down-sea of the last known position—the “splash point”—and started flying in ever-increasing squares until he had covered an area ten miles across. He flew at two hundred feet, just below cloud cover, and estimated the probability of spotting the survivors to be one in three. He turned up nothing. Around 11:30, he expanded his search to a twenty-mile square and started all over again, slowly working his way southwest, in the direction of the sea’s drift.
And then, ten minutes into the second square, he picked up something: a weak signal on 243 megahertz. That was a frequency coded into Air National Guard radios. It meant that at least one of the airmen was still alive.
The pilot homed in on the signal and tracked it to a position about twenty miles down-sea of the splash point. The pilot came in low, scanning the sea with night-vision goggles, and finally spotted a lone strobe flashing in the darkness, appearing and disappearing behind the huge swells. Moments later, the pilot spotted three more strobes half a mile away. That meant all but one of the crew members were accounted for. The pilot circled, flashing his lights, and then radioed his position in to Coast Guard District One in Boston. An H-3 helicopter, equipped with a hoist and a rescue swimmer, was only twenty minutes away; the whole ordeal could be over in less than an hour.
The Falcon circled the strobes until the H-3 arrived, and then headed back to base with a rapidly falling fuel gauge. The H-3 is a huge machine, similar to the combat helicopters used in Vietnam, and has spare fuel tanks inside the cabin. It can’t refuel in midflight, but it can stay airborne for four or five hours. The pilot, Ed DeWitt, tried to establish a thirty-five-foot hover, but wind shear kept spiking him downward. The ocean was a ragged white expanse in his searchlights, there were no visual reference points, and his altimeter was plunging from 125 feet to 15 feet. At one point, he turned downwind and was almost drilled into the sea.
DeWitt worked his helicopter to within a hundred yards of the three men in the water and told his flight engineer to drop the rescue basket. The engineer paid out the cable and watched in alarm as the basket was blown straight back almost into the tail rotors. The basket finally reached the water, swept backward at an angle of 45 degrees, but DeWitt couldn’t hold a steady hover long enough for the swimmers to reach it. He tried for forty minutes before finally giving up. By then, he could see the Coast Guard cutter Tamaroa, searchlights pointed straight up for maximum visibility, plunging through the storm. DeWitt vectored her in, dropped a marker flare, and started back for Suffolk.
Two hundred feet below, John Spillane watched his last hope, the copter, clatter away north. He hadn’t expected to be rescued, but still, it was hard to watch. The only benefit he could see was that his family would know for sure that he had died. That might spare them weeks of false hope. In the distance, he could see lights rising and falling in the darkness. He assumed it was a Falcon jet looking for the other airmen, but its lights were moving strangely. They were moving like those on a ship.
The Tamora had taken four hours to cover the seventeen miles to the splash point; her propellers were turning for twelve knots of headway and making only three. Commander Lawrence Brudnicki didn’t know exactly how strong the wind was because it had ripped the anemometer off the mast. Copter pilot DeWitt reported that his airspeed indicator hit eighty-seven knots—one hundred miles an hour. The Tamaroa’s course to the downed airmen put her broadside to the huge seas, which started to roll the ship through an arc of no degrees. At that angle, it was easier to walk on the bulkheads—the walls of the ship—than on the decks. In the wheelhouse, Brudnicki was surprised to find himself looking up at the crests of the waves, and when he ordered full rudder and full power, it took thirty seconds for the ship to start turning.
The first airman they spotted was Graham Buschor, swimming alone and relatively unencumbered a half mile from Ruvola, Spillane, and Mioli. He was in a Mustang survival suit and had a pen-gun flare and the only functional radio beacon of the entire crew. Brudnicki ordered his operations officer to maneuver the Tamaroa up-sea of Buschor and then drift down on him. Large objects drift slightly faster than small ones, and if the ship was upwind of Buschor, the waves wouldn’t smash him against the hull. The gunner’s mate started firing flares from cannons on the flying bridge, and a detail of seamen crouched in the bow with throwing ropes, waiting for their chance. They had to take a head count every time a sea swept the bow, to make sure no one had gone overboard.
The engines came to a full stop and the Tamaroa wallowed broadside to the waves. It was a dangerous position to be in: The ship loses her ability to right herself at 72 degrees, and she was rolling to 55. Drifting down on swimmers is standard rescue procedure, but the seas were so violent that Buschor kept getting flung out of reach. There were times on the wave crests when he was thirty feet higher than the men trying to rescue him. The crew in the bow couldn’t get a throwing rope anywhere near him, and Brudnicki wouldn’t order his rescue swimmer overboard because he was afraid he wouldn’t get him back. The men on deck finally realized that if the boat wasn’t going to Buschor, Buschor was going to have to go to the boat. “Swim!” they screamed over the rail. Buschor ripped off his gloves and hood and started swimming for his life.
He swam as hard as he could; he swam until his arms gave out. He clawed his way up to the ship, got swept around the bow, struggled back within reach of it again, and finally caught hold of a cargo net that the crew had dropped over the side. The net looked like a huge rope ladder and was held by six or eight men at the rail. Buschor twisted his hands into the mesh and slowly got hauled up the hull. One good wave at the wrong moment could have taken them all out. The deck crewmen landed Buschor like a big fish and carried him into the deckhouse. He was vomiting seawater and could barely stand; his core temperature had dropped to 94 degrees. He’d been in the water four hours and twenty-five minutes.
It had taken half an hour to get one man on board, and they had four more to go, one of whom hadn’t even been sighted yet. The Tamaroa worked its way up-sea of the other three guardsmen and again tried to drift down on them. Crew members lit flares and aimed searchlights. Spillane was injured, Mioli was incoherent, and Ruvola was helping to support them both. There was no way they’d be able to swim like Buschor.
The ropes proved impossible to catch, so the deck crew again threw the cargo net over the side. The men in the water snagged it after three attempts, but their muscles were cramping so badly with cold that they could barely hang on. The men on deck gave a terrific heave—they were pulling up six hundred pounds of deadweight—but at the same time a large wave dropped out from beneath the swimmers. Exhausted and desperate, the airmen lost their grip on the net. The next thing Spillane knew, he was underwater. He fought his way to the surface just as the boat rolled inward toward them, and he grabbed the net again. This was it; if he couldn’t do it now, he’d die. The deck crew heaved, and Spillane felt himself getting pulled up the steel hull. He climbed up a little higher, felt hands grabbing him, and the next thing he knew, he was being pulled over the gunwale onto the deck. He was in so much pain that he couldn’t stand. The men, staggering with the roll of the ship, carried him inside, pinned him against the bulkhead, and then cut off his survival suit. Spillane couldn’t see Ruvola and Mioli. They hadn’t managed to get back on the net.
The waves washed the two men down the hull toward the ship’s stern, where the twelve-foot screw was digging out a cauldron of boiling water. The engines shut down just as the two men were carried around the stern and then up the port side of the ship. Ruvola caught the net for the second time and got one hand into the mesh. He clamped the other one around Mioli and screamed into his face, “You got to do this, Jim!”
Mioli nodded and wrapped his hands into the mesh. Ruvola got a foothold as well as a handhold and gripped with all the strength in his cramping muscles. The two men were dragged upward, swinging with the roll of the ship, until the deck crew at the rail could reach them. They grabbed Ruvola and Mioli by the hair, the Mustang suit, the combat vest, anything they could grip, and pulled them over the steel rail. Like Spillane, they were retching seawater and could barely stand. Jim Mioli had been in 60 degree water for more than five hours and was severely hypothermic. His core temperature was 90.4, more than 8 degrees below normal.
The two airmen were carried inside, their clothing was cut off, and they were laid in bunks. Spillane had been taken to the executive officer’s quarters and given an IV and a catheter and examined by the ship’s paramedic, who relayed his symptoms to shore. Spillane felt excruciating pain in his abdomen—a sign of internal bleeding—and an Air National Guard surgeon on shore decided that if it got worse, he’d have to be evacuated by helicopter. Spillane thought about dangling in a rescue litter over the ocean and didn’t relish the prospect. At daybreak, the executive officer came in to shave and to change clothing, and Spillane apologized for bleeding and vomiting all over his bed. “Hey, whatever it takes,” the officer said. He opened the porthole hatch, and Spillane looked out at the howling gray sky. “Could you close that?” he asked.
The cutter’s crewmen, unshaven and exhausted after thirty-six hours on deck, were staggering around the ship like drunks. And the mission was far from over: Rick Smith was still out there. He was one of the most highly experienced pararescue jumpers in the country, and there was no question in anyone’s mind that he was alive. “PJ wearing black 1/4″ wetsuit, went out door with . . . one-man liferaft and spray sheet, two 12-oz. cans of water, mirror, flare kit, granola bar, and whistle,” the Coast Guard dispatcher in Boston recorded in the incident log. “Man is in great shape—can last quite a while, five to seven days.”
Throughout that day and the following night, the storm made a loop off New Jersey and then slid north up the coast, dissipating by the hour. Its huge convective engine had finally started to break down in the cold northern water. There were a dozen aircraft, several ships, and an AWACS-type command plane looking for Smith, but they couldn’t find any trace of him. At one point, a stain of neon-green emergency dye was spotted—the color Smith always carried on rescues—but there was no one at the center of it. Finally, after nine days of round-the-clock flights, the Coast Guard suspended the search. The consensus was that Smith must have hit the water so hard that he was knocked unconscious and drowned. Another possibility was that Spillane hit him when he landed, or that the life raft hit him, or that he jumped with his gunner’s strap on. The gunner’s strap is used to keep crewmen from falling out of helicopters, and if Smith had jumped wearing it, he’d have dangled in midair until the helicopter went down.
Spillane prefers to believe that Smith was knocked out on impact. He was weighed down by a lot of gear, and he must have lost position during his fall and hit the water flat. Spillane’s only memory of the fall was exactly that: starting to flail and thinking, My God, what a long way down. Those words, or something like them, were probably the last thoughts that went through Rick Smith’s mind.
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