All the Men in the Sea

Author's Introduction: One of the most exciting rescues in history took place when Derrick Lay Barge 269 sank during Hurricane Roxanne in the Gulf of Mexico in 1995. Two hundred and thirty men threw themselves into thirty- and forty-foot seas, some with defective life jackets and some who could not swim.

Only two oil supply vessels and a tug could come to their rescue. The three crews risked capsize and being swept off their own decks to try to save the men in the water. Seldom in maritime history have so many been saved in such terrible conditions by so few ith such great risk to their own safety.

As the Carolina worked her end of the ragged line formed by the three rescue boats, she seemed to be finding just swimmers, no life rafts. So Zapata dealt with the men one by one, until another big wave exploded into the Carolina. Eulalio went over the side again in a tidal wave of water. The lifeline cut into his ribs, almost tearing him in half, as the next wave slammed him back into the supply boat's hull. He swung in the air like a side of beef, then plunged beneath the surface as the Carolina rolled in another wave. Eulalio was on the side opposite the cargo net, and he couldn't turn himself around to grab the rail. Each time he tried, another wave sucked him underwater, and when he emerged all he could do was try to clear his lungs. He coughed and sputtered and thought he was dying as once more he plunged into the sea.

Eventually a wave spun Eulalio on his lifeline so that his hands could grasp the bulwarks and he managed to climb onboard, where he collapsed on deck.

Cassel, at the rear steering station, had seen him go overboard again but was April 2003 unable to leave the helm. Now he called out over the loudspeaker, "Zapata, you OK?" Eulalio looked up and nodded weakly, but had a hard time regaining his feet.

Fortunately, a young Mexican deckhand from the 269 whom he had rescued earlier had come back to help. Zapata found another safety line for the crewman, and for a while the two men worked together. Then two of the rescued American dive crew also came out.

Eventually a third crewmen joined them, and these four men took over the rescue work, letting the weary Eulalio retire to the wheelhouse. The overloaded raft with Phil Richard, Mitch Pheffer, Chuck Rountree, Ray Pepperday, and two dozen others had not been drifting long when it was suddenly illuminated by a searchlight. Before the groggy survivors knew it, the Captain John was just in front of them. Mitch watched as the tug's stern pitched out of the water and the boat's screws screamed in his face. Trosclair swung the stern away and soon the raft was alongside. One after another the men bounded onboard.

The last four still in the raft as a wave started to push it away from the tug were Phil, Mitch, Chuck, and a guy in the bottom who seemed unconscious. At the last second Phil leaped on to the deck.

But then the raft again drifted back toward the John's stern and her thrashing propellers. Another wave momentarily swept the raft toward the tug. and Mitch, realizing that this might be his last chance to get aboard, jumped.

"I grabbed the rail [the bulwarks]," he remembered, "but I couldn't pull myself over the side. My legs are hanging in the water. I've got my wetsuit and my work boots on. and 1 don't have the strength to pull myself over. One moment I'm underwater; the next moment Phil grabs me and pulls me over, and he falls down. 1 turned right around because I knew that Chuck was still in the raft and it was drifting back toward the propellers. I just looked at Chuck. Chuck and I looked at each other and 1 said. 'Jump man.' It was too far and he couldn't make it. But chuck jumped and we locked hands. Chuck is hanging in the waves and our hands are locked. We rode the waxes out. They covered our heads and Chuck is still hanging down. I couldn't pull him over. I didn't have enough strength.

Then Phil is back and pulls Chuck over and the three of us go rolling around on the deck." After the men boarded Captain John, there was still a crewman left in the raft who had not gotten to his feet. He did not move but stared up with sightless eyes from inside a 4-foot pool of water in the raft's center. His mouth open, with a look of horror on his face. Angel, the young Mexican radio operator, had drowned in their midst, and no one had even noticed. Evidently he had slipped beneath the surface of the pool and been unable to call out or claw his way past all the men on top of him.

Quickly they grabbed the raft and brought Angel into a cabin where they stretched him out on his back. After clearing his airways, the 269's doctor, Raymundo Hernandez Isidro, a fortyyear- old physician from Veracruz who had already been taken onboard, began to give him artificial respiration. The doctor worked steadily, trying desperately to bring even a spark of life back into that motionless young body. After three-quarters of an hour of devoted effort. Dr. Isidro stopped, realizing he had failed. The doctor seemed to die as well. He went off into a corner and sat in a stupor, staring into space.

The Captain John continued to find and pick up survivors. When they sight- ed the next raft, Robert Trosclair left the wheelhouse and took the controls in the glassed-in doghouse. It sat on the aft end of the bridge deck facing out over the stern. With its complete set of controls Trosclair could operate his tug as well from there as he could from the bridge. Lorenzo Wilson kept the searchlight on the men in the water and maintained control on the bridge until Robert reached the doghouse. Then Lorenzo scrambled down to take charge on deck.

As Captain John rode up a big wave, Robert feathered his props, reducing power, and took his engines out of gear.

If the props of the tug or of either the supply boats were out of the water when the boats were under full power, an automatic override, an integral part of the controls of most large vessels, would shut down the engines down to keep them from overrevving and destroying a bearing or breaking a shaft. An inadvertent engine shutdown at the wrong time in hurricane seas could jeopardize the safety of the vessel. On the other hand, an override failure could cause them to lose both their engines at a critical time.

Either situation was to be avoided, and the captains, as a matter of course, cut back their power each time the props came out of the water. With waves staggering the vessels every few seconds, maneuvering throttles was a constant and demanding part of maintaining control of the ships. Trosclair resumed power once the tug's stern was back in the water and brought the Captain John to within about 10 feet upwind of the raft, keeping it in his lee. Then Robert reduced power and put his engines out of gear again, but just briefly. He had to hold position so he would not be pushed on top of the raft. However, he was also faced with possibly sucking the raft into the near Kort nozzle and the massive propeller inside it as the tug rolled, bringing the near-slide propeller very close to the surface. So every time he approached a raft or a swimmer, he left the near-side engine out of gear.

The deckhands had knotted some I - inch nylon lines and tossed them toward the raft, one minute near the tug's deck level and the next bobbing 25 feet beneath it. The first man grabbed a knotted line and was quickly hauled on deck. The next fellow got a grip on a line, but before the crew could haul him in over the bulwarks another wave swelled under the tug. pushing it high above the Mexican dangling on the end of his rope. Lorenzo screamed at him in Spanish not to let go. for if he did he would get sucked right under the tug.

Together the crew yanked the petrified man onboard and then had to wrestle the line out of his hands.

Their timing seemed off. for the next two men also were left dangling, but somehow Lorenzo and the crew were able to bring them aboard. During all this, wave crests were breaking over the John's wheelhouse roof and cascading over the afterdeck. Somebody would shout a warning and the sailors would grab a stanchion or any handhold they could find to keep from getting washed over the side. Finally all the men from the raft were onboard. Robert and Lorenzo returned to the wheelhouse and the crew collapsed around the survivors, who were beginning to till every nook and cranny of the tug's interior.

Phil Richard and Mitch Pheffer, the two young divers, then took over rescue duties from the exhausted crew. Each time they saw a light or someone in the water, they ran up to the wheelhouse and pointed out the location to Robert, who would then move to the doghouse.

Chuck stayed in the wheelhouse and acted as lookout. The rest of the night Phil and Mitch, by themselves, worked the afterdeck, pulling in one survivor after another. When a wave came, one or the other would yell a warning and they would grab whatever was handy.

Phil remembered. "Tugboats have huge, huge cleats that you could wrap around your arms and legs around. I would wrap myself around one of those, in the fetal position, and the deck of the tug would go underwater for what seemed like an eternity. I would sit there underwater and go 'One-Mississippi, two- Mississippi. three-Mississippi.' I would hold my breath and finally the son-of-abitch w ould pop back out of the water. I was puking up seawater for days after that." Circle 155 on Reader Service Card

Other stories from April 2003 issue


Maritime Reporter

First published in 1881 Maritime Reporter is the world's largest audited circulation publication serving the global maritime industry.