"The Bering Sea has got a pretty cold heart. There's no forgiveness there at all." "If you don't watch what you're doing. She will take you." —
Jim Madruga, Alaska Ranger Assistant Chief Engineer
"The Bering Sea definitely has a soul… Sometimes it's like it's almost pissed off at you." — Ryan Schuck, Alaska Ranger Tallyman
On Easter Sunday, 2008 the Coast Guard received a mayday call from the fishing boat Alaska Ranger. "Mayday! Mayday! We are flooding. Taking on water."
The mayday call was picked up and the Coast Guard went into action. The Bering Sea, off the coast of Alaska, was raging. Twenty-foot swells, below freezing temperatures, and falling snow made the rescue seem impossible.
One hundred and twenty miles away from their starting point at Dutch Harbor, the crew of the Alaska Ranger waited desperately for rescue. They had two lifeboats, enough for the 47 crew members on board, but when the sea took the first lifeboat they were left with no choice. Some would have to fight for their lives with nothing more than a survival suit to protect them from the freezing water. Not all of them would make it.
The Discovery Channel's Mayday! Bering Sea, which premiered Wednesday, March 3 at 9PM, is the story of what happened on that night, told by surviving crew and members of the Coast Guard's rescue party.
The first Coast Guard helicopter to arrive at the scene could hold only 12 survivors. The flight crew looked out into a vast sea of flashing lights — strobes coming from the crew's survival suits. They were overwhelmed by the number of men being tossed about on rolling, angry waves. They knew they would have to get as many as they could fit on board — and leave the rest behind. It could take hours to return. As they flew away they realized that they might be sealing the fate of the men they were leaving below.
The surviving crew members of the Alaska Ranger share their personal experiences during the disaster, watching as their ship sank under the dark, churning water. They recount the terror they faced in the eerie darkness of the sea alone, their feelings of hope when the first Coast Guard helicopter arrived, and the devastating realization of their probable doom as they watched it fly away, leaving them behind.
The rescue mission involved the Alaska Ranger's sister ship, the Alaska Warrior, along with Coast Guard ships, helicopters, and rescue swimmers.
The decision was made by rescuers to leave the crewmen inside the lifeboat for the last pickup as they were in the least amount of danger. They would first attempt to hoist the men floating in the freezing water into the helicopter. Every second counted as the crewmen succumbed to hypothermia and lost the strength to stay afloat against the monstrous, crushing waves.
Flight engineer Al Musgrave, rescue swimmer Abram Heller, and Alaska Ranger crew member Jim Madruga narrate the re-enactment of their failed attempt to save the life of Madruga's friend and fellow crew member Byron Carrillo. Carrillo was struggling in the frigid temperatures. Madruga, fearing his friend might not survive much longer, decided to send him up in the hoist first.
With the help of rescue swimmer Abram Heller, Carrillo managed to get into the basket, but the crashing waves made it difficult to stay inside. As he was hoisted up and away from the ocean the weight of his water-bloated survival suit and the pounding wind caused the basket to become unbalanced and he was pulled over the side. He clung desperately to the wire cage as the hoist pulled him further up towards the waiting arms of the helicopter's flight engineer. Musgrave reached out and grabbed him to pull him on board, but he could only get hold of the water-logged survival suit. As he watched in horror, Carrillo lost his grip on the basket and began to fall, slipping from his grasp. "The look on his face… it's gonna haunt me the rest of my life."
The Discovery Channel's Mayday! Bering Sea tells the individual experiences of the men who spent 14 hours attempting to rescue the crew of the Alaska Ranger and the harrowing tales of that night by the survivors themselves.
It's an incredibly moving story about the men who heroically braved the wrath of the sea to save lives, the crewmen who survived, and those who died in the tragedy. It was the largest maritime rescue ever attempted in Coast Guard history and the Discovery Channel has captured its gripping intensity with first hand narration and amazingly realistic re-enactments.
Mayday! Bering Sea is now airing on the Discovery Channel. Check your local listings for times and dates.