ELIZABETH CITY — Four pagers went off simultaneously early Monday, and the on-duty helicopter crew pulled themselves from their warm bunks at Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City. It was 3 a.m.
Some 180 miles away, the 180-foot replica of the three-masted tall ship HMS Bounty, built for a 1962 Marlon Brando movie, was dying. Its 16-member crew, heading south from Connecticut to Florida, had gambled that they could beat Hurricane Sandy by driving far east, but the storm was too big, too powerful.
The ship had left New London on Thursday, when Sandy was still over Cuba and its path uncertain. But by Friday, it became clear they could not avoid the storm.
On Saturday, as the seas began to get rough, someone posted on Bountys Facebook page: Riding the Storm Out...Day 2. Im sure that Bountys crew would be overwhelmed by all the prayers and best wishes that have been given. Rest assured that the Bounty is safe and in very capable hands. Bountys current voyage is a calculated decision ... NOT AT ALL ... irresponsible or with a lack of foresight as some have suggested. The fact of the matter is ... A SHIP IS SAFER AT SEA THAN IN PORT!
By afternoon Sunday, Bountys engines had stopped and the ship was taking on water in 50-knot winds and unpredictable seas of up to 30 feet. The ships crew sent distress signals, so that when a Coast Guard HC-130 Hercules transport plane was dispatched Sunday, they were able to talk to the air crew by radio.
At first, plans were made to drop pumps aboard by helicopter to help keep the ship afloat. Then Bountys crew radioed that the water was coming in too fast, about two feet an hour. They were going to abandon the ship, which was being thrown around by heavy seas that seemed to be traveling in every direction.
At 4 a.m., they launched two round, orange life rafts with canopy roofs and flashing strobe lights on top, and at least 14 of the crew climbed in, nine in one raft, five in another. It was still unclear late Monday what happened to the ships experienced captain, Robin Walbridge, 63, Claudene Christian, 42, who joined the crew in May while the ship was in Wilmington. Christians Facebook page says she is a descendent of Fletcher Christian, the mutineer on the original Bounty played by Brando.
Late Monday afternoon, the Coast Guard recovered Christians body and took her to Albemarle Hospital in Elizabeth City, where she was pronounced dead. Walbridge, 63, remained missing. The Coast Guard resumed its search for him Tuesday by air and was sending a cutter from Charleston, S.C.
Plucked from the sea
A few minutes after the crew climbed into the rafts, the on-duty crew at Elizabeth City lifted off in its MH-60 Jayhawk the Coast Guard version of the Armys Blackhawk outfitted with a hydraulic winch to lift survivors out of the water. It reached the ship, about 90 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras, about 6:15 a.m. Lt. Commander Steve Cerveney flew to the place the plane had been and saw a lone sailor in an orange neoprene survival suit rising and falling amidst the giant waves, occasionally vanishing in the wind-blown spray, his rescue strobe flashing.
Nearby, Cerveney and co-pilot Jane Pena could see another strobe standing clear of the water. It was in one of the ships masts, all that was left above water of the Bounty.
Cerveneys crew only had enough fuel for them to pull up the man in the water and four of the seven survivors on one of the rafts before it had to head home. Half an hour behind it, though, was a second chopper, piloted by Lt. Commander Steve Bonn and co-pilot Jenny Fields.
They headed for the other raft, which had six people aboard. Into the water went rescue swimmer Daniel Todd.
Up front, Bonn concentrated on flying, essentially flying at 50 knots just to hover, while battling gusts. Fields called out the next approaching wave so the other three crew members could time their jobs.
O.K., weve got 15 seconds to next wave. Ten. Five, four, three
Todd swam up to the raft knowing that he had to keep the frightened survivors calm so that the lifts could go quickly enough that the choppers fuel didnt get low, too.
Hey, Im Dan and I hear you guys need a ride, he said.
Then he gave the survivors instructions about what to expect, the wind, the stinging spray, and how to position themselves in the basket.
Once they had all six survivors from the raft aboard, the fatigued Todd figured he would have a few minutes to recuperate, but almost instantly he was back in the water.
Search for the missing
Two of the Bountys crew were still unaccounted for, and the helicopter had little fuel left. Bonn wheeled it into one sweeping circle of perhaps half a mile as the crew looked down into the white foam and blue-black water. Nothing.
Normally, they would have had more time, Fields said, but the hellish conditions made the chopper gobble fuel. It took little more than an hour to reach the Bounty, but more than two hours to beat back against Sandys headwinds.
By the time a third crew had pulled Christians lifeless body from the water, the Bounty was on its side. By dark, the Coast Guard had stopped the air search for the day, but had one cutter on site and another on the way to keep looking for Walbridge through the night.
The relatively warm water in the 70s in the Gulf Stream gave cause for hope, Coast Guard officials said.
For much of Monday, the Coast Guard base was swarming with local and national media. There was talk of flying Todd, the rescue swimmer, to New York for a talk-show appearance.
The 14 survivors were still at the Coast Guard station Monday night, but sent word to journalists that they didnt want to talk.
One of the journalists asked Bonn whether it had been wise for the ship to put to sea. The pilot said that wasnt his crews concern.
I have no idea what their voyage plan was, or what they were doing out there, he said. If we get the call, we go get them.