“I’ll Never Forget Their Eyes”

 

 

Five hundred miles from land, the Jeanette Diana’s seventeen-man crew clung to a cork-line in the middle of the South Pacific, as the orange glow from the rising sun bathed the crow’s nest for a few more moments before it slipped beneath the water.

She was gone.

They had lost their skiff two days before and were making their way back to the Samoan Islands for a replacement.

Some were from Samoa, others from San Diego, still others from as far away as Portugal, they were commercial fishermen familiar with the waters that had swallowed their vessel and nearly all hope for a rescue. The men said nothing. Some moved their lips in silent prayer. None wore a life jacket. All knew they were almost certainly doomed to join their ship making her way to the ocean floor. They also knew about the grey-tip sharks.

In the middle of the night, while the crew slept, the fire had started in the engine-room of the 240 foot purse seiner. The man on engine-room watch had fallen asleep. By the time he woke-up, the engine-room was engulfed in flames, the fire already making its way through the rest of the ship. With just enough time to escape, he sounded the alarm, shouting as he ran to wake the crew in their quarters, the fire right on his heels.

The crew, torn from sleep, found themselves in the middle of an inferno. Scrambling their way top-side, they found it too was engulfed in flames. Their survival instinct took control and they jumped over-board. No one released the ship’s life-boat. And so, the state-of-the-art, fully enclosed capsule-style life boat, stocked with fresh water, emergency rations and first aid kits, sank with the ship.

But there was still some hope among the men. For several moments they watched the place where the crow’s nest had been moments before disappearing beneath the water, expecting to see the life-capsule pop-up to the surface. It was designed to automatically release when it made contact with water. But when minutes turned to hours, they realized the water-activated release mechanism had failed.

Now the only thing keeping them alive was the cork-line one of the men had been able to cut free from the ship before she went under. There was nothing any of them could do but wait and hope the distress signal from the ship’s emergency position-indicating radiobeacon, it’s EPIRB would be detected and that the rescue would arrive in time to save them.

It was a long-shot. They understood how difficult it would be for a rescue operation, to find them.

And so they waited. The men knew the odds were very good the grey-tips would get there first.

The radiobeacon was picked-up by satellite and began transmitting. The first to receive it was a commercial airliner. A 747, 30,000 feet above them. The pilot immediately sent the coordinates of the signal to the U.S. Coast Guard in American Somoa. They, in turn sent the coordinates to all vessels in the area. Another commercial fishing vessel, the Captain MJ Souza, was the closest ship to the site of where the Jeanette Diane went down. It would take her 2.5 days to reach the men.

As the MJ Souza sped toward the site, the men had no idea rescue was on the way. As the first day ended and sunset slowly transitioned into the total blackness of night, what hope they had faded with the light. Some of the men wept silently. Others dozed fitfully. Thirst nagged at everyone.

An hour after they first took hold of the cork-line, everyone realized the only way to conserve their energy was to hang their arms over it rather than grasping it with their hands. Now, over 24 hours later, their underarms had been rubbed raw and the stinging was unbearable as the salt water burned into their flesh.

Five hundred miles away, the US Coast Guard, after alerting all vessels in the area, understood the odds were against a successful rescue by ship alone. And so, the coast guard dispatched one of its airplanes to the site. The plan was to perform an air-drop of a life raft to the men to increase their chances of survival as the MJ Souza made its way to rescue them.

The coast guard plane flew to the site, and spotted the men in the early morning hours of the third day since the Jeanette Dianna went down. The pilot circled overhead several times, before dropping the raft with unbelievable precision 100 yards away from the crew.

The men heard the plane above them, but they were too exhausted to raise their arms to try signal to the pilot. It was only when they saw the raft drop into the ocean that they realized they had been seen and help was coming. One of the men, no one remembers who, hoisted himself off the cork-line and swam the 100 years to the emergency raft. After activating it, he managed to get it back to the rest of the men. Adrenaline charging through their bodies, they found enough strength to pull themselves into the raft and to safety.

The Captain MJ Souza arrived the next day, over 60 hours after the Jeanette Diana sank.

It is said the crew of the Souza were shocked by the eyes of the men they pulled aboard.

The Souza’s cook once said, “The look on their faces was something I’ll never forget. It was their eyes that struck me more than anything else about them. They had a look about them, like they had seen death. Like they had hoped for a while, and when that hope was gone, they had resigned themselves to what they were sure was death in the middle of the ocean. I’ll never forget the look in their eyes as long as I live. Never.”

 

 

 

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