Public Safety Diving is a physically and mentally challenging job. Public Safety divers train all of the time to ensure that they are prepared to respond to and complete the next mission. But what happens when the diver becomes the victim? Is the diver in trouble really prepared both physically and mentally?
The story you are about to read is an actual event that I experienced, survived, and learned from.
In September 2001, I was a 22-year-old Damage Controlman Second Class stationed aboard the USS Peterson (DD-969), a Spruance Class Destroyer out of Norfolk, VA. We were preparing for a deployment, which was going to be my third, so it was pretty routine. Then 9/11 happened and all of a sudden – nothing was routine. We were going to war. The battle group deployed on September 19, 2001. We did not waste any time. We headed straight to the Middle East and started looking for Al-Qaeda and their supporters. We were tasked with Maritime Interdiction Operations (MIO), so our Vessel Boarding Search and Seizure (VBSS) teams were very busy.
In early November we were getting into our groove. We were in our area of operation where we had confiscated a number of ships smuggling oil out of Iraq. VBSS teams secured the ships and crews and provided security around the clock. Rescue and Assistance teams, like my team, bounced around from ship to ship to repair the dilapidated boats these guys were using. On the 14th of November I was sent to the MV Samara. The VBSS team guarding it was from the USS Peterson. I knew all of the guys on the team pretty well and despite the horrible living conditions we made the best of it and even had a little fun. The Samara was a grain ship and was never intended to carry oil. What they had done was weld baffles into the main cargo area, filled it full of oil, put steel plating on top of it, and stacked grain bags on top of the plating. The ship was severely over-weighted and in bad sailing condition. By the 16th, my Rescue and Assistance team had patched her up and moved on. We would return a few days later to check on our repairs. We headed out for a similar follow-up trip to the MV Eikel. The repairs that we had made about six days earlier were holding up but the vessel was still in bad shape. We got right back to work fixing new issues that we found and monitoring the previous repairs. At night we would all try to relax and eat dinner together. The ship’s crew (Iraqis and other foreign nationals) would cook, but we ate our MREs because we did not know if they would try to poison us. Despite this concern, their food did smell good! On the 17th, early in the evening, we were on the fantail watching one of the foreign nationals fishing and we noticed a mating ball of sea snakes on the surface right by the ship. It was huge! I made my rounds, checked the status of all of the repairs one last time, and headed to the bridge. That is where we slept. It was the best place for the VBSS team members to secure while we took turns getting a few hours of sleep. It was just after midnight when I finally picked out my spot on the steel deck and laid down using my backpack as a pillow.
I was jolted awake at about 0415 when the Chief from the VBSS team tripped over me kicking me in the side. I got up cussing and noticed he was running from bridge wing to bridge wing in a panic. I asked what was wrong and he yelled, “The Samara just sank!” I remember standing there for a second and thinking, “Did I hear him right?” and then he yelled, “Get everyone up, take a radio, and go to the forecastle.” I ran as fast as I could. I remember thinking, “Is this really happening?” My friends were on there! When I got to the forecastle I started yelling, “Is anyone out there?” It was pitch black and in the distance you could see strobe lights flashing. I just kept yelling and all of a sudden someone yelled, “Help Me!” I yelled over the radio, “I got one port side bearing 290 degrees.” We started throwing ropes and life rings but could not get him. I have always been a good swimmer and I pulled my boots off, tied a rope around myself, and told the other guys with me that I was going in after him and in the few seconds that it took me to get my boots off he was out of sight. It still haunts me to this day. For the next four hours that is all we did. We would look for survivors and call in every time we saw something. We would hear reports over the radio that the helo found someone or found an empty lifejacket. At this point this was the worst thing that had ever happened to me personally, but little did I know that would change very shortly.
When the Samara sank, that is where our focus was, finding survivors! The seas were rough. We were in a bad storm, all of the repairs that we had made were coming apart beneath us, and we did not even think to check on them. We were trying to save our shipmates in the water.
At about 0815 the call came over the radio to “Abandon Ship!” I looked at my buddy and we were both like, “What? Did he just say Abandon Ship?” And then we heard somebody say, “F@#$ THAT!” and the Chief said it again “Abandon Ship! Abandon Ship! Abandon Ship!” We all met up on the fantail. It just got real! We did not want to get in the water with all the sea snakes that we were feeding last night and all of that oil. The water was full of crude oil from the Samara sinking. We were all looking for lifejackets but we did not have any because once we got on the ship we sent them back with the boat crew that brought us so other crews could use them. EPIC FAILURE! We found a life ring and some rope. I was the first one to go down the ladder to the main deck. When I got about half way down a wave came over the top, knocked me off the ladder, and into barrels and valves on the main deck. It hurt like hell but I was okay. I got up and went over to the side of the ship and jumped. As soon as I hit the water I knew it was a mistake! I was going straight to the bottom. I struggled to get my boots off and everything else that was pulling me down. It felt like five minutes before I got to the surface, but in reality it was under a minute. The other guys all jumped in one by one and experienced the same thing. Once that was over we tied ourselves together with rope we had and talked to each other to try and stay calm. The talking was not helping. We discussed things like, “What if we drifted into Iraqi waters and got picked up by them? Did anyone get the Mayday call out to the helicopters and other ships looking for the guys from the Samara?” I had so many things racing through my mind. I was thinking about my family and friends and how hard it was going to be on them if I did not make it. I prayed a lot.
We were eventually picked up by a RHIB from the USS Peterson. It was driven by a Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewman (SWCC) and man could he drive a boat! There was a SEAL and one of the Engineman 1st Class Petty Officers from the Peterson with him. They took us back to the USS Peterson and that is where we learned that two of our sailors that were on the Samara were missing. We were all very cold, exhausted, and sick from the oil, but it did not matter because two of our shipmates were still missing. Electronics Technician 3rd Class Benjamin Johnson’s body was eventually recovered but Engineman 1st Class Vincent Parker was lost at sea.
Even though this particular incident is not a diving related incident, it is very relevant to training and being prepared. You never know when an incident can take a turn for the worse. Public safety divers must at all times maintain a high state of readiness both physically and mentally. Always take your training seriously because one day it might save your life. Remember when you are asked to tread water during training, this skill is not a joke. Sometimes as a student you may have a ladder, cylinder, or other heavy object hoisted up and out of the water. These challenges are designed to prepare you for the worst. I had the unlucky privilege of learning the value associated with treading water in a combat zone drifting toward enemy waters. I was forced to tread water much longer than ten minutes, and I know what it feels like when your teammate does not make it back. Train to protect your team and train like lives depend on you. When reality hits, you will want to be was well prepared as possible.
Founder/Owner of SSI Maritime, LLC.
Public Safety Diving Professional at Air Hogs Scuba – Garner, NC