Plane Down in the Bering Sea
No one who crashed in these icy waters had ever survived. Would we be swallowed by the frigid waves, too?
by Dave Anderson with Bonne Steffen
Friday, August 13, 1993, dawned gray and windy on the Chukchi Peninsula bordering the Bering Strait as my wife, Barb, and I boarded the 8-seater Piper Navajo. We had finished a week-long evangelistic mission trip to Lavrentiya, Russia, with members of our team: Cary Dietsche, Brian Brasher, Don Wharton, and Pam Swedberg. Dave Cochran, a missionary pilot with fifty years experience based with Missionary Aviation and Repair Center (marc), had arrived the night before in Lavrentiya to unload 1,000 pounds of medical supplies for the community. On the trip to far east Russia, we had carried 3,000 pounds of food provided by members of Soldotna Bible Chapel (Pam Swedberg's church) and Marc in Soldotna, Alaska, south of Anchorage.
It's been a great week, I thought, reflecting on the spiritual harvest. Each morning we had held special meetings for the children; adults joined them in the evening as we presented the gospel to a full auditorium of Russians. By week's end, a number of people had accepted Christ and two were baptized.
As we loaded our sound equipment and luggage into the plane, a more sobering thought flashed through my mind. Weeks before the trip, a woman who had attended one of our concerts called to say she had experienced a horrible vision: a scene of our gospel team's plane crashing into the sea near Alaska with no survivors. It was a conversation I kept to myself. We hadn't had any trouble flying from Alaska, and I was confident the same would be true heading home.
There was one difference on the flight back. At the last minute, seven empty five-gallon metal gas cans were unexpectedly packed into the plane. The cans needed to be filled with gas in Nome for eventual transport back to Russia. With poorer octane, Russian gas doesn't perform as well in the missionary planes. So the cans were put aboard.
Before take-off from Provideniya (the exit point from Russia), Cochran refueled our plane, estimating we had 2:15 hours of fuel for a 1:40-hour flight. Another ten empty gas cans were lined up snugly in the aisles of the Piper to be filled and eventually returned to Russia. Our expected departure time from Provideniya was delayed by hours because one Russian passenger's documents were not in order. He did not reboard.
We continued southeast to Gambell, an Eskimo village on St. Lawrence Island, our entry point to the United States. Since leaving Russia, we had hit some turbulence; high winds and sleet kept us praying. Fortunately, our lives were in God's hands-and in the hands of a well-seasoned missionary pilot.
Finally, we were on the last leg of our journey. Nome, Alaska, was forty-five minutes distant. The plane climbed quickly to a cruising altitude of 7,000 feet. Relaxed, I dozed off with a few other passengers.
My wife, Barb, sitting in the second row, couldn't take her eyes off the gas gauges. Uneasy, she prayed for God's protection. When the skies began to clear, Barb relaxed, but continued to watch the instrument panel silently.
When the right engine sputtered, Barb jumped. The second sputter woke me up. Glancing out my window, I watched the propeller slow down, shake unsteadily, and stop. In the cockpit, Dave Cochran calmly switched on a pump to cross-feed fuel from the left engine to the right engine. Almost at the same instant, we all heard him radio to Nome, "Out of fuel on one tank … descending from seven thousand feet … seven souls on board."
A few moments later, the left engine went dead. We were two miles from the nearest land-Sledge Island-and plummeting from 3,500 feet toward the frigid waters of the Bering Sea. Before we lost transmission with Nome, Dave was able to relay our position.
We were all praying aloud now-especially for Dave. Even with 18,000 hours of air time, nothing like this had ever happened to him. As long as our pilot didn't panic, we felt we had a chance.
In seconds, Dave had made critical decisions: feathering the propellers to slow us down, concentrating on keeping the plane's nose up, not retracting the landing gear to minimize possible cart-wheeling. We watched out the windows as the plane began to skim and bounce off the four-foot waves.
The Piper Navajo's speed was 90 mph when we hit, sending a geyser of water heavenward. Amazingly, Dave kept the nose up as we careened another 300 feet through the water. Spinning 180 degrees, the crippled craft finally stopped, bobbing on the waves. Water immediately began pouring in.
Upon impact, Don Wharton hit the emergency window exit. Though his seat had been ripped from its frame as luggage catapulted against it, Cary Dietsche escaped through the rear door. There were no life jackets or rafts on board, but we were in luck. "Everyone grab a gas can," Dave yelled. In less than a minute, while we all clung to our five-gallon cans, the plane disappeared under the frigid water.
The youngest member of our group, Brian Brasher, began shouting, "God is our refuge and our strength; a very present help in trouble." We took turns reciting Scripture, calling out our locations every few seconds since the sea was carrying us away from the crash site. I tried to grab Barb, but she drifted out of reach.
Since we were in shock, at first the water seemed tolerable. We were all wearing light winter clothing. Thankfully, we were unaware of three things: the water temperature was 36 degrees, survival in that temperature is at best 15-20 minutes, and no one had ever survived a crash in the Bering Sea.
A life-saving delay
An hour behind schedule, Bering Air pilot Terry Day was trying to make up time from St. Lawrence Island to Nome. Cruising at 2,000 feet above the open sea, he noticed something out of the corner of his eye. A white plume of water shooting up. In an instant, it was gone.
A whale spouting, Day thought. A few minutes later, his radio crackled. "Aircraft in difficulty … attempting a landing at Sledge Island … deviate [your course] … let me know if you spot the aircraft … "
The plume of water, Day remembered. Could it have been that plane hitting the water? Turning back and descending, he alerted his passengers of the detour.
In the water, we saw the plane approaching. Would he see us? Night was beginning to fall. The plane kept heading west, then disappeared. Miraculously, a few minutes later, the plane circled back. We waved and splashed, but couldn't keep it up long. We needed our energy to hold on to the gas cans.
A passenger looking out the window of the Bering Air Taxi saw the commotion in the water and yelled at Day, "There's people down there!" Immediately, an Eskimo Christian on board began praying for our safety.
Day radioed Nome, "There are people in the water using some kind of flotation devices. But I don't have enough fuel to keep circling. I have to head back to Nome."
Just then, another voice broke into the transmission. Vic Olson, a pilot minutes away, volunteered to take over for Day. When he arrived, he dropped to 500 feet above us and circled.
In the water, we were beginning to feel the cold through our bones. Numb and shivering, we continued to encourage each other. "We're going to make it!" "They know we're here. Hold on!" Gripping the gas cans was becoming more difficult. We were all getting weaker. We knew we needed to be rescued soon.
Heroics in the sky
At the Nome airport, the emergency call went out. Eric Penttila, a pilot for Evergreen Helicopters of Alaska, had originally planned to go salmon fishing that evening. But at the last minute, he changed his mind and was home when the phone call came. He contacted his friend and mechanic, Jerry Austin, and told him to meet him at the hangar where he kept his helicopter used for food and mail deliveries to isolated Alaskan villages. Just before takeoff, Randy Oles, a Nome firefighter and search-and-rescue veteran, also jumped on board. Twenty minutes later, they pinpointed Olson's circling Navajo. Scanning the water, they counted at least six people floating.
A geological survey helicopter piloted by Walter Greaves, offered assistance. He and his passenger, Dave Miles, happened to be out testing a newly replaced altimeter. Penttila radioed his position and Greaves was on his way.
Seeing Penttila's helicopter, Barb cried out to the rest of us to hold on. Above us, the three men were shocked. "I can't believe they're actually alive," they admitted to each other. It was a race against the clock-and the cold-to keep us that way.
Barb noticed the helicopter had no pontoons; it would not be able to land on the water. Inside the chopper, the men were assessing what little rescue equipment they had. They would have to rely primarily on human strength.
Penttila's chopper slowly descended, hovering inches above Brian Brasher. Over the roar of the rotors, Brian directed them to Cary Dietsche. "Get him first." He was injured in the crash and said his legs were cramping.
Firefighter Randy Oles, balancing on one of the skids, watched Cary disappear under the water, forced down by the velocity of the helicopter's rotors. He leaned over and tapped him on the head. Cary was too weak to even raise his hand to help, but Oles grabbed his coat and pulled him to safety.
The Evergreen crew headed toward me. Oles again climbed onto the skid and grabbed my hand. Several times my fingers slipped. Between the sea's swells and the water spray kicked up by the helicopter's rotors, I felt like I was in a car wash. In a daring move, Penttila dipped the skid far enough into the water so I could get my leg on it. Grabbing my belt, Oles and Jerry Austin got me inside.
Not far off, Dave Cochran was in the late stages of hypothermia-drifting in and out of consciousness. Minutes earlier, he had let go of his gas can and was floating freely. His waterlogged coat began to drag him under. Oles and Austin, with a rope, both positioned themselves on the skid. Amazingly, after a few attempts, they were able to get the rope wrapped around Cochran. Pulling him up was another story; whenever they came close, a wave would hit Cochran and he'd disappear. Fortunately, the rope kept him connected.
Finally, the two rescuers resorted to another plan. Throwing the free end of the rope to Cary and me, they stayed outside the chopper, precariously holding on to Cochran and the skid.
Penttila lifted the helicopter and headed slowly for Sledge Island, two-and-a-half miles away. Cochran was half-dangling from the skid. Penttila gently put the chopper down on the island tundra, and Cary and I got out and wrapped the missionary pilot in a sleeping bag and stayed with him.
Walter Greaves and Dave Miles in the second helicopter were zeroing in on Barb. Miles sat on the skid and got his hands on her, but Barb's clothing made her a dead weight. No longer aided by a gas can, she would certainly drown.
After several attempts, Miles held on to a black strap anchored to the chopper, and edged his way to the end of the skid. When the strap began to give, Miles grabbed the helicopter's strut and Barb. Pulling her up, Miles locked Barb's head between his knees. With his back to the helicopter, he wrapped his legs tightly around her body, held Barb with one hand and the strut with the other. Barb's feet skimmed the water.
Reaching the island, Miles realized with horror that Barb was slipping. If she fell from this height on the rocks, she would certainly be killed. Signaling Greaves, they headed back to sea-fifty yards out. Barb wiggled loose because she was having difficulty breathing-Miles was holding her so tightly.
Hitting the water and sinking, Barb still managed to pray, "Oh, God, help me, my strength is gone." Struggling with her last bit of energy, she broke the surface, choking and gasping for air. When she tried to swim, there was nothing left. Her water-filled jacket became a lopsided flotation device, and Barb lay back, expecting to die.
A noise got her attention. Miles was swimming out to her. Clutching her coat once again, the two half-swam, half-stumbled to the rocky shore.
Meanwhile, Penttila's rescue team headed out for Pam Swedberg and Don Wharton. With effort, Swedberg got into the helicopter; Wharton dangled between Oles and Austin on the skid as they ascended 760 feet to the highest point on the island. There was no beach or shoreline to land on.
Greaves headed out to locate Brian Brasher.
The last survivor had drifted; after four passes over the area, Greaves spotted him. Hovering, Greaves waited for Penttila to return from Sledge Island. Brashler fought to keep his head above water as the lethargy of hypothermia set in. Fifteen minutes later, he was reunited with our group. He had been in the water sixty-five to seventy minutes. Ambulances were waiting for all of us at the Nome Airport for transport to the hospital. There, we were treated for hypothermia and released. Barb and Dave Cochran were kept another day.
In 1994, all of our rescuers were honored by the U.S. government. Eric Penttila, Walt Greaves, Terry Day, Vic Olson, Randy Olsen, and Jerry Austin each received the Distinguished Service Award from the Federal Aviation Administration. For his outstanding heroic efforts to save Barb, Dave Miles, a Canadian, was awarded the American Medal of Heroism. It was the first time a Canadian had ever received such an honor.
To this day, we can't get over the amazing series of small things that "happened" to fall in place on that day. Gas cans, late flights, available helicopters. Only God could have orchestrated such a miracle. His rescue from overwhelming circumstances is a constant reminder to us of his faithfulness.
Copyright © 1996 by the author or Christianity Today International/Today's Christian magazine (formerly Christian Reader).
September/October 1996, Page 28