The seawater was at Petty Officer 1st Class Jeffrey Macatangay’s chest when he crawled into the USS Guardian’s bilge to brace the split deck plate above.
Directly below him, a chunk of Tubbataha Reef stuck through the ship, working its way deeper into the wood and fiberglass hull.
“You’re hearing the wood cracking and the ship was tilting over on its side because of the sea state … but we had to push the deck plates down again to slow down the water,” said Macatangay, of North Hills, Calif., while recalling the events of Jan. 17, 2013 — the final operational day of the Guardian’s 23-year history.
Crouched between an air-conditioning unit a few inches above his head and the chill-water piping lining the walls, Macatangay, a damage controlman by trade, had barely enough room to work.
He lined up a steel shoring — a metal support beam meant to reinforce the hull — and spent the next 15 to 20 minutes installing it.
Meanwhile, the water poured in — about five gallons per minute. It soon sloshed up to Macatangay’s neck.
“It felt like he was down there for three hours,” said Chief Petty Officer Cesar Gomez, of Chicago, who ordered Macatangay, 25, into the bilge after they agreed it was necessary. “I was scared for him … I didn’t want to rush him, but I did emphasize to get it done and get out of there.”
The Guardian’s worsening state wouldn’t allow a quick repair. All of the pipes and machinery were moving independently each time the ship rocked, as did the ship structure, making it even harder to wedge in the shoring.
Macatangay was exhausted. He had pulled a 14-hour watch and been up nearly a full day when the ship ran aground at Tubbataha, a Philippines national park in the Sulu Sea.
However, Macatangay’s fear — for his own safety as the water rose, and for his shipmates —proved to be powerful fuel.
If Macatangay hadn’t installed the shoring at that moment, the water would have flooded the auxiliary room above, submerging the generators and killing the ship’s power.
It would have left Guardian dead in the water in the middle of the night.
“We had already established communications to the outside, but we still hadn’t seen any ships around us,” Macatangay said.
After he finished with the shoring, Macatangay became disoriented as he waded through the water. He couldn’t find the hatch.
“I had to slow down and rethink my path out,” Macatangay said.
Macatangay emerged from the bilge unharmed, to Gomez’s great relief.
The damage control section aligned the ship’s drainage to stanch the flooding and continued safeguarding the ship for several hours before evacuating to the Military Sealift Command’s MV-C Champion in the afternoon.
Eleven days after the grounding, most of Guardian’s sailors had returned to Sasebo, Japan. Soon afterward, the investigations began.
The captain, executive officer, officer of the deck and enlisted assistant navigator were relieved of duty.
By the end of March, the Guardian had been decommissioned and fully dismantled.
In June, a Pacific Fleet command investigation found that poor leadership and planning caused the disaster. However, the scathing 160-page report also commended the “heroic actions” of the boat coxswains, its damage control crewmembers and its rescue swimmers.
“In short, their efforts saved lives,” Adm. Cecil Haney wrote in the report’s conclusion.
On April 3, Capt. Greg Fenton called Macatangay, now 25, to the front of an all-hands aboard the aircraft carrier USS George Washington.
Macatangay knew he had been up for an award, but he figured it was a low-level commendation. Those usually begin with the words, “from the admiral.”
The Navy and Marine Corps Medal, the highest noncombat award a sailor can earn, begins differently.
“When the [executive officer] said ‘From the president,’ I was just shocked,” Macatangay said.
“I’m truly humbled and grateful for the award. I’m grateful to all the people who helped me that day, too.”