When a sailor falls into the sea, steady nerves and training are keys to survival
YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — Petty Officer 2nd Class John A. Caldwell walked around the aircraft he was inspecting on the carrier’s flight deck, flashlight pointed up to avoid striking the jet’s wing overhead.
He felt something below his feet, stumbled and felt himself turn over into nothingness. He grabbed for the edge of the deck but slipped and fell, head first, 75 feet into inky black waters.
It was February, nearly 3 a.m., and miles from land.
Caldwell, an aviation structural mechanic, was one of two sailors who fell overboard from the USS Kitty Hawk on its recent spring cruise.
Seaman Michael C. Moyer fell two weeks later, prompting ship leaders to crack down on safety awareness.
The rescues, both successful, demonstrated the ship’s ability to respond to a man-overboard call. That call “puts into motion a whole bunch of things,” said Lt. Cmdr. Bruce Deshotel, the ship’s first lieutenant who runs the deck department.
The bridge brings the boat around, to get closer and to help block wind and waves. Crews prepare the rescue boats or helicopters.
The rescue boat is ready in four minutes and the entire crew of about 5,000 assembles within 12 minutes for a head count.
“When you do a man overboard, it robs everybody of sleep,” Deshotel said. “The whole ship participates.”
From the flight deck
On Feb. 25, in waters between Japan and Guam, Caldwell was working on a jet that, earlier in the day, had been parked far from the deck’s edge. He didn’t know it was moved until he tumbled over the side.
“You kind of have that sense of nothing under you,” Caldwell recalled. “I literally told myself three times ‘I’m going to hit the water’ before I hit. It’s a long drop.”
Training took over. He checked to see that his strobe light worked and curled into a ball to conserve heat.
“It’s a scary ordeal, but panicking doesn’t help,” he said.
Minutes later inside a rescue boat, Airman Marion Stanley, an aviation ordnanceman in the ship’s weapons department and one of the ship’s three rescue swimmers, was looking for the strobe light.
“It can never be as intense during a training scenario” as in real life, he said. “You’re nervous the entire time because you don’t want to mess up and let him down. Even though the guy is OK, you think about the worst.”
Caldwell was composed when Stanley swam up. Stanley asked him if he was injured and told him to remain calm. Part of his job as rescuer is to be a counselor if needed. Victims can be confused, distraught, nervous or violent, Deshotel said.
Stanley pulled Caldwell to safety, the boat returned to the ship and Stanley returned to work. He shrugs off the experience as part of his job, albeit a rewarding one.
“It’s something that anybody would have done given the opportunity. I just had the opportunity to do it,” he said. “Helping somebody out is probably the best feeling you can ever get.”
A missing line
In the evening of March 14 en route to South Korea, Moyer was standing on a small deck with a friend after work. For security, lights on the ship were out.
Moyer was leaning on a rail. When it was time to go back into the ship, he reached for a rope rail called a lifeline to push himself up. But the line was missing, he recalled.
He lost his footing and tumbled over.
“I tried to grab anything,” he said. But there was nothing to grab. He started to fall. He wasn’t wearing a life vest or any other safety equipment. His friend raced for help.
“It was night and if his buddy wasn’t there, we wouldn’t have known he had fallen,” Deshotel said.
Someone threw Moyer a life ring with a seawater-activated strobe light.
He doesn’t remember feeling the water. But he remembers watching the massive ship get smaller and smaller. At 28 knots (32 mph), a typical cruising speed, the ship can travel a mile and a half in three minutes, Deshotel said.
Petty Officer 1st Class Marc Ennis and Petty Officer 2nd Class Aaron J. Beugler were in a Seahawk helicopter at the time, ready in case a jet crashed during flight operations on deck. They heard the call over the radio.
Using night-vision goggles, they spotted the strobe in a matter of minutes. The helicopter swooped around and stopped on a second pass.
Ennis dropped into the water, attached a harness to Moyer and gave the signal to Beugler to hoist them up.
Although Moyer knew someone saw him and that rescuers would come soon, he said it’s still hard to escape the thought that just maybe they won’t.
“That is going to go through your mind,” he said.
Moyer now hopes to become a search-and-rescue swimmer. The incident definitely taught him a lesson.
“You can never be too careful,” he said. After the rescue “I felt like ‘how can you be so dumb,’ but it was an accident.”
Caldwell’s fall also was accidental, but he berates himself for it, too.
“If I was paying more attention to the deck and not the aircraft,” he said. “I should have paid more attention. I’m very lucky because I know a lot of people who weren’t found or were injured.”
Overboards are not typical, but the Navy requires constant training for them. Within 12 hours of setting sail, a ship must hold a man-overboard drill and repeat it regularly.
“If you do what you’re supposed to do, you don’t fall over,” Deshotel said. In 25 years in the Navy, this was his first experience with such an incident.
The Navy recorded 46 man-overboard search-and-rescue operations in 2002. The Kitty Hawk has had five in the past three years.
Most are successful, but even simple rescues can have complications.
Last year near Bermuda, a sailor playing football on deck stumbled overboard from the USS Nassau in calm waters and never was found, according to CNN.
A year earlier, a sailor aboard the USS Constellation was blown off the flight deck. He spent seven hours in the waters off San Diego before being rescued, CNN reported.
Rescue swimmers say they expect some overboards are initially suicidal, but often sailors decide they want to live after spending a few minutes completely alone in the water, Beugler said.
Even when the victim is calm and the rescue easy, it’s unnerving.
“When you’re out there you really don’t think about it. You just want someone to get out there,” Caldwell said.
He can joke about it now, but he still hasn’t told his mother.
“I’m not very religious, but I do feel someone was watching out for me that night.”