This was bad. I could see the sickening conclusion in my mind and I knew what had to be done to save the mans life. What I couldn’t do ,was communicate with the diver who was only a minute from getting himself definitely hurt and most likely killed.
Up till this afternoon it had been a challenging and pleasant assignment. A few months prior a Navy target ship,in this case an old World War II LSD named the “Tortuga” had washed up at the foot of San Miguel Island. Run a ground on the rocks, the heavy surf pounded against the partially submerged wreck.San Miguel Island sitting about 40 miles out in the Pacific off Santa Barbara was one of the Channel Islands and was owned by you and me and managed by our National Park Service.
The wreck was an eyesore to the Park Service and the Navy had agreed to remove the wreckage to just below water level leaving what was considered good “reef habitat”. The flying was passenger transport and some interesting sling work. I had a Bell Long Ranger and my customer was the U.S. Navy and the salvage company they had hired to remove most of the ship wreck.
The Island was our base and everything we needed to complete our mission was delivered and removed by ship. That was where some of the more interesting flying came in.The supply ship had a helideck that required a landing sideways on the upper deck which meant a cross wind landing in winds that averaged 30 plus knots and sea swells that ran about 8 feet. To ensure you stayed focused on the landing you arrived to the pitching helideck with the knowledge that there was only about 6 feet of clearance between the rotor blades and the wheel house.
Fortunately most of my flying consisted of slinging material off and on the ship. Slinging to a small ship pitching in the lee side of an island can take some getting used to but I enjoyed the challenge. The other slinging was at times a little hairier. Two or three divers were flown to and “placed” on the wreck. Their work supplies were slung to them from the Island. The supply ship brought out new oxygen and acetelyne tanks and other supplies the divers needed which I slung to our Island base camp and then to the wreck as required. The oxygen tanks were the trickiest to handle. They had to remain upright at all times or they would vent off if tipped. Not so much fun when you are trying to place them on a slanted surf rocked ship wreck. It all worked fine. The majority of the slinging was even more interesting. To get the ship dismantled the divers spent hours with cutting torches slicing through various parts of the ship. The steel could not be just cut and dumped over the side. Each piece of steel was cut with the exception of small corner pieces that held the piece in place.My job was to fly the hook to the shackle on each steel piece and once attached to hold tension in hopefully the right direction as the diver cut the last corners of the steel free.
The wind blew hard almost every day and behind the lee side of the Islands cliffs the wind burble sometimes made the steel fly off like a deranged kite. There had been some scares but no steel to diver contact as yet. The steel was piled on the Island and when we had accumulated enough steel the salvage ship would bring the standard steel garbage containers out for me to sling the scrap steel into. That operation required no finesse but the steel sometimes liked to spin and fly in a way that anybody who has ever slung plywood can relate to.
As the wreck shrunk the landing places did as well and eventually the divers were forced to swim out to the ship. Slinging them out was not an option the Navy or my boss would approve but I was happy that a safety harness was worn by each diver,just in case. We had a Billy Pugh on site which is basically a slung netted platform that was designed to move people. I had my doubts that it would work in the surf very well.
This afternoon I was willing to try anything but time and the divers waning strength was limiting our options.At days end the last diver leaving from a different point on the ship had got himself into a serious rip tide that was carrying him towards some offshore rocks. I had arrived overhead with my line and remote hook to help out. At first it seemed like an easy enough operation but the diver was clearly winded and weak from his swim. He tried initially to hang onto the hook but could not when I started to tow him. The rocks were getting closer.The diver signaled he wanted the hook lower and I could see that he was going to try a hook ride between his legs. That attempt ended with a flop that would have been funny under any other circumstance. Finally he hooked both arms into the hook and spinning like a gut hooked fish on the line I watched the vomit spiral to the sea a few feet below him as I carefully slung him to shore.
Our dingy was now on the beach and ready to launch and I set the diver beside his coworkers. Familiarity with the job after several weeks had led to complacency . When our routine had changed we had not stopped to assess our new risks. If the helicopter had not started or got there quick enough or more than one diver had been in trouble,if the dinghy could not have been launched in time or failed to run ?
We had a safety stand down the next day. It was a good idea since we needed to regroup and frankly more than one of the divers looked like they may have discussed the events over a few too many beers the night before. I could not blame them.