Into the Raging Sea

updated 07/31/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/31/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Hovering over the Atlantic in an H-3 Coast Guard helicopter, Dave Moore sat in the chopper's doorway, legs hanging out, waiting for the right moment to jump into the heaving 35-ft. waves below. It was Oct. 30, 1991, and Moore, then 24, was part of a five-man team attempting to rescue three crew members on the battered sailboat Satori, 60 miles south of Martha's Vineyard, off the Massachusetts coast. Looking down, he realized he'd never been in seas this high before. But, he thought, "this is my chance—my defining moment." Flight mechanic Scott Vriesman tapped him on the shoulder three times, signaling all was ready. Moore waited for the waves to swell just 10 feet from the copter, took a deep breath and threw himself into the churning, lead-colored sea.

The storm—which in fact was a violent collision of three separate storms—has become legend thanks to the new hit film The Perfect Storm, based on the bestselling book by Sebastian Junger that centers on the doomed crew of the fishing boat Andrea Gail. But the heroes of that day—the helicopter rescue crews from the Coast Guard on Cape Cod and the Air National Guard on New York's Long Island—toil year-round in anonymity as two of hundreds of similar rescue crews nationwide. While Coast Guard rescue swimmers spend 16 weeks in training school and go on up to 100 missions a year, every Guard pararescue jumper undergoes at least 18 rigorous months of training but is typically sent on only a half-dozen high-risk missions in a lifetime. On this day there were two desperate rescue attempts by two crews. One ended in success, the other in tragedy.

When Moore first learned of his assignment, he was more annoyed than excited. The Coast Guard cutter Tamaroa was due to make the actual rescue of the crew of the 32-ft. Satori (renamed the Mistral in the film); a helicopter was needed simply for backup. Shortly before noon, Moore left Air Station Cape Cod on the chopper, along with Vriesman, then 26, pilot Claude Hessel, 44, navigation specialist Doug Ayres, 27, and copilot Euill Long, 30, who died last year As they hovered in near hurricane-force winds, they watched the Tamaroa launch a 21-ft. inflatable raft with three crew members into the ocean. But the sailboat came down on the raft and punctured it, leaving the rescuers adrift. "Okay," announced Hessel, "get ready to deploy the rescue swimmer."

The first jump failed. Moore, who had joined the Coast Guard at 19 but had never made a rescue in such bad weather, was too far from the Satori, and waves swept him away from the boat. "As a swell would come in, you'd swim as hard as you could up the swell and try not to lose ground," he says. "As you got to the top, you'd take a moment to look around to see if you saw anything. There were times when I lost sight of everybody. I couldn't even see the helicopter." The chopper radioed the Satori's crew and told them to get in the water so that Moore—by now hoisted by a rescue basket into the helicopter for a second jump—could reach them and carry them, one by one, to the basket.

Skipper Ray Leonard and his crew, Sue Bylander, then 38, and Karen Stimpson, 42, leaped into the water, and this time Moore reached them with relative ease. He took the women first, dragging each with one arm across her chest, some 25 yards to the basket, and in 20 minutes all four were on the chopper. "I get my fins off, I get my mask off," says Moore. "I'm about to get dried off." Then he noticed his fellow crew members motioning. "They're like, 'Hey—we're not done,' " he recalls. The three rescuers from the Tamaroa were still stranded on their raft, and Moore hastily jumped back in the water. This time, he says, "the fear of the unknown was gone. It was a lot quicker." Flying back to Cape Cod, the helicopter crew members shared their lunches with Satori's survivors. "I have never seen someone break out into a bigger smile," says Vriesman, "than those two women when I handed them lunch and oranges."

As they celebrated, another rescue attempt was just beginning. At 2:45 p.m. a man alone in a 30-ft. sailboat, 250 miles off the Jersey coast, sent a Mayday. He was beyond the range of Coast Guard helicopters, so the New York Air National Guard's 106th Rescue Wing in Westhampton Beach sent five men to attempt a rescue. "I didn't view it as any big deal," recalls helicopter copilot Graham Buschor, 38. "We figured we'd be home by evening." But soon after finding the sailor, the crew was forced to abandon the operation because of the surging sea. (A Romanian freighter eventually picked him up.) Only 60 miles from home, as pilot Dave Ruvola, now 43, tried his fourth planned midair refueling with a tanker plane, the storm intensified. "I've been on other missions, but nothing came close to the violence of that storm," says Ruvola. After some 40 frantic refueling attempts over 70 minutes, says Buschor, "we had to ditch." He radioed the Tamaroa, fresh from the Satori rescue and now only 15 miles away, that the helicopter was going down. At 9:30 p.m., Ruvola ordered his crew into the water and moments later brought the chopper down to the ocean surface, where it flipped over and began to flood. He and flight engineer Jim Mioli, now 38, escaped from the chopper and shot to the surface, where waves measuring 70 to 80 feet towered in the darkness. A couple of hours later a crew member, pararescue jumper John Spillane, now 43, managed to reach Ruvola and Mioli. Spillane had fallen some 70 feet, breaking both wrists and four ribs, fracturing a leg and suffering serious kidney and lung injuries. "I could see by the terror in his eyes," says Ruvola, "he was in deep pain and knew he wouldn't survive without us."

Five hours later the Tamaroa's crew spotted Buschor, swimming alone a half-mile from the others. "We were being thrown around like rag dolls," says Bill Moeller, the cutter's deck officer, then 23. "The winds were so extreme that we were literally crawling on our hands and knees to get out on the bow of the ship." Somehow they managed to pull Buschor on board; it was, says Moeller, "like pulling a limp fish out of the water." Thirty minutes later they spotted and rescued Spillane, Ruvola and Mioli (who, without a survival suit, was incoherent with hypothermia). "If it wasn't for Ruvola, I don't think Spillane and Mioli would have survived," says Buschor. "Ruvola held on to them both." But the fifth crew member, pararescue jumper Rick Smith, 32, had simply vanished—and an eight-day search yielded nothing. His wife, Marianne, was devastated. "I felt like I had my heart ripped out of me," she says. (She went on to put herself through law school while raising three daughters. Now an attorney, Marianne, 40, recently wed Bob Stahl, 42, a policeman in Long Island's Suffolk County who is a former pararescue jumper and friend of her late husband's, and they recently had their first child, Bobby.)

All involved were changed by the events of Oct. 30. "Life has been a process of trying to learn from it," says Ruvola, a father of three who is still with the 106th Rescue Wing along with Buschor and Mioli. (Spillane, also a father of three, is a New York City firefighter.) "I stopped smoking," says Buschor, who has two children. "I figured I might as well—I got my second chance." Vriesman and Ayres, meanwhile, are still in the Coast Guard; Hessel now works in real estate. Soon after the storm, Moore met his future wife, Nadine, 30, with whom he has two children. He left the Coast Guard in 1998 to become a firefighter and paramedic in Marin County, Calif. The Perfect Storm has brought him a bit of fame—but the recognition that matters to him comes from a very few people. "My wife is proud of me, and so are my parents and grandmother," he says with a smile, "and someday my children will be proud."

Dan Jewel
Sue Miller on Cape Cod and in Santa Rosa, Calif., and New York City

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