Carr: Feet First

Naval Air Crewman demonstrate search and rescue techniques during a community outreach event in Cordova, Alaska, May 21, 2019. U.S. Navy Photo

By CW4 Michael Carr “Find the feet first,” I kept saying to myself. “Feet first, not the head.” I did not want to find the head. I had to find the body. There was no-one else in the small fishing village of Cordova AK who had SCUBA gear. The fisherman had fallen from the Cordova fishing pier, falling 20 feet into freezing Alaskan waters.

I wanted to find the fisherman’s feet first because I had never recovered a body before, and I did not want to first see his head or face in the turbid waters. I figured if I found his feet, then I could gain my composure and deal with whatever injuries he sustained as he fell off the pier.

I was not a trained military or rescue diver, I was simply a Coast Guard officer who was also a recreational diver, assigned to the Coast Guard buoy tender stationed in Cordova Alaska. We were having a quiet evening watch, I was the Officer of the Day (OOD) when our pier-side quarterdeck frantically called me.

“Ensign Carr this is Petty Officer Owens in the dock shack! Sir, a fisherman just fell off the pier into the water!”

I bounded from the wardroom to the 02 deck, and down the gangway to the pier.

“Where, show me where he fell!” I commanded.

“There, right there” responded Petty Officer Owens, pointing towards a set of pilings. “He was trying to cross over to the St Elias Cannery barge, and he slipped and was gone!”

“Pipe all hands on deck for man in the water recovery” I directed “And then notify the CO and XO.”

I stared at the water, no sign of anyone swimming or thrashing about. I shined my flashlight under the pier, ensuring I did not lean too far and end up in the water myself. The pier had no rails, it was a commercial structure built of rough lumber with an irregular surface.

“Get your dive gear,” commanded our ship’s Commanding Officer. He knew I was only a recreational diver, but he also knew I was motivated to attend Navy Dive School. On my most recent assignment request, I answered the question “List three assignments choices” with “US Navy Diving Officer Training,” for all three. You are supposed to choose three different assignments, but all I wanted to do was go to dive school.

“You want to go to Navy Dive School, then go find the fisherman’s body,” he stated.

I knew now was the time to walk the walk, or dive the dive. Anyone can talk about being a military diver, but now was the time to step up and prove I might have what it takes.

I gathered my dive gear and suited up. I tied a line around my waist, finishing with a slippery bowline. I thought about what I had to do. Jump in the water, descend the pilings, and find the body. Once found remove the line from around my waist and tie around the body. Secure the line properly with a secure hitch. Follow the line to the surface and then guide the line as Coasties on the pier retrieved the body. Focus, do it.

I pulled on my wetsuit gloves and turned on my flashlight. It was night, there was some scattered light from the ship’s deck lights and the floating cannery, but under the pier it was black. The water was brown and murky. “Don’t think about anything other than finding the body,” I said to myself. I jumped off the pier, feet first into the dark cold muddy waters. I sucked air through my regulator. “Calm down Carr” I repeated in my head. Do your job.

I descended twenty feet and landed on the mud bottom. I shined my light left and right. Nothing. The tide was flooding so I went in the direction of the current to the next set of pilings, shined my light around. Looked left, right, and up. Nothing. I sat in the mud for a moment. “Keep moving” I heard in my head “Find the body”.

And then, there he was, a big work boot in my light, I stopped. It felt like I sat there for a long time, but I am sure it was only a few seconds. I moved closer, the visibility was only a few feet, so I had to get right up on the boot to see the body. Lying face down in the mud. Wearing heavy work clothes, jacket, and fisherman boots. He likely went right to the bottom.

I grabbed his jacket so he would not drift away and then sat on top of him. I did not want him to drift away. I methodically untied the line from around my waist and then slipped the line under the fisherman, made several tight wraps under his arms and cinched the line tight over his back. I had not seen his face, I did not want to see his face. I just needed to successfully recover him before I ran out of air, and I was breathing hard.

I paused after the line was tied. I gave the line a few tugs and the fisherman came up off the bottom. I move him from under the pier to outside the pilings, and then followed the line back to the surface.

“I have him, tied to the line, pull him up” I yelled up to the Coasties on the pier. They started pulling and the heavy body came up. Once he was on the surface and in the air, I swam for the rocky beach. I swam on my back, watching the fisherman being raised through the air, and then hauled onto the pier.

“OK,” I said, “My knots did not fail” he is on the pier. I was exhausted, but my adrenaline was pumping. I sat on the beach for a few minutes, and then lugged my gear up the slope and down the pier to my ship.

“Good job,” said the CO, “I guess I can recommend you for Navy Dive school now.”

I did go to Navy Dive School after that assignment, and over the following decade served as a Coast Guard diver. Myself and other military divers did recover many bodies of drowned mariners, and we did see some of their faces. Seeing those faces, often blank stares of disbelief, made me pause. Our lives are precious and often taken from us in a flash. Appreciate your life, and make it worth something important. Positively influence others, stand for goodness & decency. I often think back on that fisherman, slowly walking down the Cordova pier, bundled against the wind and cold, maybe thinking about work, his girlfriend, or a cold beer, and then in a blink, he is falling into the cold, icy unforgiving Alaskan waters.