The very first person I interviewed for my book was Jim Rylee. Jim was the commander of a Navy SH-3A Sea King helicopter that rescued twenty-six survivors. I flew to Louisiana to do the interview. It just so happened that I interviewed Jim on the thirty-first anniversary of the ditching on May 2, 2001. Jim and his wife Donna were gracious hosts who insisted that I stay at their home that night. It was the start of a long and arduous process of tracking down countless individuals and getting their stories down on tape. This post is dedicated to everyone who played a part in the rescue.
Jim wasn’t the only person who insisted that I spend the night at their home. Another person whom I interviewed and also invited me to stay the night was Bill Bohlke. Bill was a furloughed American Airlines pilot who was running an FBO on the island of St. Croix. When Bill heard about the ditching, his first thought was to fly out to the scene and drop some life rafts to the survivors. First, though, he had to unload four thousand pounds of dirty laundry from the back of a Skyvan, the plane he intended to use for the raft drop.
Adding to the excitement that day for Bill was the fact that his wife Tuddy was nine months pregnant and experiencing labor pains. She would give birth the next day to a baby girl. Here is a short audio clip of my interview with Bill describing the dropping of the life rafts.
John Barber was a crew chief aboard a CH-46 helicopter, which was assigned to the USS Guadalcanal. Six Marine helicopters participated in the rescue. John’s crew recovered one person from the water. The person they recovered was unresponsive and another crewman was forced to jump into the water to assist the man. John didn’t know it at the time, but the man he recovered was pronounced dead on arrival at St. Croix. He wouldn’t learn the fate of the man until some thirty-one years later when I interviewed him. Here is John describing the difficulty they had getting the man into the helicopter.
Bill Schrader was a Marine who just happened to have completed his flight test for crew chief the very day of the ditching. He didn’t even have time to celebrate before he found himself right in the middle of a life and death rescue effort. Here is a clip of Bill talking about his experience in rescuing the last three survivors.
All of the rescues were done by helicopter. Two ships arrived on the