Sam Gammon, 07/11/02
Frigid swim for life
'No one knew we were out there; there was no choice'
Halsey's long, cold swim to shore impresses rescuers
By Jon Little, Anchorage Daily News, July 13, 2002
Soldotna -- Ron Halsey's calves were cramping up, really badly. Buffeted by 4-foot swells, he aimed his tired body toward the distant bluff.
The 43-year-old Cook Inlet commercial fisherman was attempting the impossible. Wearing nothing but jeans, a T-shirt, cotton gloves and a life vest, he was trying to swim 11/4 miles from his sunken boat to shore.
Back-floating, dog-paddling, crawling: Halsey used every stroke he had learned as a kid back at Kenai Central High School.
Somewhere behind him, his wife and two crewmen bobbing in the saltwater were betting their lives he would make it.
Minutes ticked into hours, and he struggled to beat back fatigue, to keep himself motivated. He wanted to give up.
"I saw some sea gulls flying over me. I looked up at them and I said, 'Why can't you just pull me to shore?' " he said.
Resting one burning leg at a time, Ron Halsey labored on. Finally, he felt the Inlet's firm sand beneath his feet. And only then did he feel cold. He just wanted to fall down and rest.
But he staggered on, over the rocky high tide line in wet wool socks. He hiked a dirt road up the bluff and showed up, shivering, at the camp of fellow setnetters Horace and Laura Blanchard.
The effort had taken him two and a half hours, and the Inlet's water temperature was about 50 degrees. Experts say an average adult should have been dead after that much time immersed in such cold water.
Ron Halsey, 43, said his motivation was simple. His wife, Debbie, 48, was back where the boat sank in the Inlet between the mouths of the Kenai and Kasilof rivers, along with crewmen William "Cody" McVay, 20, and Sam Gammon, 14.
The husband and wife, both of Abilene, Texas, were recovering Friday at his parents' home in Soldotna. They quietly told their story as Debbie Halsey dabbed her wind-burned cheeks with a cool, wet rag.
Theirs had been the last skiff pulling nets in the Inlet on Thursday afternoon, Ron Halsey explained. There was no help within sight. The emergency radio floated away when the boat sank about 6:30 p.m.
"No one knew we were out there. There was no choice: If I didn't make it, I didn't think anybody would ever know," he said.
He shuffled into the Blanchards' camp about 9:15 p.m. and dialed 911. An Alaska State Trooper helicopter was dispatched, setnetters launched skiffs, and Soldotna-based Central Emergency Services sent two rescue boats. Searchers found the rest of Ron Halsey's crew by 10 p.m.
Debbie Halsey had strapped herself to a buoy and was halfway out of the water. She was OK.
The two crewmen were carried down the Inlet by the outgoing tide, talking, praying and singing as their heads poked above the swells. McVay lived. But Sam, the youngest, skinniest and most frightened, succumbed to the cold before rescuers could reach him.
The four had been commercial fishing aboard a 22-foot motorized skiff. They were setnetting, catching salmon in floating gillnets anchored to the Inlet's floor. Strong southwest wind turned the Inlet choppy, but it wasn't the worst setnetters have dealt with this season.
Like the scores of other setnetters along the Kenai Peninsula bluff between Nikiski and Ninilchik, the Halsey crew was picking salmon, then stowing nets in the aluminum boat one by one. The fishing period ended at 7 p.m, and by law all gear had to be out of the water.
The crew untied one end of a net about 6:30 p.m. and was motoring up alongside it to untie the other end when the webbing tangled in the boat's outboard motor.
It is about the worst thing that can happen, setnetters say. The net's pull drags the back of the boat down and allows waves to swamp the vessel.
Ron Halsey hurriedly tried to cut the line as his boat swung to the north with the incoming tide, but a couple of waves crashed over the boat's stern, filling it with water.
The waterlogged boat literally fell away beneath their feet, leaving the four floundering among gas cans, fishing corks and other debris. The emergency radio, in a dry box, floated out of reach.
Debbie Halsey said the current carried her almost directly to another setnetter's buoy. It was a pair of floating plastic barrels lashed together by rope. She climbed aboard the X-shaped rope between the barrels, and straddled it like a horse.
Ron Halsey told the other two to stay with the boat, just a bow above the water. He clung to an empty gas can for a while and started swimming for help.
Visibility was limited. Whitecapped waves formed blue walls in the early evening sunshine. After Ron Halsey disappeared from view, his wife hunkered down with her back to the wind, her arms and legs tight to her body. She still had rain gear on, from hip boots to a slicker, and she put her hood up against the gusts.
"I just knew I didn't want to die," she said
Debbie Halsey slowly unclipped her life jacket and carefully reclipped the top fastener around one of the buoy's ropes. That way if she didn't survive, they would still be able to find her.
Time passed. As the Inlet's ferocious tides turned, the boat slipped beneath the water. With nothing to cling to, McVay and Sam floated south separately with the ebb. They passed buoys, but couldn't reach them. They passed each other, back and forth, said McVay, of Abilene, Texas.
And they got colder and colder. "I couldn't feel my legs, and all the swells were coming over my head. I swallowed a lot of water," he said.
Still, he kept Sam talking, praying, and they sang "Lord I Lift Your Name On High" and "Awesome God" as they were swept along.
McVay was able to limit his movements, but the younger deckhand was panicking.
"I was trying to keep him under control because he was kicking," McVay said. "I said, 'God's with us. Everything's going to be OK. Stop kicking.' "
Eventually, Sam floated past McVay one last time and disappeared from view about an hour before rescuers arrived.
The Blanchards launched one of their fishing boats after Ron Halsey showed up, and were the first to find Debbie Halsey strapped to the buoys. She had no energy to move on her own. "I was thinking, 'I don't care if they pull every joint out of the socket, just pull me up,' " she said. "Those boys, they saved my life."
A Central Emergency Services jet boat picked up McVay after two CES divers jumped from a trooper helicopter to attend to him and Sam.
Tim Cooper, a CES captain and one of the divers, helped put Sam onto another skiff operated by setnetter Dean Osmar. Osmar had seen the chopper flying low and assumed the worst, so he and two crewmen were out investigating.
His crew, Ryan Roemmich and Bart Klonizos of Cody, Wyo., threw themselves into resuscitating Sam, Cooper said.
One attempted mouth-to-mouth while the other worked the boy's chest all the way back to a Kasilof River dock and a waiting ambulance, Cooper said. "In just nasty weather, the boat was pounding all over the place. They kept on doing it, trying to give that guy a best chance."
Sam, a Soldotna resident, was declared dead at 2:32 a.m. Friday at Central Peninsula General Hospital.
The survivors, tired and sore Friday morning but otherwise unhurt, said their faith in God tempered their fear of death and helped keep them calm as they dealt with the unforgiving wind and waves without a boat.
Reporter Jon Little can be reached at email@example.com or at 907-260-5248.