Outside, the waves were raging, causing the raft to pitch and jolt. To make matters worse, Gwen was racked with seasickness. "I felt like I was literally trying to throw up my stomach," she says. She wasn't the only one. At one point more than half the people in the raft were vomiting straight into the water they were all sitting in.
After more than a half hour, someone heard yelling from outside. When the men opened the tent's plastic flap, there was a fisherman in the water. They pulled him onboard—his face was gray, his body shaking, his suit full of water. "He's freezing to death," Gwen said. She watched three Japanese crew members prop him upright to keep him awake, amazed they managed to stay balanced on the waterbed-like floor as the raft rolled in the two-story waves.
When Gwen heard the first buzz of a helicopter overhead, after 5 A.M., she knew the rescuers would look first for any men still in the water and could only hope the chopper crew would spot her raft as well. She thought about seeing her kids. The last time she'd spoken to them, phoning from the dock two days before, it had been for only an instant—just enough time to say, "I love you." Over and over, she repeated to herself: "I am not going to die. I am going home."
Suddenly, the group heard an unfamiliar noise outside the raft. A crew member opened the tent door, and Gwen saw that they had banged right up against the metal hull of another fishing boat, the Alaska Warrior. "We were actually on the hull before I knew the Warrior was anywhere around," Gwen recalls. "I mean, that mother's loud, but the waves were breaking so hard and the wind was howling so much, we didn't even hear it inside the life raft."
She watched as two guys from her raft flung themselves at lines hanging from the ship and started to scramble up. Gwen knew she didn't have the strength to do the same thing, but she was afraid to stay much longer in the raft. "The water was slamming us into the side of the Warrior. I thought, 'Oh my God, I've lived through all this and now the Warrior's gonna crush us.'"
Then the Japanese man who'd helped Gwen motioned for her to come toward him. The rescue ship lowered a ring-shaped lifesaving sling; the man slipped it around Gwen's chest. A crane hoisted her up into the night air and placed her gently onto the Warrior's ice-coated deck, where she collapsed. "I didn't even care if I got up at that point. I was like, 'This deck feels good!'" Gwen recalls. One of the Warrior's crew members carried her into the galley. "I heard people screaming my name. It was the observers on the Warrior and Jay, my co-observer. As soon as I saw him, I just started crying."
Nearly two years later, back home with her kids, Gwen flips through a box of photos and clippings, and pulls out a picture of herself from her first year in Alaska. She's on the deck of a small boat next to an enormous bin of just-caught fish, dressed in orange rain gear, and smiling broadly as she grasps a two-foot halibut in her hands. She looks content remembering the moment, but tears up when talk turns to the Alaska Ranger and David Silveira.
The Alaska Warrior rescued 22 people from two life rafts, most with only minor scrapes and traumas, and delivered them less than a day later to Dutch Harbor. Twenty-one more survivors were individually airlifted from the freezing waves by two coast guard helicopters, which delivered them to the Munro, a coast guard cutter that had been sprinting toward the disaster site since the Ranger's first Mayday call. Silveira, who was also pulled from the water by the coast guard, was one of five crew members who didn't make it. When they hauled up his body, his survival suit was full of water, perhaps because it was ripped or damaged. Most likely, he suffered from hypothermia, passed out, and drowned. Gwen was on the Warrior when the news came that he'd died, and she was distraught. "The other fishermen kept coming up to me, going, 'It's okay, you're okay, you're not hurt.' And I was like, 'I am hurt. I'm hurt because my friend died. I'm not okay.'"
Soon after her rescue, Gwen called her family from the ship to let them know she was all right, but she had to remain in Alaska for ten days to provide information for the coast guard investigation. Six months later, Gwen was at home when a friend e-mailed her a story about another Alaskan fishing boat that sank; among the seven dead were two men Gwen had worked with up north. By then, Gwen already knew she was not going back. "I had a hard time of it after I came home. I had panic attacks. I became a worrywart—supervigilant about everything." She saw a counselor for 18 months, but ultimately, she says, it was prayer that got her through the grief.
Was it worth it—risking everything for a dream? "That job fulfilled me more than anything," she says. "I can still close my eyes and take myself back to some of my favorite moments out there. The first time I saw a pod of whales, I stood on deck with tears running down my face. Some people live their whole lives and never experience anything they enjoy so much."
Gwen pauses—convinced, it seems, of the inevitability of her choice. "Being an observer wasn't just a job," she says. "It was the first thing I ever did that was almost just for me." Happily, her next pursuit is only slightly less watery: She hopes to get a master's degree in ichthyology—the study of fish—and eventually teach marine biology. Despite her harrowing experience, the determination that first brought Gwen to Alaska has survived.
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Kalee Thompson is the author of Deadliest Sea: The Untold Story Behind the Greatest Rescue in Coast Guard History