Now Gwen listened in as Silveira reported the Alaska Ranger's trouble to the coast guard station in Kodiak. (The ship's 65-year-old captain, Eric Peter Jacobsen, consulted with the ship's engineers nearby, but as the officer on duty, Silveira handled the initial rescue calls.) The flooding, Silveira told the coast guard, had started in the rudder room—one of the engineers guessed that a rudder had fallen out from the bottom of the boat, creating a gaping hole in the ship's hull—and was spreading fast. The crew saw the water rising and gave up any attempt to control it with pumps; they shut the watertight doors and fled to the top deck. All 47 people onboard were gathered there, zipped into their survival suits and huddling together to stay warm.

By now they all knew the horrid truth: The nearest ship was hours away. Less than 50 minutes after the first alarm, waves were already cresting over the stern, which was riding low in the water. Gwen heard the engineers discussing the possibility of being towed in. Too late, one of them said. The boat was sinking fast.

The engines started sputtering and gurgling. Gwen had never heard such terrible noises—her life depended on those engines. As the lights flickered overhead, she realized, "I'm going to have to get into the water. I am going to have to abandon this ship into a freezing, pitch-black sea in the middle of the night." The scene played out like a video in her mind: A stranger was telling her kids how she'd died on the boat. "I could not only see but actually feel their grief," Gwen recalls. "But then my very next thought was: 'Oh, no, I am not dying today. I am living and I am getting off this boat.'" Then Gwen said a simple prayer, familiar words she'd repeated at many difficult times in her life: "God, please grant me the calmness, clarity, and courage to get out of this alive."

Soon after, the boat went dark. Then, inexplicably, it started backing up, moving at full speed astern into the icy waves. "The engines are going in reverse!" Silveira yelled. Because the Ranger had been built as a supply vessel for oil platforms, it was designed to quickly back away from a platform during an emergency rather than ram into it. But the ship's top officers—almost all new to the boat—seemed unfamiliar with its unusual mechanics. The already low stern deck was now plowing into the waves, scooping up water like a shovel.

Gwen was still inside the wheelhouse when the Ranger took a violent list starboard. The mood out on the icy deck, which had until now been tense but calm, suddenly erupted into chaos. Men felt the floor drop out from under them and lunged for the metal rails as the boat plunged sideways toward the sea. "Hang on!" some shouted, as a couple of crew members slid straight down the deck, through the rails, and into the frigid ocean.

"Abandon ship!" Silveira ordered. "Abandon ship!"

Everyone on deck began running for the life rafts. Gwen was assigned to the No. 2 raft, one of three 20-person circular crafts with peaked, tent-like canopies that guard against the elements. A blast of Arctic air hit her as she shuffled awkwardly in her survival suit across the slippery deck to the ship's rail, where she found the life raft canister covered in ice. Gwen struggled to pull a pin to release and inflate the rubber raft, then watched as it swung down toward the waves, hit the surface, and disappeared into the blackness. She grabbed at the 118-foot-long line that held the raft to the ship, but suddenly it went slack. The line had snapped. The raft was gone.

"Oh my God...It's so far down"


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