Perfect Storm 20th

  • October 31, 2011 4:21 AM
    Message # 738130
    There's lots of media stories about the perfect storm this week.  Here's an item written from the point of view of a crewman on the cutter sent to rescue Satori.From

    20 years later, Norwood man recounts his experience in infamous storm



    NORWOOD undefined Norwood native Shawn D. Sullivan has seen a lot during his two decades of service in the Coast Guard.

    He’s monitored drug smugglers, dived into raging waters off the coast of Miami and ridden out pounding thunderstorms in the Bering Sea.

    But none of that, he said, compares to a no-name storm in 1991, made famous a decade later by a movie based on the Sebastian Junger novel.

    Even today, Mr. Sullivan, a 1987 graduate of Norwood-Norfolk Central school, has trouble finding words to describe the storm, later dubbed “The Perfect Storm.”

    “Harrowing craziness. That’s the only way I can explain it,” he said.

    This weekend marks the 20th anniversary of the storm, a nor’easter that later evolved into a small hurricane and battered the Atlantic with 100 mph winds and 80-foot waves.

    And Mr. Sullivan and the 80-man crew aboard the Coast Guard cutter Tamaroa were right in the middle of it.

    On Oct. 29, 1991, Mr. Sullivan was a 22-year-old seaman, finishing his second year in the Coast Guard. Around 2 a.m., the Tamaroa’s crew set course for the Cape Cod Canal, responding to a sailboat’s rescue call about 75 miles south of Nantucket.

    As the boat crawled toward the stranded ship and its three-member crew, waters were rough, but a manageable 20 feet.

    Late that morning, the Tamaroa arrived at the scene of the sailboat, Satori. The crew deployed a 21-foot boat to rescue the stranded trio.

    But after the rescue boat’s pontoon was punctured, a safe evacuation was impossible. They were forced to radio for help, and a Coast Guard helicopter was summoned from Cape Cod, taking the Satori’s three passengers and three Tamaroa crew members to the coast.

    As the Tamaroa was heading back to dock, the crew got word that a second Coast Guard helicopter, from Long Island, was running out of fuel over the Atlantic.

    The Tamaroa and her crew turned around, heading to their second, and most dangerous, rescue attempt of the weekend. Even though the crew knew the weather was getting worse, they had no idea what they were headed into, Mr. Sullivan said.

    “It’s probably a good thing we didn’t because of how awful it was,” he said.

    The Tamaroa strained as the crew pushed along, rocking around in waves that Mr. Sullivan said reached as high as 80 feet.

    “I remember standing on deck and looking up at a mountain of water and not being able to see the top of the water,” he said. “And every time, we would just chug our way up.”

    The crew scanned the waters, looking for the five helicopter crew members, battling the walls of water and swirling winds in the process.

    “I’ll never forget the sound,” Mr. Sullivan said. “I imagine it’s similar to how people describe tornadoes. It was an unbelievable noise, ripping through wires and antennas, making these god-awful screams.”

    Every few minutes one of the 80-foot waves would crash into the boat, leaving it and her crew underwater for 15 seconds at a time, Mr. Sullivan said. But every time they would surface, all eight crew members on deck were hanging on to ropes and wires with their bare hands.

    “There’s no doubt, somewhere in the back of my mind I thought, ‘If I’m going to go out, why not go out doing something as heroic as this?’” Mr. Sullivan said.

    The Tamaroa continued into the early hours of Oct. 31, when it located and rescued four of the five helicopter crew members.

    For two days, the crew lingered in the water searching, unsuccessfully, for the fifth crew member. But when the crew finally made its way back to Cape Cod, their return was inconspicuous at best.

    But even if the people didn’t realize what the group had accomplished until a decade later, Mr. Sullivan said, the crew knew immediately.

    “It was probably the greatest rescues any of us were a part of,” he said. “For sure, all of us on that ship look back and say, ‘Man there’s no way we should have come home.’”

    And as Mr. Sullivan and the crew celebrate the 20th anniversary of their heroic rescue attempts, they are also fighting a battle undefined to save the 68-year-old ship that carried them through the storm.

    They are part of a small group working to give the ship a permanent home in Alexandria, Va., where it would serve as a World War II Navy museum and training ship.

    The boat has seen the invasion of Iwo Jima and one of the region’s most notorious storms, Mr. Sullivan said, giving it an important place in American history.

    “She’s not just iron. She’s not just metal,” said Mr. Sullivan, who now lives in Philadelphia, Pa., and is a chief warrant officer in the Coast Guard’s Marine Safety inspections. “She’s seen more than most of us have seen in our lives.”