JUNEAU, Alaska - The call came at 2:52 a.m. Sunday.

"Mayday. Mayday. This is the Alaska Ranger ... . We are flooding, taking on water in our rudder room."

Within minutes two Coast Guard helicopters and a search plane lifted off while a cutter equipped a third helicopter headed for the doomed fishing vessel from different parts of Alaska, all converging on a location 120 miles west of Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands.

Even with the immediate scramble, it still would take rescuers time to reach the crew, who had abandoned ship.

Nearly 2 1/2 hours.

That left 47 crew members clinging to life in an ice-cold sea and being bandied around by 20-foot water swells. Ultimately 42 of them were rescued by the Coast Guard and the Ranger's sister ship, the Alaska Warrior.

Bodies of four of the five crew members who died, including the captain, were recovered. Alaska State Troopers say the four were in the water, not life boats, for about six hours, and they died of hypothermia. One man was lost at sea.

Coast Guard officials say it was one of the largest rescue efforts in recent memory, but not a total success. One crew member fell out of the rescue basket as it was being hoisted up to a helicopter. No one is certain, but he may have been the crewman who was lost.

A Jayhawk helicopter was the first to arrive, and what flight commander Lt. Brian McLaughlin saw stunned him.

"As we approached the scene, we saw three strobe lights and we assumed those were rafts," McLaughlin said. "The scene was very grim.

"We got a little closer and there was a fourth light, then a fifth, and a sixth and the numbers just kept growing. The ocean was flashing at us over about a mile-long stretch."

By then, the Alaska Ranger could no longer been seen. It sank, within 15 minutes, making its way 6,318 feet to the sea floor. That's deep enough to stack the Statue of Liberty and its foundation atop one another 20 times over.

What remained were a stretch of crew in survival suits - some illuminated in small pods, others alone - and a series of life rafts holding fishing crew.

Another helicopter and a search plane were slowed by head winds, so it was up to the Jayhawk to perform the initial rescues while it waited for the Coast Guard cutter, Munro, and its Dolphin helicopter to arrive.

While McLaughlin surveyed the area, Petty Officer 2nd Class O'Brien Hollow prepared to drop into the unlit waters. Waiting for daylight that was still hours away was not an option if rescuers were to save as many as possible.

Attached to a steel cable, Hollow descended into the water littered with crew members to see who needed the most immediate attention. He placed 13 survivors one-by-one into a basket-like gurney. He stayed in the water watching as each was hoisted into the aircraft.

"We were moving 30 to 50 feet sometimes with the swell," Hollow said of the time he was in the water, trying to stay in sync with the helicopter pilot. "We moved left, right, north, south, east, west.

As the 33-year-old Hollow worked, neither the Munro nor the Alaska Warrior had arrived.

But once the cutter got to within 80 miles, it launched its rescue helicopter, the Dolphin, armed with four crew members, said Munro Capt. Craig Lloyd.

Within 10 minutes after the Dolphin took off and about three hours after the fishing vessel's mayday call, the Jayhawk approached the cutter with its first group of survivors.

The Jayhawk first tried to take them to the Warrior because the vessel arrived before the Munro, but the Warrior's deck was filled with fishing gear and covered with sheets of ice.

"In the end, it would have been too dangerous to lower them on board," McLaughlin said.

So the Jayhawk flew another 50 miles to the cutter, which was not equipped to have this size aircraft land, but, unlike the Warrior, it could accommodate a passenger transfer.

One by one, survivors found themselves again in baskets. They were lowered to the ship, greeted by two crew members, then escorted to a mess hall that received a quick conversion into a medical ward.

Survivors received attention in the ad-hoc emergency room, replete with heaters, bags of intravenous fluids, special sleeping bags to fight hypothermia and warm blankets fresh out a dryer.

In the meantime, the Warrior was able to rescue crew members from life rafts, and the helicopters were able to pluck the rest from the Bering Sea. And the rescue didn't come without some amount of sacrifice on the part of the Coast Guard crew. Petty Officer Third Class Abe Heller at one point remained in the water so there would be enough room on the helicopter for the survivors and to keep close tabs on three remaining crew members still in the water.

The captain of the Alaska ranger, Eric Peter Jacobsen, made certain his men had survival jackets before going overboard, according to second-hand reports from friends of crew members. The crew themselves were ordered not to talk to the media by the vessel's owner, the Seattle-based Fishing Company of Alaska.

The 42 survivors were ultimately returned to Dutch Harbor.

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