It was October 30, 1991 and just off the Atlantic coast a hurricane, a high pressure ridge, and a trough of low pressure were coalescing into a nor’easter of epic proportions that meteorologists were calling the storm of the century.
Here on the East End, the weather was clear and breezy. John Spillane was a pararescueman (known as a P.J.) of the Air National Guard 106th Rescue Wing stationed at Gabreski Airport in Westhampton Beach. That morning, he took part in a local helicopter search for a fisherman who had been swept off a rock near Point Judith, Rhode Island.
Around 3 p.m., another call came in and Spillane donned his wetsuit again. A Mayday from a solo sailor on a 30-foot boat taking on water in 20- to 30-foot waves 260 miles southeast of Long Island. Spillane and the rest of the team assigned to respond were seasoned pros.
The plan: An H-60 helicopter crew of a pilot, co-pilot and engineer, would fly Spillane and another P.J., Arden “Rick” Smith, to the stricken ship and retrieve the sailor, accompanied by two C-130s providing mission support and refueling.
But if you’ve read Sebastian Junger’s book “The Perfect Storm” or seen the film based on it, you know things did not go as intended. Whether or not you know the outcome, Spillane’s firsthand retelling of the events at a Friday Night Dialogues presentation on May 19 at the Shelter Island Library promises to be thrilling.
Spillane, whose speaking voice betrays his Bronx upbringing, went into the Air Force at age 17 and served for four years doing teletype repairs. He joined the National Guard and entered the extreme training to become a P.J. — a combination of scuba diver, HALO jumper, marathon swimmer, paramedic and special operative.
Retired now, after a career that also included time with the New York City police and fire departments, and living in Shoreham, Spillane was 32 on the day Hurricane Grace, ran up the eastern seaboard, and collided with a Canadian high pressure system and a low pressure trough, creating a storm of unprecedented fury.
Using techniques of a genre called “creative non-fiction,” Junger conjured compelling stories of those caught in the maelstrom, including the captain and crew of the Andrea Gail, a commercial fishing vessel out of Gloucester, Massachusetts that was lost in the storm.
While Junger had to imagine much of what he described during that ship’s last hours, details of the daring helicopter rescue came from the survivors’ own accounts. Spillane spoke with Junger about three years after the events. Only recently, to mark the 25th anniversary of what is now called the “Perfect Storm,” has Spillane been bringing his story directly to the public.
The rescue crew on the short-range helicopter knew before they set out that their flight required four re-fueling hookups with one of the accompanying C-130s. Before leaving Gabreski, they’d gotten the latest forecasts by fax — in the days before computers were standard onboard equipment. Conditions were bad, but outbound and through the first two refueling maneuvers they’d managed to skirt the worst weather.
What they did not know was how badly conditions had deteriorated and that they themselves would need rescuing from what Junger described as a “world of shrieking darkness and sliding seas” with waves up of up to 100 feet.
Join John Spillane in the library’s Community Room at 7 p.m. on Friday, May 19, to hear his account of the harrowing mission.
Submitted by Julia Brennan