On Jan. 30, 1998, a 79-year-old schooner with a five-man fishing crew went down in one of the worst Arctic storms in recorded Southeast Alaska history.
The Sitka-based F/V La Conte (not to be confused with the M/V Leconte, the state ferry that grounded itself on a rock near Sitka earlier this summer) went down in the Fairweather Grounds just south of Yakutat, dumping its crew into the icy Gulf of Alaska waters. The next several hours saw one of the most dangerous rescue operations by the U.S. Coast Guard in that organization's history.
The five crew members were adrift with no lifeboat, just linked by a rope as they bobbed in seas with waves blown to the height of 10-story buildings by the hurricane-force 140 mph winds. The Coast Guard station in Sitka heard the boat's satellite distress signal and began sending rescue helicopters to search for the missing men.
The first two helicopters couldn't fish the crewmen out of the water, but the third helicopter was able to rescue three of the five crewmen - Bob Doyle, Gig Mork and Mike DeCapua - and another helicopter was able to recover the body of La Conte captain Mark Morley. The body of Dave Hanlon was recovered about seven months later on an island near Kodiak.
Four of the crew members from the Coast Guard's third helicopter rescue team - Ted LeFeuvre, Steve Torpey, Fred Kalt and Lee Honnold - were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the highest peacetime aviation honor awarded in the United States. The rescue swimmer in the crew - Mike Fish, who grew up in Wasilla - received the Coast Guard's Air Medal.
The wreck of the La Conte and the rescue attempt is the focus of a new book by Todd Lewan called "The Last Run: A True Story of Rescue and Redemption on the Alaska Seas" (Harper Collins, $24.95 hardback).
This book expands on a five-part serial called "Storm Gods and Heroes" that Lewan wrote for The Associated Press. It was the first time The Associated Press agreed to run a multi-part serial, and the serial ran Dec. 20-24, 1998, in the Juneau Empire.
Between the time Lewan's serial appeared and Lewan's book was published, another book by Spike Walker called "Coming Back Alive: The True Story of the Most Harrowing Search and Rescue Mission Ever Attempted on Alaska's High Seas" was printed in 2001 (St. Martin's Press, $14.95 trade paperback). Walker is a former commercial fisherman and the author of two books - "Working on the Edge" and "Nights of Ice" - that are considered classics about the dangerous Bering Sea crab industry.
While both books adequately tell the story of the La Conte's wreck and rescue, Lewan's book is much more complete than Walker's. The level of research seems to be more thorough, and Lewan provides more insight into the key players in the story. I also felt the writing was a lot cleaner in Lewan's book.
While I felt Walker's coverage of the La Conte story was adequate, I was disappointed in Walker's book and thought it didn't measure up to the standards he'd set in his two books on the crab industry.
Also, as a journalist, one of the biggest sins is called backing into the lead. It took Walker nearly 100 pages before he started telling the story of the rescue, as Walker gives the background on the Coast Guard's role in the United States and its philosophy of rescues. The Coast Guard history was interesting, but I kept waiting for him to get into the story that's billed across the book's cover. This is a serious case of backing into the lead.
Lewan, to be honest, also seemed to back into the lead a little bit as he opened both the serial and his book with an account of the discovery of Dave Hanlon's remains (a neoprene glove with bear tooth marks and the remains of Hanlon's fingers inside). But at least the identification of Hanlon's remains is related to the rescue story, giving it some conclusion, and Lewan is back into the main story within 20 pages.
But that's really my only complaint about Lewan's book, which I feel is far superior to Walker's. Both books are welcome additions to Alaska and maritime libraries, but if you have money for only one of them, buy the Lewan book.
Charles Bingham can be reached at email@example.com.