Former NFL star among the rescued from Bering Sea

Posted: Monday, September 12, 2005

ANCHORAGE - Pro football Hall of Famer Larry Csonka was among six people who spent a harrowing night aboard a rolling and pitching boat in the Bering Sea before being hoisted to safety aboard a Coast Guard helicopter.

Csonka, his partner, and a film crew accompanying him spent a fear-filled night in the 28-foot vessel. None of the six people were injured Thursday. The boat, however, was abandoned to the sea, the Coast Guard said Saturday.

Csonka, 58, inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1987, had been hunting for reindeer on remote Umnak Island off the Aleutian Islands while filming an episode for his television show for the Outdoor Life Network.

Once a star fullback for the Miami Dolphins, Csonka, now runs Zonk! Productions, which for almost a decade has filmed around two dozen episodes a year for his outdoor sports TV show. Several years ago, he and partner Audrey Bradshaw bought a home in Anchorage.

In a telephone interview Saturday from a hotel in Unalaska, he said, "We might very well have died if we stayed out there. It was tense."

Csonka, Bradshaw, film crew members John Dietrich and Rich Larson, and Thomas McCay, the guide for the hunt, were taping the event for the show "North to Alaska" when the weather worsened. Also on board the distressed boat was captain Dwight Johnson.

The group had been hunting on the isolated island about 100 miles west of Unalaska. After a rigorous day hike and hunt that took longer than expected, they boarded the Augusta D and were on their way back to Nikolski when conditions on the water turned far worse. Seas swelled and gale force winds began to blow with pounding rain.

The Aleut village of Nikolski, population 36, was about five miles away. Local resident Scott Kerr heard the captain's call for help on the radio around 8 p.m. There were no nearby boats to come to their aid, and the Coast Guard was far away, he said.

Kerr drove his truck out to a point facing the sea and turned on the high beams of his headlights in an effort to guide the boat to land in the darkness. Other villagers did the same, bringing out spotlights and their four-wheelers.

But the boat, unable to fight the seas, drifted away from the village, according to Csonka and members of his film crew.

Csonka said they rode out the big waves and donned their survival suits once they realized they couldn't navigate their way out of the storm. He said the fear was the little boat would succumb to the seas, there could be a rogue wave or the boat could hit rock.

The Coast Guard said the boat would eventually stray 15 miles from the village.

After hours of worsening conditions, the Coast Guard was called to help shortly after midnight on Wednesday, Lt. Mara Miller said. Flying a helicopter from Kodiak, 600 miles away, would take the Coast Guard more than 10 hours to get to the distressed vessel.

The Coast Guard said there were 40-knot winds and 9-foot seas. Kerr said the seas were closer to 20 feet.

"It was moment to moment," Csonka said. "It was 10 or 12 hours of moment to moment with sea sickness and not being able to drink water because it was so rough, and hanging on to each other."

The Bering Sea has a notorious reputation for stealing lives, especially of fishermen, in its waters that can turn tumultuous very quickly.

"It was depressing. We were all afraid," cameraman Dietrich said. Bradshaw said, though, "We kept having faith we were going to prevail."

A Coast Guard HH-60 Jayhawk helicopter arrived around 10:45 a.m. Thursday. Hovering over the battered boat, Coast Guardsmen hoisted the survivors up one by one in a basket, and the boat was abandoned.

On the Jayhawk, a Coast Guardsman had a football ready for Csonka.

"I signed it and told him I was pretty grateful he picked my butt out of the Bering Sea," Csonka said.

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