He willed himself to keep kicking until he reached another buoy. He untied the rope from his wrist and tied it to the anchor rope underneath the new buoy. Now he had two buoys connected by a few feet of rope. He straddled the rope, repositioned the boots under his arms, and waited. He knew he couldn’t survive another swim. If he was still in the water at sundown, he decided, he would tie himself to the buoy. That way, his parents would have something to bury.
The crew in the Jayhawk helicopter had been staring at the water since about 7 a.m., and by early afternoon, they were growing discouraged. The crew finished another search pattern—their third of the day—and requested a new one. From the command center, Davis radioed coordinates, and at 2:46 p.m., the helicopter started moving again.
Twelve minutes later, Lieutenant Jamros called out, “Mark! Mark! Mark!”—protocol when an object has been spotted. There was John Aldridge, sitting on the rope between his two buoys, clutching his boots and waving frantically. After Aldridge was safely in the helicopter, huddled under blankets, Lieutenant Deal flipped the radio to channel 21 and called Sosinski, who was staring out at the water, still looking for Aldridge. “Anna Mary,” Deal said, “we have your man. He’s alive.”
In the weeks after Aldridge’s rescue, I talked to several local fishermen about the search, and most of them teared up as they recounted the story. The inescapable risk of their jobs goes mostly unspoken in their lives, and the improbable fact that Aldridge hadn’t drowned somehow underscored that risk even more.
The person who seems least shaken by the experience is John Aldridge. He has no nightmares, no flashbacks, no fear when he goes out on the water to work. The Coast Guard pilots and the men in New Haven express pride when they talk about their work that day, and when Aldridge talks about it, he sounds the same way: “I always felt like I was conditioning myself for that situation. Thank God they saved me. But I felt I did my part.”
The New York Times (January 5, 2014), Copyright © 2014 by The New York Times Co., nytimes.com.