July 19 began like any other fishing day for longtime Clam Gulch resident and drift boat fisher Ron Russell and his son, Jess. It would soon turn into a life and death struggle for Ron, and the outcome would rest on Jess' ability to think and act under pressure.
Jess, who turned 13 on July 25, is the sole deckhand on his family's boat, the Sherry. He began working for his dad when he was 9.
Around noon, approximately 40 miles off the mouth of the Kasilof River, problems began to arise.
"We were out fishing like always, and the net got caught in the outdrive, it happens," Jess said. "There is a hatch in the deck just so we can get to things like that."
With the engine in neutral and idling, Ron, 55, opened the hatch, laid down on the deck, placed his upper body into the hold and began working on the tangled line. Jess was standing close by waiting for instructions when he noticed his dad's hat floating away.
"It seemed funny, so I said, 'Hey dad your hat is floating away,' but he never answered me back," Jess said.
That moment began the toughest nine hours of his life. Jess noticing that his dad was no longer working on the net and called his name several times to no avail. Realizing that something was terribly wrong but having no idea what had happened, he jumped into action.
"I ran over and shook him. He was unconscious but breathing weird. I remembered what Dr. (Nels) Anderson had taught me in first aid merit badge training at Boy Scouts, and I went to radio for help from our fishing group."
The nearest help, a quarter mile away was the Madeira. Owner Bob Correia, his wife, Liz Schmitt, and crew member Randy Adkins responded to the call.
Correia and Russell have been fishing together for years as part of a group of drift boats that keep in radio contact to let each other know where the fish are to support each other in case problems arise.
"It was a good fishing day, then this call came over the radio. It was clear it was Ronnie's boy, but he was talking kind of fast," Correia said. "I had him repeat the message, then he said very calm and clearly, 'I need help. My dad is down. He won't wake up.'"
Correia's nets already were in the water and pulling them out was out of the question.
"It would have taken too long," he said. "Frank Mullen on the Three Rivers came to our aid and watched our gear. He didn't have to, he is not part of our group. I am grateful to him because, with their help, it only took us 10 minutes to get to Jess and Ronnie."
Theo Matthews, owner of the Seville, followed Correia over to assist.
Once Jess was sure help was on the way, he went back to check on his dad who was still unconscious.
"I knew I had to get him out of the hold. When I pulled him out, I realized he was also bleeding. I decided it was very serious and that I should do an open distress call to anyone that was in range," Jess said.
The Coast Guard radioed back asking for the location, latitude and longitude, details as to his dad's condition and what had occurred. Having been taught how to use the boat's equipment, including its global positioning system, he was able to answer their questions.
"We were headed over and heard Jess come on the radio making an open distress call calm, clear and giving location bearings like an adult," Correia said. "He was amazing."
Correia tied up to the Sherry and along with his wife, Liz, Adkins and Steve Schoessler of the Seville boarded.
With help having arrived, Jess returned to his father's side.
"When we got there, Ron was still out. There was blood on the deck from a cut on his head. It was clear he was in big trouble. We thought he would die," Correia said. "It took two of us to roll him all the way over, he is a big guy. We still have no idea how Jess was able to pull him out of the hold alone."
At this point, the Sherry's engines where still running and had to be shut down. Correia returned to his boat and used it to keep the Sherry from drifting, he also took over radio duties with the Coast Guard, relaying Ron's vitals and trying to figure out what had gone wrong.
"It became very apparent that Ron had succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning. The hatch hadn't vented enough of the engine exhaust when it was opened." Adkins said. "If Jess had panicked or left him in the hold there is no doubt that his dad would have died."
While waiting for the Coast Guard to arrive, Eric Huebsh came to help with his boat, the New Wave, with crew member Ian Anderson.
"Jess had already performed all the first aid that could be done. In fact, he was the only one aboard with any type of medical training," Correia said. "At that point we were basically just trying to wake Ron up. It was an hour before the trooper boat could get to us."
While focusing on the problem at hand, the Sherry's net had slowly begun to float around the boats, threatening to tangle up the rescue efforts and creating a danger of getting entangled in a stick rip tide.
Using his boat, Matthews straightened and held the net until Ron could be removed from the Sherry, and the 400 fish in the net could be picked.
"A rip tide is where two different currents meet, there were a lot of sticks in this one." Matthews said. "If the net got in that we would have never been able to save it. It would have been a total loss."
About the time the rescue boat arrived, Ron began to wake up.
"My dad woke up, but he was way, way out of it." Jess said. "He kept talking about the net. He didn't remember or understand what was happening. It took everyone to convince him to leave the boat."
Although his dad was going to be fine and was on his way to the hospital, the crisis and Jess' role in it were not over the nets still were in the water and full of fish, the boat had to be taken back to the river, the fish needed to be unloaded and the boat prepared for its next run.
It took seven hours for Jess to help complete the tasks and see his dad again.
Jess worked the boat hydraulics while Adkins and Schoessler picked nets. He then took over as captain and, along with Adkins, took the boat back to the Kasilof River to unload his catch.
"It was never a question that Jess would stay with the boat," Adkins said. "He was the only one there that knew it, its quirks and how to run it. He took the boat all the way to the mouth of the river by himself. Jess never freaked out or cried. You wouldn't know he was only 12."
Jess recalled he was so caught up in what was going on with his dad that he didn't think to call his mother until his dad was on his way to the waiting ambulance.
Ron's wife, Audrey, 48, had remained on shore with their youngest son, Lars Richard, 8, and was completely unaware of the drama happening on the water until the phone rang around 1:30 p.m.
"What do you do?" she said. "It was so odd, your 12-year-old calls you from out on the water to tell you that your husband is on the way to the hospital. I only had time to get the basics and determine that Jess was fine, he knows how to handle the boat and he was with people I trusted. I had to find out if my husband was going to do as well."
Audrey met up with and followed the Ninilchik Community Ambulance Association's crew to Central Peninsula General Hospital in Soldotna. There, it was determined that Ron had indeed suffered carbon monoxide poisoning. He received oxygen and was released around 8 that night.
He doesn't remember anything clearly until he arrived at the hospital. The only reminder he has of the incident is several stitches he received for the gash on his head that he got when he passed out and hit his head in the hold.
"I actually beat my son home," Ron said. "Audrey dropped me off at the house and then went to pick him up at the river around nine."
Jess, worn out from the scare on the boat and the hours spent on the water, was happy to go home and be with his dad.
"I was so frightened. I want to thank everyone that helped me and my dad. I didn't do it all by myself. I am so grateful for them," Jess said.
Commercial fishing in Alaska is an inherently dangerous occupation, and everyone involved was relieved that what easily could have been a tragedy turned out so well, but no one was crediting luck for the outcome.
For Correia, next to Jess' heroics, the assistance given by Matthews of the Seville, Mullen of the Three Rivers, Huebsh of the New Wave and their crews was what impressed him.
"Many boats were close but never even offered aid, but these men responded and stayed 'til the very end," he said. "They gave up a money-making day for someone who was not even part of their fishing group."
For Ron, it was his son.
"Jess is a good kid. He didn't panic, he remembered what he had been taught and used it."
He added his deep gratitude for those who came to his aid and helped Jess with the boat.
"I am thankful for everything they did for us," he said.
Jess gives all the credit for staying calm to his dad and scouting.
"I knew what to do on the boat because my dad taught me everything, and Dr. Anderson at scouts prepared me for the rest."
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