Chance gets lots of help in rescuing Kenai men from inlet

Posted: Sunday, August 31, 2003

Clinging to an anchor buoy adrift in Cook Inlet on Aug. 23, Kenai's Armin Schmidt figured he had about 15 minutes left to live.

His 30-foot aluminum skiff was resting somewhere at the bottom of Cook Inlet. His fishing partners, neighbor Mike Nelson and a friend named Dave, were huddled around him, bobbing aimlessly in the choppy gray water. Hypothermia was beginning to creep into their bones, making each breath more difficult to draw.

Nelson wanted to swim for it, but with the beach still a mile away, Schmidt said the three should stick together. They tried kicking the buoy to shore, but their progress was painfully slow. In 20 minutes, the three men moved only a quarter mile closer to shore. It didn't look good.

Then, just when it looked like the unpredictable waters of Cook Inlet would claim three more victims, a boat appeared through the spray. Then another. Someone had found them.

The dramatic rescue off Ninil-chik left the three Kenai men with a deeper appreciation for life and a whole lot of love for the dozens of people some still unknown who gave them another chance to live.

The day began normally enough. Schmidt, who fishes commercially from his home on Kalifornsky Beach, was taking his two buddies out of Deep Creek for some late season halibut fishing. He said the weather wasn't the greatest, but it wasn't that bad when they launched the boat.

"When we ran out of Deep Creek it was about a one- to two-foot chop," he said. "It was real mellow. They said it was a little bouncy outside, but it wasn't too bad."

They ran about 17 miles out of Deep Creek, to a mussel bed known to produce good halibut catches. Not on this day.

"We only got like three little ones, and we threw those back," Schmidt said.

The weather started turning rough. Since the fishing wasn't any good and the wind was beginning to gust to 20 knots, Schmidt decided it was time to head for calmer waters closer to shore. It didn't work out that way.

Instead, the skiff ended up in even rougher water about a mile and a half from shore. The wind was going one direction, the water the other. With the sea following the skiff, waves were pushing the bow of the skiff into waves in front. Worse, Schmidt said he noticed the craft beginning to flounder a bit.

"The bow was way heavy. I think one of the front air tanks was cracked," he said.

A wave broke from behind, and suddenly the bow wasn't going over the wave in front, but diving below. Nelson said it didn't take long for the boat to fill with water.

"It just took a nose dive. The boat filled up in about five seconds. I tried scrambling to bail out, but the boat rolled on its side and we had to all jump out," Nelson said.

The three men scrambled to grab whatever they could. Nelson's cell phone was wet. Schmidt couldn't locate the radio. Dave, who asked that his last name not be used, had just enough time to cut a buoy loose, and Nelson grabbed a float coat. Schmidt grabbed a life ring.

Skiffs aren't easy to sink, but this one was going down fast. The three clung to the boat for a couple minutes, but then it was gone. They were alone, adrift and in a place few return from alive.

"I said a few prayers," Schmidt said.

He said he spent the days following the accident taking his three children, Michael, 19, Brittany, 17, and Stephanie, 14, to the state fair in Palmer.

"You have a lot to think about. I thought about my kids, my friends a lot of whom would have been very upset with me for drowning out there," he said.

Nelson echoed Schmidt's sentiments. He said those 20 minutes in the water gave him plenty of time to reflect on his life.

"Well, there were a lot of things going through my head," he said. "A lot of things."

Schmidt said at that point, there was little they could do but pray and hold on. Nelson wanted to swim, but Schmidt knew that would mean almost certain death. They stuck to the buoy and waited for a miracle.

They got several.

The rescue began when a 5-year-old boy spotted something unusual bobbing in the water from a home perched high on the bluff near Whiskey Gulch.

The boy alerted the nearest adult, who got a pair of binoculars and saw that it was indeed three people in the water. The man called Marine Services boat launch operator John Hylen, who immediately got on the radio to the three other boats that launched from Deep Creek that day.

John Baker of Afishunt Charters was in one of the charter boats when the call came in.

"The gist of the conversation was that a boat had gone down and there was three people in the water," Baker said.

The three charter boats began heading toward the location where the men had been spotted. Leading the pack was the "4 Aces," skippered by captain Don "Little D" Bybee.

Bybee's deckhand that day was Craig "A.J." Jensen. He said Friday that once the call came on the radio, Bybee headed full throttle toward the area where the men were spotted.

"We turned and ran there," Jensen said.

After about 20 minutes of searching, Jensen said he and Bybee, as well as their clients, began to spot debris from the wreck.

"All of a sudden, we saw a hand sticking up," he said.

That hand was Schmidt's. Hanging on to the buoy, he was using the last of his strength to hoist himself into the air, desperately trying to attract the attention of the rescue boats.

Bybee maneuvered his boat close enough to toss the men a life ring. However, when Jensen went to toss the ring, it landed just a couple feet from the boat.

"One of the (clients) was standing on the line," he said.

Regrouping, Jensen again tossed the ring, this time getting it to the three men. Although the 4 Aces is equipped with a low dive deck, Schmidt remembers being unable to hoist himself aboard the boat.

"The two of them had to pull me on to the boat," he said.

After Jensen and Bybee got the three men on board, the ordeal was still not over. The men were hypothermic, and they had to get out of their wet clothes and into something warmer. Bybee turned toward Deep Creek and again opened up the throttle.

When they reached the beach, two ambulances from the Ninilchik Volunteer Emergency Services were waiting with blankets and heaters running "at full blast," according to Schmidt.

After spending some time warming up, the three men were pronounced healthy. They got into some dry clothes, gathered up the gear that was recovered by the rescue boats, and headed back to the boat launch, where Schmidt's truck and empty trailer were waiting. They returned to Kenai that evening, bruised, tired and shaken but alive.

On Friday, Schmidt returned to Ninilchik. He wanted to thank all the people responsible for the rescue.

He spoke with John Hylen, the launch operator who put out the radio call to the charter boats. He talked with "A.J." Jensen, the deck hand who helped pull him from the water. He left a gift basket for Francisca "T" Guillen who picked up most of his gear. He stopped by the emergency services building, but none of the volunteers who helped warm the men up were around.

Everywhere he went, Schmidt thanked the people he met for their heroic acts.

But he couldn't thank everyone. Bybee, the skipper who was first on the scene Saturday, had already left Ninilchik for the season. Jensen said the captain was happy to have helped, and noted that the rescue boat, the "4 Aces" was built by Bybee all by himself.

"He welded every seam on that boat himself," Jensen said.

The deckhand said he was happy to have helped out fellow mariners in need. He told Schmidt that pulling the three men aboard was the best thing that could have happened to the charter that day.

"We got four little ones and three 200-pounders," he joked. "We were going to hang you guys up on the board with the fish."

Schmidt just laughed. He said it's not hard to find humor in things these days.

"Wow, it really makes you appreciate things," he said, laughing softly.

As for the little boy who spotted the three unlucky fishers, he couldn't be found Friday afternoon. Locals speculated the boy's family, the Stokes, may have already left town for the season.

Schmidt left a note on the door of their beachfront home, thanking them for keeping a watchful eye out for him and his crew. He said he feels like if it had not have been for one kid noticing something unusual on the water that day, the story would not have ended so happily.

"If it hadn't been for that little boy, we would have been dead," he said.

Mike Nelson agreed. He said he firmly believes that there are a number of Ninilchik heroes who all worked together to turn a tragedy into a triumph.

"All three of us want to thank whoever it was that called it in. We want to give thanks to a lot of people, everybody," he said. "They saved us."

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