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Ex-County Man Dies in the Icy Outpost He Loved

Rescue attempt: A risky wintertime flight into Antarctica fails to save the onetime Port Hueneme resident.

May 11, 1997|RICHARD WARCHOL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Burning barrels of gasoline and diesel fuel lined the frozen antarctic airstrip, a place where planes neither come nor go from February to August.

The planned airlift of the body of a former Port Hueneme resident was dangerous, costly and among just a few flights attempted after winter had descended on the frozen continent.

Perpetual darkness had nearly settled in for three months over the bottom of the Earth, where hurricane-force winds and blinding blizzards can kick up in minutes, and the windchill can plummet to 110 degrees below zero.

It was no place for a plane to land. But U.S. officials had little choice.

Much of the wintertime cache of medical supplies for the isolated, 155-member community of McMurdo Station had been tapped to treat Charles Gallagher, a much-loved retired Navy man who called this barren place home.

The austere beauty of Antarctica had lured the Southern California native back for tour after tour since he first discovered it as a Navy fireman a decade earlier.

As McMurdo residents mourned the loss of the gruff, tattooed, cigar-smoking character they loved, some who knew him said it seemed altogether fitting that Gallagher's life would end on "The Ice."

The highest, driest, coldest and windiest continent on Earth, they said, had long ago captured his soul. "He couldn't have scripted it better," his sister, Bonnie Gallagher, of Palm Springs, said Thursday.

An Air Force rescue team had hoped to reach Gallagher sooner.

But he died of heart failure two days before a planned medical evacuation.

Planning a May landing in Antarctica, federal officials explain, is a three- or four-day job. And rescuers simply ran out of time.

"This, needless to say, was a large impact on the community down here," said McMurdo Station manager Al Martin in a phone interview Wednesday just hours after the Air Force plane successfully landed and departed with Gallagher's body.

"It was not an easy experience for anybody."

Gallagher was "wintering over" at McMurdo Station, the largest antarctic base run by any nation. The sun set there on April 24 and won't be seen again until mid-August. After a period of waning twilight, three months of permanent darkness settled in Friday.

As command master chief--the top enlisted rank in the Navy--of the Naval Support Force, Antarctica, he had spent four tours of duty at the remote McMurdo research station, which sits on the edge of the Ross Sea.

"It's a very sobering experience when you step out into the continent at a remote field camp, and to think that no more than perhaps a hundred people have ever set foot there," Gallagher told a Los Angeles Times reporter during his retirement ceremony at the Port Hueneme Navy base in March 1995.

"You could tell when he talked about it," Bonnie Gallagher said. "To him, Antarctica was home."

So deep was his love for Antarctica that Gallagher returned there five months after his military retirement as a civilian employee of the Antarctic Support Associates, a contractor for the National Science Foundation.

The federal agency manages the nation's activities in Antarctica, investigating the most compelling and basic scientific questions about the present and future of the planet.

For years, the Navy has provided transportation and support services for the researchers there. Navy forces participating in Operation Deep Freeze have been based at the Naval Construction Battalion Center at Port Hueneme, with flight support through the VXE-6 Squadron at Point Mugu.

In a cost-cutting measure, Operation Deep Freeze will be turned over permanently to the Air Force and Air National Guard in March 1998. As a civilian, Gallagher's job was housing coordinator and recreational director.

With his imposing 6-foot, 5-inch frame, shaved head and chest-length beard, researchers and support staff at the base saw him as sort of a quirky father figure, happy to dispense advice along with alcohol from behind the bar at the clubhouse where he worked.

This year, Gallagher was living his dream. He got to spend his first winter at the isolated base, where temperatures average 40 to 50 degrees below zero.

"He just put his heart and soul into it," said Martin, who is affectionately known as the mayor of McMurdo. "The community down here saw him as kind of a sage. He clearly enjoyed what he was doing, and he gained the respect of the people he worked with. He was someone you could go to for advice."

It was two weeks before his death on May 1 that Gallagher began complaining about breathing problems, Martin said. A week later, he was admitted to McMurdo's medical center, where he was treated by the base's only doctor.

Gallagher's illness took many who knew him by surprise. Like others deployed to Antarctica, he had passed strict medical, dental and psychological evaluations. He ran and exercised regularly, and bragged about his 11% body fat, his sister said.

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