YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Navy Sailor Feels Lucky After Seven Hours in Sea

Seaman blown off carrier by jet exhaust during maneuvers off the coast says he began having his doubts before rescuers spotted him.

October 24, 2002|From Associated Press

SAN DIEGO — A Navy sailor says he feels lucky to have survived an aircraft carrier accident that left him floating in the frigid Pacific Ocean for more than seven hours.

Michael Harris, 21, plunged off the USS Constellation early Saturday when the engine exhaust from a nearby EA-6B Prowler blew him overboard off the coast of Southern California.

In the early morning darkness, it took rescuers more than seven hours to find the airman apprentice, who is based at Lemoore Naval Air Station, and pull him from the 62-degree waters.

"They teach you not to panic," he said Monday at a naval hospital. "My first reaction was 'They'll find me.' "

But as time passed, Harris began to worry about dying of hypothermia and whether sharks might home in on the blood oozing from facial injuries he sustained in the accident.

Harris, of Dillsburg, Pa., also thought about his mother and his younger brother.

"How were they going to tell my mom?" he wondered.

As dawn arrived, Harris released a dye marker into the water, staining the sea a fluorescent yellow-green. Soon afterward, a small boat loaded with searchers sped about 50 feet away. But its crew failed to hear or see him.

"I was a little angry they didn't see me," Harris said.

Ten minutes later, he was spotted by a helicopter and a rescue swimmer was sent to help him out of the water.

Harris said that immediately after the fall, he had been startled to see the massive warship steaming away.

"For a few minutes, I was scared," he said. "For a while, I felt alone, but when I realized they were looking for me, I didn't feel alone."

Harris, who suffered broken bones in his face and the effects of hypothermia, is "incredibly lucky" to have survived the ordeal, said one of his doctors, Capt. Thomas Magrino.

Normally, experts predict a person could die of hypothermia within 4 1/2 hours in 62-degree water. "We're glad the textbooks are wrong," the doctor said.

The Constellation and its flotilla of escort ships are conducting their final training exercise before departing for a six-month deployment to the Persian Gulf early next month.

Los Angeles Times Articles