Retired Pararescueman John Spillane Recalls The Perfect Storm On 25th Anniversary - 27 East

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Retired Pararescueman John Spillane Recalls The Perfect Storm On 25th Anniversary

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author on Oct 17, 2016

When John Spillane answers the telephone, he is quiet, subdued and good-natured. He asks to be excused for a hoarse cough he’s picked up from re-siding his house in Shoreham—a task that has occupied most of his time since retiring from the Fire Department of New York a year ago.

He grew up not far from the neighborhoods he served. He lightheartedly chatted about his childhood in the Bronx with a perceptible smile, as well as his time in the Air National Guard’s 106th Rescue Wing in Westhampton Beach as a pararescue jumper.

The mere mention of October 30, 1991, causes his tone to shift.

He takes a deep breath. He is more focused, detail-oriented, sharp and intense, as he re-lives the rescue mission 25 years ago this month—the one that nearly killed him.

The mission was, in part, the inspiration behind the book “The Perfect Storm” and the film adaptation that will screen on Friday at the Westhampton Free Library, followed by a talk with Mr. Spillane on Saturday.

Two hours later, his spirits are still high, but he is audibly on edge. That’s the adrenaline, he explains, which will keep his mind buzzing until the early morning hours before he can finally fall asleep.

Somewhere in his bedroom lies a box of newspaper clippings from after the storm. Clippings surely browning from 25 years of age.

Clippings, he says, he has never read.

The Calm

A young John Spillane never had a great love for the U.S. military. He never dreamed of joining as a child, and he wasn’t particularly athletic—the Bronx didn’t lend itself to sport activities in the late 1960s, he recalls—so he resorted to calisthenics.

That changed when he turned 17—or, more specifically, when he first heard about pararescue—and enlisted in the U.S. Air Force.

“I remember being enthralled with the idea of it from the moment I heard it described from my brother,” he recalled. “He received a letter from his friend who was in boot camp, which said, ‘I am going to be a sky-diving, scuba-diving, mountain-climbing, surviving medic,’ and it just blew my mind. The more I learned about it, the more I wanted it.”

The Air Force didn’t seem to care about his ambitions, he said. His swimming skills were simply not where they needed to be, and so he spent four years as a Teletype repairman. “Do you remember Teletype?” he joked. “Yeah, it doesn’t exist anymore.”

At the end of his enlistment, the 21-year-old returned home. And to his astonishment, there was a new Air National Guard pararescue team within driving distance—one of three in the entire country. Almost immediately, he drove out to Westhampton Beach to pay them a visit.

“Sure, you can have a position,” they said, almost a little too easily, Mr. Spillane laughed. But they added: “If you make it through the training.”

The first 10 weeks of indoctrination training were, by far, the most intense, he said. It was the selection process—his brother’s friend never made it through. “I remember asking him, ‘How’s the job?’ and he said he didn’t pass the initial three-hour test. His career in pararescue was really short,” Mr. Spillane said.

For nearly three months, Mr. Spillane suffered through his initial training, becoming fast friends with Arden “Rick” Smith, who lived in Shirley. He also crossed paths with Dave Ruvola and Graham Buschor, who would graduate with them a year later, and unexpectedly celebrated his accomplishment with a jump mission just months after.

“Not everybody gets jump missions in pararescue, so I was thrilled I got it right off the bat,” he said. “And I got two more after that. What I had considered to be the ultimate rescue, the thing that really excited me about pararescue, was the concept of parachuting out of an airplane with full scuba gear on. And that’s what I got to do.

“But the thing about a jump mission is that it’s a one-way ticket,” he continued. “Unlike with a helicopter rescue, where, usually, you can be recovered by a helicopter and brought back home right away, a jump mission is one way and one way only. You have to make it to that ship.”

On the evening of October 30, 1991, he found himself in exactly that position. Except that he had been on a helicopter rescue mission, not a jump mission. He didn’t expect to be in the water—but that’s exactly where he found himself, unconscious and confused.

Mr. Spillane regained consciousness; he gasped for air, gulping in a mouthful of seawater. The ocean roared around him, the waves black and furious, their peaks glowing white.

He had no idea where he was. He couldn’t remember how he’d gotten there. All he knew was that he was in a tremendous amount of pain and thought for certain he would die.

The Storm

It was the fall of 1991, and Mr. Spillane, now a full-time pararescueman, had just turned 35. He was a new Shoreham homeowner, had been married two years, and his first child was on the way. Life, as he said, was good.

He walked into the pararescue section at 7 a.m., his first day back from a month-long training session in New Hampshire, when his boss told him to immediately grab his things.

They had a mission.

A weather briefing apprised them of a storm off the East Coast that would blow for three days—though Westhampton was currently in the clear. In fact, it was a notably sunny autumn day, with the temperature in the low 60s, Mr. Spillane says.

“I didn’t pay too much attention, because the mission we were going on was right off the coast of Rhode Island, too. The Coast Guard had asked us to assist in looking for a fisherman who was last seen standing on a rock, and they released us after a couple of hours,” he recalled. “We came back to the base, I had lunch, I went for a nice run and, at about 3 o’clock, that’s when we got the call.”

A 30-foot sailboat located 260 miles southeast of Long Island was taking on water in 20- to 30-foot seas and losing power, the mayday reported. One person on board.

Mr. Spillane headed straight for the Operations Dispatch Center with Mr. Smith by his side. This was far from their first rodeo. There was no weather brief, and the helicopter was ready to go. On board, they greeted aircraft commander Dave Ruvola, co-pilot Graham Buschor and flight engineer Jim Mioli—it was the first time he and Mr. Mioli had met—and took off.

By the time they got over the ocean, the wind was howling and erratic. Ominous whitecaps crashed below. Mr. Ruvola hooked up to the helicopter’s nearby escort, an Air Force C-130 jet, and took on fuel. He verified that all systems were working.

They refueled for a second time right before arriving on the scene, and a third time after aborting the initial rescue mission.

“While we were trying to figure out how we would do this, I was lying on my belly on the floor of the aircraft with my head out the door, looking at the boat, and on two occasions I called for altitude, because I thought we were going to get hit with a wave. The only thing I could see is what was in the cone of light that was coming from our searchlight,” Mr. Spillane said.

“We decided Rick would go in first, with only the gear he needed to be a swimmer. And if he made it to the boat, then I’d go with the equipment, which included 200 feet of rope and a life raft, deflated and packaged.”

Right as the pararescue jumpers waddled up to the door, Mr. Mioli spoke up. “I’m not sure I can recover you in these conditions,” he had said—and rightly so, Mr. Spillane noted, emphasizing that it took a lot of nerve to make that call. “He was brand new!” he said. “When we were flying back, I’ll tell ya, at that time I thought a lot about this guy, Jim Mioli, whom I don’t know. We’re sitting here in total darkness in the back, and I’m thinking, ‘He may have just saved our lives,’ because Rick and I were going. We could have been out there swimming around in the dark, nowhere near the boat or the helicopter.”

When they got within one tank of home base, Mr. Ruvola went in for the fourth and what they thought would be the final refueling, right around 8 p.m. But just minutes before, thanks to the storm, they hit turbulence like Mr. Spillane had never experienced before.

“The way the pilot explained it was, ‘The aircraft was doing things without any input to the controls,’ This resulted in the C-130 fluctuating in altitude—100 feet up, 100 feet down—instantaneously. The aircraft was tilting left and right. While this was going on, we were trying to make contact with a hose that’s only trailing behind it by 80 feet. Our pilots were flying on night vision goggles, and they were still having a hard time seeing the aircraft that was right in front of them. At times, it would just disappear.”

Several dozen refueling attempts dragged on for 45 minutes as both crews searched for “clean air” by flying low—500 feet above water level—and as high as 5,000 feet. They were nail-biting maneuvers that required more fuel than they had, Mr. Spillane said, all the while pressing on, flying deeper into a storm they didn’t fully understand.

That was when their windshield wiper failed. One of the C-130’s four engines shut down, and the optimal fuel hose sustained damage, forcing the helicopter to the more challenging hose on the right side of the plane.

When the low-fuel light came on, Mr. Ruvola had no choice. He declared a ditching. And he did not put it up for a vote.

“I thought that was a very brave thing to do. God forbid somebody voted against it,” Mr. Spillane said. “He knew what he knew, and he knew if he didn’t get this aircraft from 5,000 feet, zero visibility, down to a safe level where we could get out, we would have no chance whatsoever.”

He paused. “I didn’t think we would survive. I could only anticipate it being much worse down below. And, indeed, that’s what it was.”

As the helicopter made its descent into a hover, Mr. Spillane grabbed a two-quart canteen and the life raft. He sat down to put on his hood when he saw Mr. Smith take his position in the open cargo door.

“I could see him looking out at the waves down below us, and it appeared to me that he was trying to figure out when to jump to time his exit. And I was desperate to get next to him—I don’t know what I wanted to say to him, but I just wanted to be alongside of him,” he said. “I did get alongside of him, but we didn’t have time to talk. As soon as I put my hand on his shoulder, he jumped. And I jumped within seconds after that, just like we always do. He and I have jumped out of helicopters a hundred times.”

When Mr. Spillane pushed off with his feet—leaving the remaining crew behind, who would guide the helicopter into the ocean—he was not afraid. “Bail out!” Mr. Ruvola had screamed, just as the engine flamed out. Mr. Spillane could not see the water before he jumped, and he does not remember hitting it.

“I jumped out feet first, and then felt myself falling, back to earth, looking up toward the sky. I remember my hands being above me, and my feet being above me, and just falling and saying, ‘Ah, this is a long way.’ I remember that. I remember thinking that. Next thing I knew, I came to, and I was in the water. I didn’t know anything except I was in the ocean, at night, and it was a desperate situation. I didn’t know the events until they started to come back to me.

“That’s when I realized I didn’t have my fins, I didn’t have the raft, I didn’t have the water—and I didn’t have Rick.”

The Rescue

Within moments, the full fury of the storm was upon him. The 70-foot waves tossed him like a rag doll, curling over before they came for him, pushing him under the water as they rolled down.

“I was throwing up the whole time,” he said. “It was rough and it was beating the hell out of me. I was convinced I would drown, which was remarkable to me, that that would be the end. Because, by this time, I was quite comfortable in the water. But I was convinced I wouldn’t live until daylight.”

Then, he saw a strobe light in the distance. It was the bit of hope he needed.

“I didn’t think I would be able to make it to those lights, but I didn’t have anything else to do at the moment,” he said. “So I started this real sad sidestroke after an hour of contemplating my demise.”

A couple hours later, he would close the distance and link up with Mr. Ruvola, who was yelling words of encouragement to Mr. Spillane as he swam, and Mr. Mioli, who was tied to the aircraft commander and nearly unconscious.

Bobbing in the water, taking each torturous wave as it came, the three men didn’t talk much. It required too much energy to scream over the 100-mph winds.

They happened to be looking up at the sky when they saw the Coast Guard Falcon jet thunder overhead.

“We knew they had us, because the moment they flew over us and saw our strobe light, they threw it into a left-hand bank and just started flying orbits around us,” Mr. Spillane said. “And even though that felt good, I really couldn’t see what good it would do us.”

The jet directed a Coast Guard helicopter to the three men, which almost crashed during several rescue attempts, and remained on scene until it left to refuel. “It actually went back to our base,” Mr. Spillane recalled. “I was told the aircraft commander was weeping, telling our guys there was nothing they could do to recover us.”

When Mr. Ruvola pointed out more lights in the distance, Mr. Spillane assumed it was another aircraft. All hope vanished. It was only after observing its speed that he realized it was a ship.

The Coast Guard’s 205-foot cutter Tamaroa, which had received Mr. Buschor’s mayday, ascended upon them, positioning itself broadside to the waves—allowing the three men to wash into the ship. “It was a very dangerous thing to do, because it was taking rolls greater than 57 degrees,” Mr. Spillane explained. “At times, it was easier to walk on the walls than the floor.”

With the help of a rescue net, Mr. Spillane scampered high enough up the side of the ship with a wave for the crew to pull him over the side, as Mr. Ruvola and Mr. Mioli washed around the stern of the ship and came up on the other side, where Mr. Buschor was waiting for them.

Mr. Smith was not.

The Aftermath

The four men remained on the ship for 30 hours before Mr. Spillane was airlifted to a hospital. He had fractured both wrists, four ribs and a leg, and he was bleeding internally.

But he had survived.

“There was a feeling of astonishment of not dying. At that point, I could not believe that we had been rescued, particularly by a ship that was a World War II vintage ship,” he said. “I was elated and then, slowly, that dissipated. They never found Rick.”

The lone sailor was picked up by a merchantman bound for Romania.

Eight months later, Mr. Spillane was back on flight status, and would go on to serve for almost another decade. In fact, they all did—and then some.

“A few months after the mission, my first son was born and then we had two more children—so within the span of 36 months, I had three children. The missions, frankly, just kept getting more and more dangerous,” Mr. Spillane said. “I went to Southwest Asia on three different deployments. I retired in January 1999 and thought the fire department was the better way for me to go, for my family and all—until I was standing there at Ground Zero going, ‘I cannot believe this shit.’”

Before 9/11, the career change was a calm one. That is, until Sebastian Junger’s “The Perfect Storm” was adapted for the big screen in 2000. Mr. Spillane was one of the first people to see the film during a preview in Manhattan. Warner Brothers gave him, and other members at the base, advance tickets.

“It’s one of those moments where you intentionally become jaded. You have to become a rock, a stone,” Mr. Spillane said of watching the film. “But I will say there was a real poignant moment during that preview, because Rick Smith’s wife and daughters were only a row or two in front of me. And at the end of the movie, they have this scene where the Air Force is flying a helicopter, and they’re going out, looking for Rick, and they say something like, ‘We have to see if we can find this guy, he’s got a wife and children.’ And I’m looking at their heads right in front of me. And I was the last one to be with him. And I’m thinking, That hurt—that was real. The rest of the movie was just Hollywood.”

In the throes of his recovery, Mr. Spillane had dodged the media circus that Mr. Ruvola, Mr. Mioli and Mr. Buschor endured for weeks and months on end. Visitors gave him newspaper clippings while he was in the hospital, but he said he has never looked at them. “The newspapers are in a box in a corner of my bedroom,” he said. “They have been there, unread, for 25 years.”

The interview he gave to Mr. Junger for his book was the first time he ever talked about the storm in depth. When his fellow firefighters would ask him about his experience during group meals, he would lose his appetite for hours after.

Today, Mr. Spillane, now 60, is more comfortable talking about it. But he still feels the storm’s effect.

“What will happen, and it happened tonight, it always does: I go from being normal, a biorhythm day—when you first called I was very relaxed—to now, I will be buzzing for two more hours. You know what I mean?” he said. “That’s the greatest discomfort that comes out of it anymore. It just gets the adrenaline flowing. I don’t like that part.”

Life would go on as usual the following day, he said. He would go back to re-siding his house—free from a routine and the adrenaline. It feels new to him, he said, and it feels good.

“It seems to be that my life is centered on making up for all the household duties I should have been doing,” he said. “This is probably the first time in my life that I don’t actually have another goal or transition to make into something. So we’ll see where I go from here.”

Westhampton Free Library will screen “The Perfect Storm” on Friday, October 21, at 6 p.m. John Spillane will speak at the library for a Brunch and Learn event on Saturday, October 22, at 1 p.m. For more information, call 631-288-3335, extension 4.

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