Expedition to Galapagos

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Week Three

Tragedy Among Our Group
26 June Tagus Cove

Arrived here yesterday evening after three film dives in Cabo Douglas. The first dive was awful for me. I wasn't weighted heavily enough, and just when Al was ready to start filming me, I drifted to the surface. Then I lost sight of a turtle that I was supposed to be swimming up to. Al wasn't very happy. On the second dive, I was properly weighted and had a much better idea of what Al wanted. Got some good footage, but only of striped grunts in relatively murky waters. The iguanas weren't feeding, so except for a couple of sea lions, that was about it. The afternoon dive was a bust. Visibility was so bad that Al didn't even call me into the water from the zodiac. We pulled anchor at 6ish and headed to Tagus Cove to meet the SJ for water and compressed air. The plan was to move out again about 11 p.m. and arrive at Cabo Marshall this a.m., but some logistical problems in the planning kept us here.

If I don't sound too chipper this morning, it's because I'm worried about Bill Raisner and Noel, who went off in the ultralight at 6:30 this morning and were due back two hours ago. I got up early to watch them, as I hadn't been able to see the plane take off or land the past two days. Anyway, we're all optimistic that we'll find them in a cove on the water (they had a maximum of four hours of fuel, and it's 11:40 a.m. now), but we're all trying not to think of other possibilities -- such as that they dipped into a caldera and couldn't lift out. Bill is a very experienced pilot, and I'm certain he would have used good judgment. However, their absence is unexplained at the time of this entry, and the SJ is now cruising towards the area where Bill was to be flying. Please please please let them be OK...

4:03 p.m. We are all sick with fear. No sign of the ultralight, no EPIRB signal from the plane, and no radio contact from Bill and Noel. The DAPHNE and SJ are cruising along the coast of southern Isabella, where they were to fly over and film Sierra Negra (or possibly Cerro Azul). We are all studying with binoculars every cove and piece of terrain we pass. I'm wondering if perhaps the accident that occurred our first night aboard the SJ was indeed a bad omen. Little has gone right so far. Right now, this film project is beginning to take on an "Everest" nightmare feeling, and the journey is far from an "enchanted voyage."

27 June Puerto Villamil, Isabella

Vince organized a search party for today, so about 15 of our group went to shore this morning. Some will fly over Sierra Negra with pilots who have agreed to help conduct the search. Others will hike (or ride horseback) to the top and search the land. The DAPHNE is along side but will depart soon to scout the western side of the island that we missed once darkness fell yesterday. The most frustrating thing is that the we are not equipped to handle search & rescue missions. We need fast boats and lots of helicopters, and what we have are some people on land willing to hike around, and a couple pilots of small planes willing to search from above. We can only hope that the guys stuck to the flight plan. If they landed on water somewhere other than within the flight route, they could be way out to sea by now. We still can't understand why we haven't gotten an EPIRB signal if they're alive. We continue to hope for the best -- that they're out there somewhere -- probably pretty hungry and thirsty by now, but ok. I just feel so helpless. I want to be doing something, but as the only female on board, I'm being passed over for most jobs. No complaints -- just wish I could help.

28 June 1998 Puerto Villamil, Isabella

9:30 p.m. Still no sign of our missing boys. Last night, Juan Carlos, Jorge & Dave Clark went into the village to help organize a search party on land. The locals wanted to do this search without our help because they know the terrain, and it is dangerous. As I understand things, four groups of four went in from the top today, and two groups of five started at the bottom. They were to take enough supplies for 3 days. We continue our air searches with the two local planes and feel we can eliminate some areas, especially the caldera and top rim of Sierra Negra, the volcano that they were to film. I went up on an afternoon search flight today. In other circumstances, I would be euphoric about the experience up there. We went straight over the caldera (it was much shallower than I expected), saw some small fumaroles (and smelled the sulfurous gases seeping out), and saw a pond full of flamingos. But the beauty and excitement of being up there was overpowered by a sickening feeling in my stomach and heart that Bill and Noel ran into trouble up there. Our 6-seater Piper Seneca was being tossed around like popcorn in places, especially up high where Bill would have been approaching the top on the NE side. The simple structure of the ultralight and the fact that it was heavily weighted don't bode well in my mind for handling strong turbulence. If something snapped, Bill could have lost control and gone spiraling down. But we are all trying to remain optimistic. Tomorrow morning will mark 72 hours they've been missing, and we all know that if they're without water, time is critical. This afternoon, we received two reports from people who just learned that we're looking for a downed plane that they heard what sounded like aluminum cans being crunched Friday morning. And one says he is certain he saw the plane -- he described it as the most bizarre plane he'd ever seen, and that may mean he saw our ultralight. We were able to get a general area the sounds were heard, and at 4:30 a.m. tomorrow morning, a search party of 4 locals and Ben from our ship will head up to the area. We will also have the planes in the area, trying to find something that can be used to guide the land party. Ben and the planes will have GPS capabilities, so the plane could help narrow down the ca. 100 sq. km. the locals feel need searched.

There is, of course, a lot of talk now about whether this expedition should continue, regardless of the outcome of the search. There are mixed feelings, but Dave Clark is certainly of the mind that Bill and Noel would want us to go on. I'm not sure how I feel yet. The film could be an excellent tribute to the guys if they don't survive, as long as the tragedy isn't exploited for commercial gain...

Well, I biked about 1 hour and 20 minutes today -- started to put on a little weight with the inactivity of the past few days. Camille called early this afternoon and said that Larry had just called her. It was great to hear a voice from home. Well, Mom, maybe I am just a bit homesick right now... Who knows now if Camille & Larry will make it down...

We continue to get a minimal amount of science done, thanks to McCosker's interest in fishing -- and also Ed's (Bill's engineer). Ed caught a snapper today and Randy caught one of the same, that is a new record for the Galapagos (Lutjanus guttatus). McCosker and I yesterday afternoon caught two kinds of grunts, an Orthopristis and an Anisotremus, and this morning, McCosker bought two Chanos (milkfish) from a fisherman in Puerto Villamil. All of these fish are being preserved for further study, and we’re taking tissue samples from each for fish-tissue library for future DNA studies. I took data on the unidentified species of wrasse this morning, and we e-mailed Jack Randall for some help with an identification. It's no eastern Pacific species but may be an Indo-Pacific type. We're not even sure of the genus -- probably Halichoeres, but differs in a few characters.

Well, this trip has certainly had its downs, and we're not even three weeks into it yet. I confess to a little fear that we're jinxed and should perhaps stop before anything else goes wrong. On the other hand, working in the wild, especially in remote areas, is always risky, and those of us who do this kind of stuff know that. Still, it's easy to get lulled into complacency about field work and safety...

30 June Isabella

Cerro Azul, not Sierra Negra, is where the ultralight was found. Cerro Azul is the next volcano to the west and was a back-up option for Bill and Noel to film. Although we had searched Cerro Azul from the coast and by plane, we had to concentrate ground efforts on Sierra Negra. As it turns out, the plane was located from the air, late yesterday afternoon, by observers from our ship -- Corbin Massey, Tim Askew Jr., & Billy Barber. They couldn't get too close by plane but reported that the ultralight appeared to be largely intact. This sent a much-needed pulse of optimism through our ranks, and everyone rallied to organize a rescue effort. As I write, at 10 a.m., 22 people are hiking up the south/southeast side of Cerro Azul with medical supplies, stretchers, and lots of hope. We are cruising on the SJ along the west/northwest side of the volcano in the chance that Bill and Noel decided their best hope for rescue was on the shore. Planes flying over the site this morning reported that it appears the ultralight made a hard landing -- the wings are caved in around the fuselage, and a gray thing in a tree, initially believed to be a t-shirt, is a piece of the pontoons. Michael is in the "get-to-the-top-as-fast-as-you-can" group of about 4 who set off early this morning. He was chosen for his knowledge of first aid and his fluency in Spanish. Ben is also in that group. The rest are locals. Following them and carrying heavier packs and stretchers are Randy, Don, Corben, Al, and many locals, some from the navy, some park service, the rest hunters and fishermen who know the area. These guys have a brutal day or two ahead of them. Almost as soon as they entered the jungle-like southern side, they were not visible to us on the ship. Higher up, the climb will get easier, but they'll suffer from exposure on the lava rocks.

3:30 p.m. It's a gut-wrenching feeling to leave Michael on a volcano that may already have claimed the lives of two of our party. Michael's group, minus Ben who got leg cramps, forged to the top, completing the trek in about four hours. He's apparently now with one Park Service Ranger and one other local. The rest of the hikers returned to the ship. Going was rough with their heavy loads, and we're definitely getting a helicopter to help with the rescue/recovery, so hauling the stretchers to the top was unnecessary. Unfortunately, the choppers won't be here until tomorrow, so Michael and his companions will have to spend the night on the mountain. The ship is steaming back to Puerto Villamil. Just got word from Rod Farb and Tim Askew that the plane is getting ready to go back up for another look. They were able to talk with Michael (our ship was out of range) and his group has not yet found the site. The plane will try to guide them in the right direction. The report from the second plane that went up this morning wasn't good: "Expect the worst." We probably all know that by now, but miracles do happen, and I'm praying for one here.

Just spoke with Michael by radio. They've been hiking for hours but are having no luck finding the plane. The two guys with him don't have any supplies or dry clothes, so Michael's food and water will be stretched. Glad I stuffed some extra power bars and cans of tuna in his pack. I know the cans made his pack heavier, but he and his companions may be happy to have them now! Michael sounded optimistic still -- spirits still high, but they're starting to get cold, and his feet are bleeding. He has borrowed boots -- not a great thing -- but better than anything he had with him. I'm sure he's not thrilled about spending the night out there, but he'll be ok. The plane is now in the air and in contact with Michael (4:09 p.m.).

1 July Puerto Villamil

8:00 a.m. A cold damp night on Cerro Azul for Michael and his two companions, but they're fine. Very tired of hiking and still haven't found the site. A C130 arrived in Villamil this morning from Guayaquil with a helicopter that will go up in a couple of hours. We watched Rod Farb's video (aerial) of the "crash" site last night. It looked pretty bad, pretty compressed, and one wing and the pontoons crumbled. We try to remain optimistic, however, because one wing is completely intact, with its struts and all. The helicopter is heading up soon with medical aid and plans for search patterns if Noel and Bill aren't in the ultralight.

10:00 a.m. Bill and Noel are dead. The helicopter put personnel on the ground by the wreckage and found the bodies -- in the plane.

11:15 a.m. Military personnel are on site to extract the bodies. Al is there to photograph and make notes. Michael and the two park guys walked to the site and are waiting to be brought back. I have tried to speak with everyone on the ship who was close to those guys -- Stuart, Doug, Andy, Russel, & Ed. I finally lost it right after I went to make sure Dave Clark was ok. I had to go find a quiet place on the bow to let out a little pent-up emotion. Sat there thinking about what I remember about Bill and Noel. I knew Noel longer -- met him in Quito. He sat with Michael and me on the flight from Quito to Guayaquil. He was quiet, reserved, gentle, but passionate about the 3-D IMAX technology, and he appeared to be a leader among his peers. He had curly hair and always seemed to be smiling. He had an earring that had a very thick stud, and I remember questioning him about it in Puerto Ayora one night. I can't remember what it looked like, but he took it out to let me see it, and I remember that he was very fond of it. He usually wore a red hat or a bandanna or head band...

Bill I only knew for a couple of days, but I adored him from the moment I met him. Trim, extremely cute, short - the perfect pilot build... and southern. He was living in Colorado, but he was from North Carolina. The first day I met him I said "you have a lot of guts!' I was so impressed that he and Ed were going to put a plane together from pieces in a box and fly it around. Bill was very professional and just nice all around. Michael had gotten to know him a bit while I was on the DAPHNE, and we'd just talked the night before the fatal flight about getting together with Bill and his wife after the trip. Just before they flew off on the last flight, Bill had handed his video camera to Michael and asked him to tape the take off. Fatal accidents are so hard to deal with because they're so unexpected. One minute you're doing routine things, and the next you're gone. And those around you are left wondering "how could this be?" The night we came back from the DAPHNE, I found these guys sitting in the galley having a late dinner after their sunset filming flights over the SJ and talking about how beautiful it was. The stages I remember going through with this are first worry and fear for their safety, then expecting to see them again in the galley when I walked in (denial), then a long, tortuous, mind battle between optimism and the reality that they probably aren't alive. Finally the tears, and now reflection. I feel like writing something about everybody on the ship right now while I wait for Michael to return. I suppose this is a way to mentally strengthen ties with others to fill the void of losing Bill and Noel -- (this done but not transcribed here; names listed at end of this journal).

3 July

We are steaming to James Bay to begin anew. Following the recovery of the bodies, we had a "reception" on the stern of the SJ for the C130 and helicopter crews who worked so hard on July 1 to extract and transport Bill and Noel. I used some of our fish-preserving chemicals and helped Rod clean up a few pieces of jewelry that had been recovered at the crash site. This was mentally tough, but I kept telling myself that the families will be happy to have these pieces. The accident site was apparently gruesome, and it's going to take Michael a while to deal with what he saw there. I don't even want to remember the details as he described them to me. I don't know about Al. He's very stoic. But, also, I don't think he'd gotten to know the guys the way Michael did. Yesterday afternoon we were able to finally leave Puerto Villamil, and we cruised to Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz. We took over the Four Lanterns restaurant last night, and had a "wake party." Doug Lavender made a toast to Bill and Noel and said that we must go on -- for those guys. If we fail, we can at least be comforted by the fact that we tried -- and that's a good sentiment. Not sure anybody's in very good shape emotionally to begin filming this afternoon. Last night I tried to talk Dave Clark into giving us a day in Puerto Ayora just to have the chance to get away from everyone and deal with our emotions individually. But he's anxious to resume the filming, and I can understand this since we're so far behind schedule now. The IMAX guys talked with Dave and Al and Vince and demanded that safety be the first concern from here on out. It is still unbelievable to me that Bill and Noel are dead. I must somehow put the sadness away and re-focus on my role in this project. The party last night helped me some -- I laughed a lot, and that felt good.

 

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