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Modesto High grad rescues 3 from frigid Alaskan water

Whenever something major happens, you can be assured someone with valley ties will be involved or, at the very least, connected.

Last week, when a fishing supply boat sank in the Gulf of Alaska, the Coast Guard's Alex Major of Modesto went into the 37-degree water to rescue three crew members and recover the lifeless body of a fourth.

And former Turlock resident Martin Babb captains a ship that delivers supplies to oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, where the Deep Horizon rig exploded, killing 11 crew members, and sank last week.

Major, 27, a 2000 Modesto High grad who joined the Coast Guard in 2006, is a petty officer third class and an aviation survival technician.

One week ago, his rescue unit received a mayday call from a fishing supply boat, the Northern Belle, that was sinking about 50 miles south of Montague Island. His Jayhawk helicopter arrived to find the boat completely gone. A C-130 had dropped supplies including inflated rafts to the boat's crew members in the water, but only one was able get to any of it. Two others clung to some boards and another floated alone, pushed away from the rest by the 10- to 20-foot swells.

The helicopter crew lowered Major into the water, and he swam for the person floating alone. It turned out to be the ship's captain.

"I yelled at him," Major said, but the man didn't respond. "His eyes and mouth were open. He was dead. When I touched him, he rolled over on his face."

He got the captain into a basket, and he was hoisted into the helicopter. Major had drifted from the others who were in the water, so the chopper crew lowered a hook and dropped him closer to where the two people had climbed onto the debris.

One victim was a 250-pound man who thought he might be having a heart attack and possibly a back injury because he couldn't feel his legs. The other was a woman. Once Major determined the man wasn't injured -- he had hypothermia after being in the frigid water for about two hours -- Major loaded him into the basket and got him aboard.

Then he did the same with the woman, explaining to her that the "prop wash" -- the hurricane-like conditions created by the helicopter blades churning up the water -- would be difficult but that they'd need to swim through it before she, too, could be hoisted to safety.

That done, they ferried Major over to the man in the life raft, who by now had drifted more than a half-mile away.

That rescue completed, Major had one last task before he could get out of the water.

"I took a knife and punctured the raft several times," he said. "We need to eliminate the debris so that someone doesn't come along later and report it, and we have to go back out there all over again."

Aboard the helicopter after an hour in the water, Major worked with the survivors to get the water out of their suits and warm them up during a 50-minute ride to the nearest base, at Cordova. The 250-pound guy, Major said, suffered from extreme hypothermia and vomited seawater, but hadn't had a heart attack.

It was an amazing event, indeed.

Generally, his crew responds to bear maulings, heart attacks on cruise and fishing ships, snowmobile injuries, lost hikers and hunters, and broken bones or injuries suffered in the wild.

"It was my first on this level -- this involved with this many survivors in this kind of weather," said Major, who returns to Modesto at least once a year and speaks to Randy Cerney's criminal justice classes at Ceres High, where mom Tatiana Major teaches. "One for the record books -- that's for sure."

Meanwhile, 1974 Turlock High grad Martin Babb is the captain of the HOS Centerline, a ship that supplies and services a number of the oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, though not specifically the Deepwater Horizon rig that sank in 5,000 feet of water off the coast of Louisiana last week.

Babb left Turlock and moved to Arkansas in 1982. There, he met the captain of a dredging ship who offered him a job.

"I started out as a mess boy and moved up," Babb said.

He became a captain in 2000. His ship brings provisions to the rigs and provides repair services using robotic drones operated from a control room aboard the Centerline.

Babb works 28 straight days, then returns to his home in Pea Ridge, Ark., near Fayetteville, for 28 days off. There, he and his wife operate a Christmas tree farm. He was at home when the Deepwater Horizon rig sank.

Still, he is extremely close with those who work on these rigs.

"It was just a tragedy," Babb said. "They give up so much, being gone half of the time. We'd worked out in that general area the preceding month. I feel so bad for the families of those guys."

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at 578-2383 or jjardine@modbee.com.

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