“Major Rourke wants you in the command center ASAP,” the pimple-faced seaman said.
Eric “Michigan” Seton and Jameson “Irish” O’Reilly dragged themselves into their uniforms and jogged across the base. Two pavé hawk helicopter crews were walking in ahead of them.
The two pararescue men, friends since training, looked at each other. Both age twenty-three, they were on the same page. They were going to jump.
“Gentlemen and ladies.” The bald major with penetrating eyes looked out at the assembled group. The two pilots were women. The pilots in charge and two gunners were men. Butch McIntyre, the senior man, walked in, slamming the door behind him.
Frowning, Major Rourke cleared his throat. “Chief Master Sergeant, I’d like to continue my briefing if that’s okay with you.” The veteran waved his hand. “Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve dragged you here at this lovely hour to bring to your attention the following emergency. Two yachts, the Ice Cream Sundae, a fifty-foot sailboat with a six-foot draft and a thirteen-foot beam lost one mast and its motor. At last report, it had eight souls on board, including two children under seven. The second yacht, the Butterwort, forty-three-foot with a four and one half foot draft and a thirteen-foot beam lost its mast. At last report, it has seven souls including an eleven-year-old on board.”
“Where am I flying, Major?” Captain Hal Murtaugh asked glumly, scanning the navigation charts posted.
“Their last report is they are off the Baja peninsula. Sustained winds forty miles per hour, twelve-foot seas. Sixty-six-degree water temp. Coast Guard bird went down. Hal, we need you to fly over the storm, cut through and drop these boys and a couple of zodiacs. The US merchant ship True Martian has picked up the partial crew of the Coast Guard bird and passengers of the Ice Cream Sundae. They are reporting critical injuries. We need the second bird to lift them out. They have five of the Butterwort on board as well. The eleven-year-old is reported pinned. The girl’s father and stepfather refuse to leave her.”
The four jumpers in the room shuddered. They all dreaded calls involving children.
The Pave Hawk bounced and rocked in the air. The huge helicopter trudged through the winds. “The last recorded sighting is coming up in one minute,” the pilot announced, her voice crisp and cool. They were coming up on the Butterwort. [A1]
“Helluva name for a boat,” Eric yelled over the sounds of the winds and rotors.
Jamie smiled, his deep brogue explaining, “It’s a purple flower in Ireland.”
“Okay, boys, I’m seven minutes to bingo. In and out.”
Jamie inhaled deeply. They had seven minutes until the pilot didn’t have enough fuel to head home. They already refueled once in mid-air looking for the needle in the haystack.
“Rescuer ready.” Jamic heard the command in his headset. He looked out at the boat rolling in the waves. The water was black with the promise of hell. Eric flashed Jamie a thumbs up. Jamie returned it. [A2]
“Feet wet.” Once he jumped, he knew Eric would follow.
The Pacific was cold at sixty-six degrees. This wasn’t reassuring to Jamie as he had no idea how badly any were injured, nor how much they were exposed to the winds. Hitting the water from the air always felt like they were hitting a wall of concrete. The Hawk’s circle from the helicopter’s rotors didn’t make things any easier.
The plan was he and Eric would haul themselves into the specially designed Zodiac that inflated the second it hit the swirling waves. Jamie’s got caught in a wave and ended up putting him between it and the disabled craft. His powerful arms and legs did their best to slow the propulsion toward the sinking yacht.
Jamie approached from the stern. He didn’t hear Eric call “One soul to pick up. Reports all others deceased. All return,”. He waited for the boat to come into the trough of a wave. Managing to catch his foot on the boarding step, another wave struck and tossed him hard to the deck. He felt his ribs give way.
Jamie attached a line and carabiner to a rail, painfully making his way to the cabin. It was the last known place the dad radioed. [A3] Salty water pelted Jamie as he tried to avoid swallowing too much of the ocean.
The diesel engine on the boat was out, but he could smell fumes. Lightning flashed. If lightning hits, she’ll blow.
The cabin door was jammed. Using his brute strength, he yanked it open. The beam of his flashlight shone into the water filled room. Was he too late? Jamie heard the rotors turning above him. A scan of his watch told him he had three minutes left to bingo.
Movement caught the corner of his eye. An orange lifejacket. He swam across the cabin, trying not to tangle his rescue line.
A small girl was barely keeping her head above water. “Help.” Her voice was scratchy.
“Help is here, luv,” Jamie yelled, reaching her.
As he got closer, he saw a man floating face down. Beside him was a woman in a Coast Guard flight uniform. A better look told him she was a lieutenant—the pilot. She was also gone. He needed to shake the deaths off, the child was trapped.
Jamie dove beneath the water line. He knew this was going to take more than three minutes. He hit his radio. “One adult male deceased. One female Coast Guard deceased. One pediatric soul alive. Trapped. Come back for me.”
“Roger, Godspeed,” the pilot returned his message.
Eric was hauled inside with the male passenger. The gunner advised the pilot who was onboard. She pulled up and headed for safer air.
“Wait,” Eric yelled.
“Negative. He is with one trapped.”
Eric tore his helmet off and glared at the man he rescued. “You said they were all dead.”
The man shrugged in response.
Butch wrapped Eric in a bear hug. “Don’t ruin a career over an asshole.”
Eric replaced his helmet. He hoped Jamie could hear him. “Zodiac tied to aft. Repeat. Irish, zodiac tied to aft.”
The boat rocked. Debris was tossed about pelting him like her was being hit by pitched baseballs. The water was growing putrid, filling with a combination of waste and other liquids in the cabin. He took as deep a breath as possible and Jamie dove again. The girl’s leg was pinned by debris. [A4]
He came up for air. “I’m not leaving you. I need to find something for leverage.” He saw the panic in the two scared blue-violet eyes. Her lips were blue, and she shivered from the cold.
Jamie searched the area and found a splintered piece of a cabinet. Diving under her again, his lungs burned, but he was going to get her free. If he didn’t, her head would be below the waterline at any moment.
The boat rolled with the waves [A5] and everything shifted. It gave him just the leverage he needed to free her leg. Jamie came up and lifted her above the water line. He held her to him to get her out of there.
She kicked and punched him to get free. “My Da and the lady!” she cried in an Irish accent. “I can’t leave without them.”
“Come here, lass. I’m sorry, they’re gone. Your Da would want you to come with me.” Jamie hated having to be blunt, but time was short, and he needed her cooperation. [A6]
The young girl buried her head in his neck. Jamie was thankful for small favors; she was wearing a dry suit. It would give her a chance against the hypothermia. Quickly, he secured her to him. Hand over hand, he pulled them along his rescue rope. The boat, without sail or power and with a broken rudder, spun like a top.
“Luv, we need to get off here. Hold on to me.” Using all his strength, he moved to the aft of the yacht. Eric’s raft was attached to the rail. Jamie lowered her into the craft, and, cutting the rope free, he jumped in beside her. Hoping for power, he started the small outboard and, stern to the wind, moved away from the disabled yacht. The little girl stayed tucked into his armpit.
Lightning was tapping the water around them. Waterspouts jumped from the ocean into the air. He saw a bright flash in the distance as The Butterwort exploded.
Jamie, grateful they were clear of the explosion focused on survival. He set off his rescue beacon. That was until the little girl screamed and began to sob. This wasn’t a soldier he could rationalize the situation and be blunt about their choices. Jamie swiped the wet hair that was plastered to her face from her eyes and hugged her against him.
Tucking her under his arm, he pulled a tarp from a secured box. It would provide a little protection from the torrential rain. He also removed a rescue blanket and a water bottle from the box. Once they were under the cover, he opened the bottle and offered the shivering girl a drink. He swaddled her in the rescue blanket.
He yelled loud enough for her to hear him over the sounds of the boat and water, “Hey luv, I’m Jamie. What’s your name?”
She took a sip. “Finola, my name is Finola.”
“Lovely name for a lass.” He hugged her against him.
The sea tossed them up and down. “Jamie, my Da, he’s dead?” Her lips trembled.
Waves crashed over them. “He is. I’m sorry.” He cocked his head.
“And my Mam’s husband[A7] ?” Finola was calm. Jamie couldn’t believe how stoic she was.
“I don’t know.” He did his best assessing her by flashlight. “My partner might have rescued him.” Lightning flashes lit the black sky.
She nodded. “How did you find us?”
Jamie worked to keep them centered in the zodiac. “Your Da radioed for help.”
“My Da pulled the lady from the Coast Guard on board. She was hurt.” Finola[A8] shook hard with the cold. “Are you from the Coast Guard too?”
“No, Fi. I’m in the Air Force.”
She seemed to consider what he said. “They left you.” Her voice grew shrill.
“They had to. They needed to get fuel, but they will come back.” He looked her directly in her eyes.
“When?” she whimpered.
“I promise, as soon as it’s safe.” He gave her his strongest smile.
“Jamie, I’m scared.” Her thin body violently trembled
By flashlight, he could see her porcelain skin was turning a pale shade of blue. If she could get closer to him, she would be inside his pocket. “You let me be scared for both of us. I promise to keep you safe, my little lassie Fi.”
“I’m Finola Maguire.”
“Well, Finola Maguire, I’m Jameson O’Reilly.”
The storm’s fury eased shortly before dawn. The sound of rotors filled their ears before they could see the helicopter. “Finola, our ride is here. Have you ever been in a helicopter?”
“No.” She hadn’t let go of him once during the night.
“Well, tonight is a night with a lot of firsts.” Jamie spotted operating lights moving toward them and waved his flashlight. Like a giant crane, Eric, attached to a hoist, reached for Jamie. They lifted off the raft, flying into the darkness. Jamie held Finola to his body.
Slowly they rose into the helo. Eric boarded first, then Butch McIntyre helped him haul Jamie and Finola on board. Butch jockeyed the door closed.
Panting from exertion and finally giving in to the pain of the fractured ribs, Jamie lay on his back while Eric attempted to put a blanket around Finola. She cried, wrapping herself around Jamie.
He forced himself to a seated position. “I’ve got you.” Still breathing hard, he took the blanket and wrapped it around them both. Shivering, he whispered, “Finola, this is my friend, Eric. We need to get a better look at you.”
Over his comm, Eric asked, “The father?”
Jamie turned his thumb downward. “Also the Coast Guard lieutenant.”
Later that afternoon, Jamie walked into a hospital room. A woman sat knitting beside the sleeping Finola. “Afternoon, ma’am. I’m Staff Sergeant O’Reilly. I wanted to check on her before I left.”
The woman’s eyes filled with tears. “How can I ever thank you for what you did?”
He smiled. “No thanks necessary. I’m happy she is alright.”
The woman closed her eyes and took a breath. “She will be. I learned quite a bit from this trip. If it wasn’t for you, Finola would be dead. My soon-to-be ex-husband left her there to save his own skin.”
“I’m so sorry.” Jamie looked down.
Finola stirred. “Jamie.” She opened her arms to him.
He leaned over and hugged her. “Finola, I wanted to check on you and say so long. I have an assignment to head to.”
She sniffled. “Thank you, Jamie[A10] .”
“My little Lassie Fi, you don’t have to thank me. I brought you something.” He handed her a pararescue patch. “Keep this close, and I will always be scared for both of us.” Jamie hugged mom and daughter once more. His new assignment was the United Kingdom to recuperate from his fractured ribs. Once healthy, he was headed to the Middle East and Africa.