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“An intense, immersive deep dive into a wild, dangerous, and unknown world, written with the pace and appeal of a great thriller. This is nonfiction at its very best.”—Lee Child
The true story of two doomed ships and a daring search-and-rescue operation that shines a light on the elite Coast Guard swimmers trained for the most dangerous ocean missions
In late September 2015, Hurricane Joaquin swept past the Bahamas and swallowed a pair of cargo vessels in its destructive path: El Faro, a 790-foot American behemoth with a crew of thirty-three, and the Minouche, a 230-foot freighter with a dozen sailors aboard. From the parallel stories of these ships and their final journeys, Tristram Korten weaves a remarkable tale of two veteran sea captains from very different worlds, the harrowing ordeals of their desperate crews, and the Coast Guard’s extraordinary battle against a storm that defied prediction.
When the Coast Guard received word from Captain Renelo Gelera that the Minouche was taking on water on the night of October 1, the servicemen on duty helicoptered through Joaquin to the sinking ship. Rescue swimmer Ben Cournia dropped into the sea—in the middle of a raging tropical cyclone, in the dark—and churned through the monstrous swells, loading survivors into a rescue basket dangling from the helicopter as its pilot struggled against the tempest. With pulsating narrative skill in the tradition of Sebastian Junger and Jon Krakauer, Korten recounts the heroic efforts by Cournia and his fellow guardsmen to haul the Minouche’s crew to safety.
Tragically, things would not go as well for Captain Michael Davidson and El Faro. Despite exhaustive searching by her would-be rescuers, the loss of the vessel became the largest U.S. maritime disaster in decades. As Korten narrates the ships’ fates, with insights drawn from insider access to crew members, Coast Guard teams, and their families, he delivers a moving and propulsive story of men in peril, the international brotherhood of mariners, and the breathtaking power of nature. Praise for Into the Storm
“The story [Tristram] Korten tells is impressively multifaceted, exploring everything from timely issues such as climate change to timeless themes such as man’s struggle against the ocean’s fury.”—Miami New Times
“Into the Storm reads like more than just the chronicle of one maritime disaster—and may be a warning claxon against the possibility of more such disasters coming this hurricane season.”—Open Letters Review
Under the Cover
An excerpt from Into the Storm
The C-130 cargo plane sat on the tarmac, a hulking, high-winged, metal-sheathed beast of burden, painted white and orange, the belly so low to the ground it obscured its own wheels. The predawn sky above was dark, but not still. It never is. Currents of air continued journeys that had started continents away, where they twisted and flowed across mountains and deserts, then forests and oceans, pulled and pushed by troughs and ridges of low and high pressure, deflected and guided across an invisible topography, propelled by the sun’s heat and the planet’s motion. Cool air descended while warm air rose. Within the currents, celestial gases drifted through a transparent skyscape of peaks and valleys—nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide, ozone, and water vapor—redistributed according to their weight up to the stratosphere. The moisture formed into clouds—cirrus, altocumulus, cumulus, stratocumulus, the towering and formidable cumulonimbus—that dissolve and re-form. Below this invisible ballet, in the emergent morning of September 17, 2015, the plane waited on a runway at the U.S. Coast Guard’s Air Station Clearwater, on Florida’s west coast. Nearly twenty thousand horsepower spread over four turboprop engines, waiting to ride up and surf those clouds.
Across town, Ben Cournia woke in the blue-black of early morning to a quietly chirping alarm. He hit the button quickly and eased his long body up, careful not to disturb his wife, Lindsay, as she slept next to him. She’d have to get up in a couple of hours and go through the tumult of getting the kids to school by herself—making their lunches, packing their backpacks, and hustling them along through teeth brushing and getting dressed. Lord knows, she needed her rest.
Cournia quietly made his way to the bathroom and bent his tall frame over the sink as he turned on the water, his skin pale in the bathroom light, his long arms ropey with muscles and veins. He had thick brown hair, cut short per regulations, and his eyes were set back under a prominent brow. Cournia’s swimsuit hung from the shower curtain rod, still damp from the swim in the pool last night. This is their tradition. The night before Daddy leaves for his two-week deployments, the kids get an after-dinner swim in the pool.
As Lindsay cleared the table, Lucy, six, and Lincoln, three, had run squealing to their rooms and wiggled into their suits. Ben also changed into his, then went out and knelt by the pool’s edge, furrowing his brow, pretending to fix something. The kids came running out, the soft pads of uncalloused little feet thup-thupping over to him, and—splash!—they pushed Daddy into the pool. Oh no, he’s drowning! Daddy needs help! The kids jumped in for the rescue. They glided under the water like chubby little dolphins. His kids can swim, Ben has made sure of that. Of course, they rescued Daddy. Afterward, they showered and got ready for bed. Ben tucked them in.
I’ll be gone for a little bit, he told them each.
How long, Daddy? Lucy asked.
About two weeks.
Are you going to save people?
Lucy and Lincoln were learning the rules and rhythms of a Coast Guard family: A parent sometimes has to go away to help others. Their father is a U.S. Coast Guard aviation survival technician, otherwise known as a rescue swimmer. His job is to save people in the worst conditions possible. There aren’t many reasons good and clear enough for a child to accept a parent’s absence, but rescuing people in danger is one of them.
In the dark of the morning, Cournia packed his toothbrush. He changed into his one-piece green flight suit, freshly washed the night before, and headed down to the kitchen. He brewed a cup of coffee, which he needed to shake the last vapors of sleep from his brain before he started packing the cooler. He didn’t want to forget anything, anything. He slid the cooler over to the fridge and opened the freezer door. First to go in were the packages of frozen vegetables: green beans, scalloped potatoes, and broccoli, as well as cookie dough to make chocolate chip cookies in his hooch on his off days. Then he opened the refrigerator door to load perishables: chicken breasts, sirloin steaks, pork tenderloins, sliced cheeses and deli meats for sandwiches. Lots of fruit: oranges, bananas, berries. Cournia makes his living off his body, and he is acutely aware of what fuel is needed for it to work at peak efficiency. The calories in his diet should break down as follows: 40 percent carbohydrates, 40 percent proteins, 20 percent fats. To achieve that goal, every meal during his two-week stint is planned out with military precision. He closed the cooler, latched it, and carried it out to the car.
This house, four bedrooms with the backyard pool on a quiet cul-de-sac, is the couple’s first home. Cournia’s last posting was on a snow-covered island in Alaska, where the family lived on base. But there’s no base housing in Clearwater, so they scrimped and saved, and now they have their piece of normalcy, their piece of peace. Cournia loaded the cooler and his duffel bag into his Ford Taurus, slid into the seat, and started the engine. He steered south toward Air Station Clearwater, the house in the rearview mirror slipping into the darkness behind him.
Versions of this ritual were playing out across Clearwater and neighboring Tampa. At flight mechanic Joshua Andrews’s home, his wife, Marleen, got up to make coffee while Josh, unflappably friendly with prominent ears and an easy smile, started packing his cooler. Josh is from Texas and takes his grilling seriously. He had marinated his meats the day before, sealed them in plastic bags, and put them in the freezer. He had also bought enough food for an extra week or two. Marleen typically questioned this. Honey, are you sure you need all that? He always gave the same reply: Prepare for the worst, hope for the best. If something went wrong, a plane broke down or a big storm came, not unheard of this time of year, and they were stuck on deployment longer than usual, he wanted to be ready.
They, too, had let the kids, Ashton, nine, and Leah, five, stay up later than usual to spend extra time with Dad. They’d all piled onto the couch and watched The Flash, the superhero show on the CW. When Josh put Leah to bed, she asked why he had to go. In case somebody needs my help, he told her. Unlike the Cournia kids, she never accepted this answer and didn’t this time, either, judging by the frown on her face, which meant she would probably spend most of the nights while he was gone in bed with Mom.
The kids insisted on saying goodbye in the morning, despite the early hour, so after Josh had packed his bags and dragged them to the door, Marleen went to rouse Ashton and Leah. Even the three dogs got in on the act, swarming the doorway. Cody, the oldest, positioned himself by the threshold, ready to make a mad dash for the truck. Then the kids, groggy, emerged. Ashton hugged Dad, who reminded his son to behave, listen to his mother, and watch out for his little sister. He bent down and scooped up Leah, still warm from bed, nuzzled her round cheek, and reluctantly put her down. She snuck behind him and slipped a picture of a heart she had drawn into one of his bags. “I’ll miss you, Daddy,” she’d written.
The Post family had a unique situation: Both Rick and Rachel were Coast Guard helicopter pilots. They had a daughter who was about to turn one, so when one of them was deployed, the other was left behind with their infant and a full-time job. Support from friends and their church helped, people who could look after the baby, but it was tough. Rick and Rachel liked to joke that the real tour of duty was staying home. At least on deployment they could get a solid night’s sleep.
This morning it was Rick’s turn to ship out. His first alarm went off before 5:00 a.m. The couple were such heavy sleepers they used three alarms. The goal was to get up before the big alarm, the third and final one with the metal bells, started clanging in the bathroom, forcing someone to get out of bed and shut it off. Rick made it just in time. He was a thin twenty-eight-year-old, with an angular face, narrow eyes, and a sharp nose that gave him an avian appearance, which was appropriate for a pilot. Rick looked like he never stopped concentrating.
After he had thrown his gear bag and food in their big Suburban he went back upstairs to change into his flight suit. Rachel was just starting to wake up. He kissed her goodbye, then went to get one last look at the baby, grateful he’d be back in time for her first birthday.
At the air station the guardsmen parked in the long-term lot adjacent to the tarmac, where the C-130, officially the HC-130H Hercules, was being readied for flight. The plane was gleaming white, with the Coast Guard’s signature safety-orange sash painted right behind the cockpit, overlaid by the service’s coat of arms, a stars-and-stripes shield on top of two crossed anchors. The tail was also orange, with a single star emblazoned on it. Before each flight, the hulking aircraft gets not just a full working over to assess all systems but a thorough washing and cleaning. Any mud on the flaps, any chipped paint on the wings, would be an unacceptable symbol of shoddiness.
The aging workhorse of the Coast Guard’s air fleet, the Herc is 99 feet long and 38 feet high with a 132-foot wingspan. It can fly 2,500 miles before needing to refuel. The plane is not fast, and it’s not sleek, but it can land on a rutted field, launch with only 800 feet of runway, and haul anything anywhere. Hercs have been used to drop bombs, transport troops, and catch satellites. In sixty years of service it’s been a flying ambulance, midflight refueler, hurricane hunter, fire tanker, and search and rescue platform. It is tough and versatile, which is exactly how the Coast Guard sees itself.
By far the smallest of the country’s military services, the Coast Guard has about 40,000 members, not including reserves. The next smallest is the Marines, with about 190,000. The Navy has 315,000, followed by the Air Force with 330,000, and that great lumbering behemoth, the Army, with 487,000.
Yet the Coast Guard is busy whether we are at war or not. Not only does it rescue people in distress at sea as well as during floods and other natural disasters, it is also tasked with securing all ports; enforcing maritime laws; patrolling our coasts and waterways; protecting underwater marine resources; patrolling against illegal fishing; inspecting commercial and recreational vessels; and a host of other law enforcement jobs. Because its numbers are so small, the service can’t afford to have its personnel specialized too narrowly. In the Coast Guard, everyone juggles several duties. On an air station such as Clearwater, the base commander, communications officers, and office workers are all expected to fly patrols.
The Hercules requires a crew of seven and has a cavernous interior, with rows of parallel roller tracks running the length of the fuselage floor. This design allows it to be quickly converted from a cargo plane to a troop transport. Special pallets that lock into the rollers allow up to fifty-one thousand pounds of cargo, such as supplies and vehicles, to be loaded onto the rear ramp and slid inside. (The width of the fuselage was determined by drawing a circle around an M551 Sheridan tank.) On rescue missions, life rafts and dewatering pumps can be rolled into the plane and dropped on or near struggling ships. During the rush to contain a tanker gushing oil into the sea, the Herc can carry dispersants to help control the spill. Then, just as easily, it can be transformed into a passenger plane by swapping out the cargo pallets for pallets with seats bolted onto them. The seats get rolled up into the belly of the plane just like the life rafts would, and in no time you’ve got seating for ninety-two.
On this day, the Herc’s duties were split between passengers and cargo. In the hour or so before they were scheduled to take off, Ben Cournia and the others lugged their gear bags and coolers to the rear of the plane and tossed them onto a pallet. Then they headed to the mess hall to get some breakfast. After he ate, as he walked back to the plane, Cournia pulled out his cellphone and texted Lindsay. She’d be up by now.
Stuff is loaded, he wrote. Getting ready to leave. See you in a couple of weeks.
OK, she shot back. Be safe.
No problem there, he thought to himself. In the five years he’d been going on these deployments, he’d never once had to worry about being safe.
Tristram Korten is a magazine, newspaper, and radio journalist. His print work has appeared in a wide range of publications, including GQ, The Atlantic, and the Miami Herald, and his broadcast reporting has aired on public-radio programs nationally. He is the former editor of the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting and was a 2013 University of Michigan Knight-Wallace Fellow. A long time ago, he graduated from Colby College. He lives in Miami with his wife, their two daughters, and a mutt named Misha. This is his first book.