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Losing a Mate, Finding Themselves

Knorr Crew Receives 2001 Penzance Award

The crew of R/V Knorr was accustomed to sailing through rough, uncharted waters. In oceans, however, not in the depths of their souls. They knew how to keep the sea at bay, but they had no experience at keeping a gravely ill shipmate alive.

In December of 2000, Knorr’s scientists and crew had been investigating a previously unexplored section of the global mid-ocean ridge. They were working in one of the most remote parts of the planet, the Southern Ocean between Africa and Antarctica, nearly equidistant from both shores.

They had found “a huge, deep rift valley stretching straight for 280 miles with almost nothing but mantle rocks rising up out of the earth,” said WHOI Senior Scientist Henry Dick, chief scientist for the cruise. On most mid-ocean ridges, molten rock from Earth’s mantle erupts to create an overlying crustal layer. Here, “the mantle was spreading directly onto the seafloor,” Dick said. “It was like nothing I had ever seen before.”

But rippling through the scientific excitement was an ominous undercurrent. It might have been completely forgotten had events turned out differently. Joe Mayes, Knorr’s oiler, was suffering from headaches.

‘Thousands of Miles from Anywhere’
“At sea, everyone has a job that affects everyone else, from the captain all the way down,” said George Silva, Knorr’s captain on this voyage. “There’s no place to run or hide. There’s not much room for whiners or complainers. You just have to buck up.

“You don't easily pull the plug on an expensive science expedition,” Silva said. “If your mother gets sick, and we’re thousands of miles from anywhere, you have to accept that you won't be able to do much about it.”

Mayes knew the score. He was a 10-year Navy veteran and had worked on Woods Hole research ships since 1991. He consulted Janet Costello, the ship’s medic, about his headaches.

Costello, a registered nurse, had a lot of experience in hospital emergency rooms. But she also loved the sea. For years, she had been chief nurse for a luxury cruise line, and she had sailed on WHOI expeditions in the early 1990s, including several with Mayes. WHOI had hired her as an extra measure of safety for this series of Knorr cruises.

“It’s Institution policy,” said Joe Coburn, WHOI’s Ship Operations Manager. “Whenever we send a ship that far for that length of time in remote places, we put a medic on.”

‘You Can’t Call 911’
Costello closely monitored Mayes’s condition. She was in close contact with Medical Advisory Services, which links ships with shore-based physicians via satellite telephone. Then on New Year’s Day 2001, the unexpected happened. Mayes suddenly lost consciousness and stopped breathing. Costello inserted a breathing tube and attached an airbag, called an “Ambubag,” that is squeezed between two hands to force oxygen into lungs.

“We all know that anything can happen out there, and you can’t call 911,” Silva said. “You steel yourself. You try to be ready. But this was nothing we could plan for.”

The crew searched for other military ships in the area that might have more extensive medical facilities. “But we were very much on our own,” Silva said. “So we turned around and made tracks.”

Knorr was 1,200 miles from the nearest coast. It headed north toward Capetown, South Africa, where a medical team would be dispatched to evacuate Mayes as soon as the ship came within the 200-mile range of a helicopter.

Coburn coordinated efforts on the home front. He helped expedite an emergency passport for Mayes’s fiancée, Sunny Bigby, and arranged to fly her from Oregon to Capetown. But he couldn’t do much more to help the situation on Knorr.

“A ship is on its own,” Coburn said. “You can’t pull the strings to exercise precise control over a ship far away. You have good people who are trained, and you back them up. But they’re on the front line.”

A Real Test of Fortitude
In Knorr’s sickbay, Mayes’s temperature had dropped and Costello worked to keep him warm. She had dealt with numerous medical emergencies in her career, but usually in controlled settings.

On Knorr, “I had no lab tests,” she said. “I didn’t have any fancy equipment.” In fact, she had brought her own cardiac monitor. She had persuaded a medical salesman to donate it and she shipped it herself to Capetown. “I remember thinking, ‘I hope I never have to use this.’”

But there it was, indicating that Mayes’s heart was still pumping—even though he could not breathe for himself. Costello was aided by C.R. Johnson, Knorr’s electrician, who had emergency medical training. But the two could not continue squeezing oxygen into Mayes’s lungs for long by themselves.

“I put up a sign-up list for volunteers to help work the Ambubag,” Silva said. “The list was filled within seconds. Some people didn’t know Joe at all. Others knew him well and had been in many ports with him. They did their normal jobs, and then they volunteered to breathe for Joe.”

Every four hours, three people took turns, on 15-minute shifts, squeezing the Ambubag. The volunteers ranged in seagoing experience from Amy Simoneau, a Shipboard Scientific Services Technician on her first Knorr cruise, to Stephen Walsh, who began working at WHOI in 1985 and has been Knorr’schief engineer since 1995. “It was tough going,” Walsh said. “Everyone watched the heart monitor, hoping nothing would happen to Joe, especially on their watch.”

Meanwhile Knorr bounded through the waves, going as fast as prudently possible, in foggy, icy waters.

“It was a gloomy, gloomy ship,” Silva said. “The crew was dismal. It was the longest four days of my life. Looking at Joe in the wee hours of the night, with the bad weather and the ship bouncing, standing watch with fog and snow and ice all around, it was a real test of fortitude.”

‘We Were All Together in This’
Over four days, Costello and Johnson spelled each other and never left Mayes’s bedside.

“I’d lie down once in a while to close my eyes,” Costello said. “I had never been stretched so far in my life. I had to rely on all my accumulated knowledge and experience.

“At one point, the breathing tube got clogged and I had to intubate again—on a rolling ship, in a small space. My eyes filled up. I prayed a lot. But I couldn’t fall apart. We were all together in this.”

When the limited supply of oxygen ran out, the crew continued pumping, using regular air. But Antarctic air is very dry, which causes problems in the lungs. “I said, ‘I need more humidity,’” Costello recalled. “The engineers jumped up, and I heard all this clanging. They built a humidifier out of a galley mop pan and a fan.

“Nobody was freaking out. Everyone did what needed to be done,” Costello continued. “I’ve worked in neurosurgical and intensive care units, and even in one of those, I wouldn’t have thought we could keep Joe alive. I have no explanation for how he remained alive. I swear it was the love and caring of the crew that kept him going.”

79,680 Breaths
On January 5, Knorr was finally within range. A helicopter rendezvoused with the ship 200 miles off the coast. Paramedics descended by wire onto the deck and bundled Mayes into a gurney that was hoisted up to the helicopter. The helicopter’s winch broke immediately after Mayes’s ascent, stranding two paramedics on Knorr. But Mayes was headed to a hospital.

Th
e fog seemed to lift then, along with the crew’s burden. “We could let out our breath,” said Simoneau, “and we were really hopeful.”

At the Capetown hospital, medical personnel “were all absolutely amazed by the efforts of the crew,” Coburn said. “It was recognized as absolutely unprecedented to keep someone alive manually for all that time—not just on a ship, but in any environment.”

“By my estimation, the crew pumped approximately 79,680 breaths into Joe,” Silva said. “When he left the ship, he was alive. He had a heartbeat.”

But when Knorr arrived in port hours later, the crew learned that the 46-year-old Mayes had died at the hospital. Bigby, his fiancée, was at his bedside. The cause of death was a brain aneurysm.

Coburn made arrangements through the US Embassy to transport Mayes’s body home. Professional grief counselors—arranged by Karen Rauss, WHOI’s ombudsperson, to meet the ship in port—talked with emotionally spent crew members.

“We gave it our all,” Silva said. “We knew we’d done everything we possibly could. And that helped the healing process.”

“It was a life-affirming experience for me,” said Costello. “You will rarely find the camaraderie in any working environment that you do on a ship. Shipmates take care of each other. I’ve never seen anything like that crew, and I know I never will again. They were very courageous—the finest group of human beings I’ve ever been associated with.”

Epilogue
Knorr’s crew was presented with the 2001 WHOI Penzance Award, given “for sustained exceptional performance, for outstanding representation of the WHOI spirit, and for major contributions to the personal and professional lives of our staff.”

In nominating the crew, Chief Scientist Henry Dick wrote: “I will carry away with me a deep and enduring sense of the commitment and caring of the men and women of this ship. In my twenty-five years as a marine scientist, I had never experienced anything as moving as the effort these men and women made. It was truly in the best spirit of the Institution and an inspiration for mariners anywhere.”

Before Mayes fell ill, the crew had discovered a new mountain on the seafloor. “Normally, naming of these features honors a scientist or some other individual who stands out in the public record,” said Dick. “However, I think it appropriate that one of these major features should be named in honor of the many individuals who make these discoveries possible.”

It has been named Joseph Mayes Seamount, “in honor of both Joe and the many sailors who have contributed so much to oceanography.”

Originally published: October 1, 2002