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Calm after the storm

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Ray O’Hanlon

John Spillane will watch his lawn grow this spring and not worry too much about it. He’ll get one of the neighborhood kids to cut it during the summer months.

At 42, Spillane is relaxing a little more, letting life drift a bit, at least on his days off. After all, you can’t blow full force all the time. Best save some energy for when it really counts.

It really counts when your kids need you. It really counts when someone else’s life depends on your skill, will and strength. It really counts when you look death in the face and death stares back, not particularly caring one way or the other whether you live or simply cease to exist.

John Spillane remembers going eyeball to eyeball with death. And one thought crowding what he believed to be his final moments was to curse himself for not giving his lawn the last cut before winter.

He’ll not make that mistake again.

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John Spillane is a New York City firefighter, attached to Ladder Company 165 in St. Alban’s Queens, "The Sleepless Knights."

But when Spillane’s name is mentioned, many remember him from a once-in-a-century sleepless night eight years ago. The night of the great Halloween storm with no name, the nor’easter of Oct. 30-31, 1991.

The storm without a name would eventually find one. It would become "The Perfect Storm" and find meteorological immortality in the pages of a bestselling book of that title.

The book’s author, Sebastian Junger, centered his story on the Massachusetts fishing port of Gloucester, from where the trawler Valhalla once sailed with guns for the IRA. In the eye of the story was the disappearance beneath 100-foot Atlantic waves of the swordfish boat "Andrea Gail."

Only late is his writing of the book did Junger meet with John Spillane. The story of the perfect storm was about to swirl in an entirely different direction, from the m’lstrom off New England and Nova Scotia that would ultimately doom the Andrea Gail, to the watery hell off Long Island and New Jersey where John Spillane would live, yet lose a friend.

Different places, different people. Same storm. A monster created by the sandwiching of a Great Lakes low between a hurricane from the south and a high pressure system over Canada. A truly cataclysmic weather event.

On the afternoon of the gathering storm, Oct. 30, Spillane was posted with the 106th Wing, New York Air National Guard based at F.S. Gabreski Air National Guard Base at Westhampton Beach on Long Island. Spillane knew little of the various disasters and dramas that were fast brewing off the entire northeastern coast of the U.S. The weather ashore was pretty typical for the time of year. Blowing a bit alright, still quite warm, but not too bad.

Two hundred and fifty miles off the Jersey Shore, to the southeast, it was a different story. A yacht with a lone sailor aboard was battling for survival with a natural born killer.

Spillane and fellow pararesueman Rick Smith joined three other crew members of an ANG H-60 helicopter. The machine, known as a "Jolly" was the size needed to get that far off the coast in the kind of weather that was now turning the ocean inside out. But it would need mid-air refueling four times to get to the yacht and back to base.

Junger’s book describes what followed in page-turning detail. Rescue from a helicopter proved impossible, though the yachtsman was later picked up by a freighter. Flying back to Westhampton Beach, the H-60 flew into a wall of wind and water 50 miles wide, eight miles long and 10,000 feet thick. It seemed to come out of nowhere. It was just another part of the storm that was, by now, off the charts.

Ditching in the Atlantic

The Jolly was unable to suck up its last allotment of fuel carried by a tanker plane. The crew was forced to ditch. Spillane, being a pararescueman, was one of the most highly trained rescue men in any branch of the U.S. military. With the helicopter doomed, he threw himself into the darkness and the wind, which, by some estimates was now exceeding 100 miles per hour. He sustained life threatening injuries hitting the water but survived in the seas for five hours. He was handed back a chance for life by the arrival of the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Tamaroa. Four of the Jolly’s five man crew made it. Rick Smith, reckoned by his comrades to be the best swimmer in the pararescue service, didn’t. The storm was like that. Callous, indiscriminate.

" I never felt more connected to the earth and never so insignificant," Spillane said recently. "Nature didn’t care whether I went or not."

Spillane is now retired as a master sergeant E-7 from a military career that saw him serve four years in the air force and 20 with the 106th. Along the way, he was a also a diver with New York’s Finest and, for the last five years, he has battled fires with New York’s Bravest.

Survival, he will tell you, though, sometimes has little to do with how fine or brave you might be. It can simply mean that it wasn’t your time. Spillane, though no stranger to danger, would never describe himself as gung-ho or indifferent to fear. He has a healthy respect for the things that make us afraid.

"At the end of my career it would be nice to think that my Irishness had something to do with what I did," Spillane said. "But it was not my motivation. The way it went, nothing really prepared me for what I would do. As a kid I was not driven to do these things."

Spillane was born and raised in the Bronx. His late father, Patrick, came from Nenagh, Co. Tipperary. His mother, Sheila, hailed from Sneem, Co. Kerry. He joined the Air Force after graduating high school in 1974.

Parachute rescue

Being a pararescueman — a relatively new military role for the seas beyond the Coast Guard’s usual limits — was in Spillane’s sights from the start of his military career. By 1980, two years in with the ANG, Spillane took part in the first parachute rescue operation in the Atlantic. It was a jump mission, 1,500 miles from home.

The reason behind this chapter of ANG history is explained by Spillane: "A sailor was stabbed by the cook. The ship was three days from the nearest land, which was Bermuda. We were assigned the rescue mission and it almost worked."

Almost. The ship sent out an SOS, probably only half expecting a response. If it was lucky, another ship with a doctor on board might pick up the distress signal.

What the crew probably did not expect was to see a U.S. C-130 Hercules aircraft roar out of the sky only a few hours after the SOS. They probably did not expect to see two men to jump from the plane and parachute into the ocean.

Spillane and his partner were picked up by a boat sent over the side by the ship. They did their best for the wounded sailor, but he was too far gone. And yet, they gave him a chance, in the middle of nowhere. The high seas would never be as lonely again.

Spillane took part in three jump missions during his career. By jump mission he means a drop from a plane by parachute, far out at sea, as distinct to a low-level drop from a helicopter closer to the shore.

Three is a big number. Many pararescuemen enter and leave the service without ever making the big jump.

The ditching on the night of the Perfect Storm was something else altogether. In a league of its own.

"Life is different after the storm," Spillane said. "In the military they prepare you for death. When you are an air crew member it’s emphasized even more. When you’re a pararescueman you invariably know people who have died."

After the helicopter went down, Spillane, badly injured and stunned by the impact with the raging water, linked up two other crew members. A fourth was struggling in the waves not too far away. Rick Smith was nowhere to be seen.

The conditions were such that it was actually possible to drown by simply drawing in the "air," which was saturated with rain and seawater.

In the book, Junger describes Spillane’s annoyance at, of all things, not having cut the lawn. When death seems imminent, your life does sort of pass before your eyes, the big things and the little things. Mostly, Spillane felt sad because his wife, Laura, would never know how it ended. He also wondered when the moment would come when he would no longer be able to resist. He was a good swimmer, by civilian standards an outstanding one. But he knew he couldn’t fight the storm indefinitely.

"I could conceive of myself drowning. That was scary," Spillane said.

But it wasn’t to end that night. The lights of the Tamaroa came into view, blinking in the saturated gloom, seemingly turning on and off. But really it had to do with the mountainous waves and crevasse-like troughs in between them.

"I didn’t really realize the size of the waves until the Tamaroa arrived," Spillane said. "It appeared as if the ship was going uphill and downhill. I remember thinking to myself that the men on board that ship are at really great risk. Whoever they were, they were very brave.

"But then I realized, of course, it could only be a highly trained and qualified crew. Still, these guys were really putting it on the line."

Looking back, Spillane remembers getting the jitters when he recovered from his injuries. He knew that death had brushed by him in that great wind of 87 knots and higher.

"But I did not become religious, or say to myself that I had taken life too much for granted and would not any more," he said.

Spillane is not really given to extremes one way or another. He is understated, both in manner and in assessing risk. His working life has posed great challenges, but he does not openly flirt with the laws of chance. Above all, he comes across as being completely devoid of the arrogance that might affect some with a story like his to tell.

"I’m the first guy who gets in a car and puts on a seatbelt," he said. "At the same time, I’m not overly cautious."

Twenty-five years after turning his back on civilian life, Spillane — who lives in Shoreham, L.I., with his wife and three children, Timothy, Meghan and Kyle — is something of an expert when it comes to risk. No less now as a firefighter.

"With fire, you often can’t see where it is coming from," he said. "It can get behind you, below you or beside you. Fighting it is a calculated risk. And that’s the common denominator between being a firefighter and pararescue man.

"With firefighting, as with rescue jumping, there is always a tactical plan. Although a fire scene does appear chaotic, the fight against it is highly planned and coordinated. But it has taken me five years on the job to fully appreciate and absorb what is happening in such a situation."

Spillane says that the main difference between a real fire and a screen portrayal of a blaze is the darkness. Much of the time, the first enemy encountered is dense smoke.

Spillane is quite clearly qualified to make comparisons between real firefighting and the popular image. He will also soon have a chance to compare the big screen depiction of the ’91 storm, and what was frightening reality for him in the middle of the tempest itself. A movie based on Junger’s book is due to go into production later this year.

Hollywood is always a roll of the dice. Spillane’s character may, or may not be, included in any script. Then again, leaving him and his Air National Guard comrades out of the tale would be akin to the cavalry not charging over the hill at the climax of an old western. John Spillane has earned his spurs, his measure of fame — and his continued life. But his memories of an endless night in a furious sea would go a long way toward making any film version of the no-name storm a worthy tribute to those who perished. Perhaps even a perfect one.

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