By Ray O’Hanlon
"The Perfect Storm" is pulling them in by the boatload at the box office, but for those who battled what many believe was the true "storm of the century," even a $100 million movie can only reveal part of the tale.
John Spillane is one of them. The Shoreham, L.I., man sat at a picnic table fronting the beach near his home last week and gazed through wraparound sunglasses at the placid blue waters of Long Island Sound.
It was a perfect day. Humidity was low, the frequent July haze entirely absent, and the thin blue line of the Connecticut coast was sharp and clear on the horizon, as were the sails of a tall ship heading northward from New York, the setting for the Tall Ships gathering that had unfurled itself a couple of days previously on the Fourth of July.
Spillane was studying the water. He was one of the Air National Guard Pararescue jumpers whose daring rescue mission at the height of the Halloween 1991 no-name Nor’easter looms large in the Sebastian Junger book and the George Clooney film.
"I don’t have any interest in owning a boat," he said, "but I would like to swim the Sound."
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For most, this would be an idle fancy, a hint of a boast. But Spillane’s not that type. He once ran 40 miles to see what it was like. He will have a go at the swim someday. Bet on it.
Spillane was one of five men aboard an Air National Guard H-60 "Jolly" helicopter that set out from Gabreski ANG Base on Long Island into a collision of three weather systems that would later become known to millions as "The Perfect Storm."
One of the five, Pararescue Jumper Rick Smith, would not make it back to shore and his family. His body has never been found. Not surprising, then, that the events of almost nine years ago are vivid in Spillane’s mind, even on this sparkling day when the weather is wearing its best face.
"The film takes some liberties, but overall I think it captures a sense of the storm and what everybody went through," Spillane said.
Along with other veterans of the storm and their family members, Spillane was given a preview viewing of the Wolfgang Petersen-directed epic a few days before its official opening across the U.S.
Spillane is pleased that the Pararescue helicopter is featured in the film, which actually merges two helicopter rescue missions — one by the Coast Guard, the other by Spillane’s ANG 106th Rescue Wing — into one stunning scene.
At the same time, Spillane believes it was essential to also give credit to the Coast Guard. In the film, as in the real storm, Spillane and his three surviving comrades, are pulled from the clutches of a furious ocean by the crew of a U.S. Coast Guard cutter.
"I owe my life to those guys," he said.
Spillane’s face has become familiar to many as a result of several TV documentaries on "The Perfect Storm" that have been made since the Junger book topped the bestseller lists.
The risky work of Air Force and Air National Guard Pararescue Jumpers, or "P.J.s," has also been thrust into public view as never before. Kids with military dreams in schools all across America now think of becoming P.J.s where once such notions might have been all about top gun pilots or submarine captains.
Spillane believes that the P.J.s are now only getting the recognition they have long deserved.
Spillane — whose mother, Sheila, is a native of Sneem, Co. Kerry, and whose late father, Patrick, hailed from Nenagh, Co. Tipperary — is now retired as a P.J.
But he is anything but retired in a general sense. With a career behind him that includes the U.S. Air Force, the Air National Guard and the New York City Police Department, for which he served as a scuba diver, Spillane, now 43, is turning his still considerable energies to his present job as a lieutenant in the New York City Fire Department.
As such, maintaining physical fitness is essential. Spillane shows no sign of middle-age spread. The sun is high over the sound now and he it thinking of a run. Maybe just a 10 miler or so.
And then it happened. A perfect coincidence.
The conversation was about his helicopter in the great storm. It was code-named "Jolly 110" and in attempting to return to base on Long Island after an unsuccessful bid to rescue a yachtsman 90 miles off shore — the sailor did ultimately survive — the H-60 hit a wall of water and wind that literally stopped it cold. A midair refueling bid could not be completed and the Jolly pilot had to make a controlled ditching in the ocean.
Spillane’s leap into the water from the doomed helicopter is portrayed in the movie. His character in the film has been transformed into a Lieutenant Mitchell. In real life, Spillane hit the water at about 50 miles an hour. He broke a number of bones, ruptured a kidney and bruised his pancreas. That he is sitting by this beach, on this picture-perfect day, is little short of a miracle.
You tend to become a bit silent thinking about stuff like this. But the silence didn’t last. From the north, there came a hard-edged droning sound that rapidly became louder. Unmistakably an aircraft, then clearly a helicopter.
Spillane became animated. His eyes locked on to something behind his shades. He pointed. "Look," he said, "it’s an H-60 Jolly."
Sure enough, a large helicopter thudded southward down the sound, just yards from the shoreline. It was from Gabreski and was immediately distinguishable as an H-60 by the refueling drogue protruding from the front.
It is clearly a powerful aircraft. But on the night of the great ’91 storm, it was, like so many other man-made things, humbled to the point of absolute destruction.
Spillane’s eyes followed the camouflage-painted helicopter as it faded into the distance. On this perfect day, part of the man was still on board, on that never-to-be-forgotten night almost nine years ago.
His is a perfect memory.