Rescue diver: 'It was like being in a washing machine'

SEATTLE -- Nearly three weeks after a boat flipped near Alki Point, divers are now sharing the details of a harrowing underwater rescue.

For at least one of the three divers with the Seattle Fire Department's Technical Rescue Team, it was the first time he responded to a capsized boat. For all them it was a high-risk operation.

On November 15, an emergency call came in that a boat had capsized and one person missing. Seattle Fire's Technical Rescue Team quickly launched its boat from a fire station near Coleman Dock and headed to Alki.

Seattle Firefighter and diver Mike Todd remembers the intense wind that kicked up white caps and the frigid air. Todd suited up on the boat ride and started thinking about the missing man.

"When you're going out there, you say a little prayer for the person who might be involved," he said.

On that day, it wasn't a bad idea for firefighters to say a prayer for themselves.

"It was really a high risk operation," said Lt. Frank Brennan.

The lieutenant would manage the rescue operation topside while working with the Coast Guard. The Guard initially responded to the call and had already plucked three men from the water by the time Seattle Fire's Technical team arrived.

The men's boat somehow flipped upside down. Brennan worked with the Coast Guard to keep his divers safe. The choppy waters made it a challenge to keep the Fire Department's rescue boat positioned with the prop away from those divers.

Firefighter divers encountered a 4,000-pound boat that had turtled. It was bobbing in surging seas with debris from the diving boat everywhere.

"The boat being on surface and having the boat moving around is what made it so dangerous," said firefighter/diver Colin McElroy. "It would have been easier if the boat was completely submerged."

Todd put it even more succinctly:

"It was like being in a washing machine," he said.

The wind was relentless and the air was biting and brisk. The waves topped out at four feet.

Firefighters McElroy and Todd described what looked like an obstacle course.

"It's not just the waves, but all the debris in the water. It's the ropes, air lines,straps, everything you would find in a commercial vessel is floating along the water there. It was definitely a different environment than we are used to training in all the time," McElroy said.

"You just didn't know what would came in your frame in the next moment. It was like being in a crowded group of people and you didn't know what was going to come at you next," Todd said.

Experience diver Anthony Collins was the missing man, and the last place he was seen was in the wheelhouse, which was now upside down and taking on water. Since the hull was still on the water's surface, rescue divers hoped there might be an air pocket in the wheelhouse.

"If he was still alive he may be trying to survive in that air pocket," said Lt. Brennan.

The team agreed that the wheelhouse would be a deathtrap for their divers. Their only safe option was to reach through the wheelhouse door and hope Collins would be within reach.

An already risky rescue attempt just got riskier when they learned their underwater radios didn't work and their only way to communicate was gone. At that point training kicked in and McElroy and Todd headed for the boat's wheelhouse.

"You could see the patient in there right away," said McElroy.

They where right, and there was an air pocket in the wheelhouse. Anthony Collins' head was above the water line and he appeared unresponsive.

"The biggest hazard was the boat coming up and down on us," said Todd, who remembered the boat rising and crashing down four feet with every wave.

"Anyone of them could have been hit on the head or entangled," said Lt. Brennan.

Firefighter McElroy couldn't reach Anthony. Measured but hurried, he inched into the doorway closer to that death trap with every reach.

"Colin was able to get in there -- he did a great job. It wasn't just reaching in and grabbing him, he had to keep trying and keep trying and at the same time the boat is moving up and down and the configuration of his dive equipment he could have easily been stuck in that doorway as well. So he did a great job of staying with the scene and getting a hold of Anthony," Todd said.

Anthony Collins was unconscious and unresponsive. The Coast Guard air lifted him to Harborview Medical Center.

"Unfortunately for the family, it didn't go 100 percent how we wanted it to," said McElroy.

Although Collins had been underwater for nearly an hour, the firefighters were hopeful the air pocket may have saved him.

"We take the risk so the victim will survive and it didn't happen in this case," said Lt. Brennan, who insisted it's a risk Seattle Fire will take every time.

For McElroy it was also a first.

"I've never been on a capsized vessel call," he said. "It's usually a kayaker in trouble."

For Mike Todd, the day ended as it began with a prayer.

"You pray for Anthony Collin's family," he said.

Footnote: Seattle Fire's Technical Rescue Team operates 24/7 and is made up of 27 men and one woman. Seattle Fire says the Coast Guard's "excellent work" and initial response was vital.