ANCHORAGE, Alaska – The crew members were cut and bruised, thirsty and ravenous when they arrived on the Alaska island, their muscles deeply strained from hours and hours spent clinging to a ship that abruptly leaned into the North Pacific.
Only 10 minutes passed between the time the Cougar Ace began listing in rough seas and the time it was almost lying on its side, giving crews little time to send out a distress signal, nurse practitioner Michael Terry said Tuesday from a clinic on Adak Island. He was among the locals who took in most of the ship's 23 crew members after their rescue late Monday ended a daylong ordeal 230 miles to the south.
"These guys are thrilled right now," Terry said in a telephone interview. "They feel so fortunate, so grateful things weren't worse."
The crew arrived Tuesday to cloudy skies and spotty rain at Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage. Carrying bright red survival suits and other belongings in clear plastic bags, they walked quickly from the snub-nosed transport plane across the damp tarmac and disappeared through the gray door leading to customs.
Crew members were instructed not to discuss the matter, ship captain Nyi Nyi Tun said through a clinic worker. But earlier Tuesday, the 46-year-old Myanmar man told The Associated Press he and his shipmates were resting and could not talk. "For us it is the middle of the night," he said.
The captain, however, told Terry that the Cougar Ace began shifting sharply after the ship was hit by a large wave while the ballast was being adjusted. Terry said rescuers told him the adjustment was made to conform to U.S. codes as the ship prepared to leave international waters.
Terry said most of the injuries occurred during the sudden tilting of the 654-foot ship, which was carrying nearly 5,000 cars from Japan to West Coast. One man, 41-year-old Saw Lucky Kyin of Myanmar, broke an ankle on the railing. Rescuers flew him to Anchorage, where he was listed Tuesday in good condition at Providence Alaska Medical Center. Another crew member went along as an interpreter. Rescuers planned to fly the others from Adak to Anchorage Tuesday afternoon and officials with the ship's owner planned to formally interview them on Wednesday, a spokesman said.
The men had gone without food or water as they clung in a cluster to the higher starboard side so they welcomed the stew and spaghetti set out at the Adak community center, according to volunteers there. Despite their exhaustion, many of the men couldn't sleep, feeling the shifting of the ship whenever they closed their eyes. They took turns calling relatives in Myanmar, Singapore and the Philippines to share their stories.
"The most important thing to them, they wanted to speak to their families," said Al Giddings, with the island's volunteer fire department. "You could see it in their faces, the anticipation in their eyes."
The six aircraft completed the rescue in the dimming light as a cloud bearing heavy showers closed in from the southwest, according to officials at Kulis Air National Guard Base.
"We picked them up at a very good time," said Capt. Eric Budd, a C-130 rescue pilot. "Mother Nature was on our side."
With the crew safe, the Coast Guard and vessel operators turned their attention to salvaging the massive car carrier, which remained floating on its side, officials said. The 4,813 cars on board, including some Mazdas, are secured in compartments with heavy chains and believed to be inside the ship, which Petty Officer Richard Reichenbach likened to a giant parking garage.
"I think the worst thing that could have happened is they broke loose and are all piled up on top of each other," he said.
A Coast Guard cutter that arrived at the remote site reported a 2-mile oily sheen spotted Monday in the choppy water had broken up and was "very light" around the ship, said Chief Petty Officer Darrell Wilson. The ship had been carrying 430 metric tons of fuel oil or 112 metric tons of diesel fuel.
"They're not seeing anything like heavy oil or anything like that," Wilson said.
Because the mishap occurred in international waters, the Coast Guard was exploring what role to take post-rescue. Wilson said it would likely take a lead role if the vessel is towed to an Alaska harbor.
The Singapore-flagged Cougar Ace -- owned by Tokyo-based Mitsui O.S.K. Lines -- was finalizing an agreement with one of several commercial salvage companies that had been considered, said Greg Beuerman, a spokesman for the ship owner. It could be days before salvagers reach the site, he said.
"Then they'll go on board the vessel," he said. "They'll analyze the situation and determine the best way to right the vessel and transport it to an appropriate port."