The final thirty minutes: "Operation Polar Pioneer"
Ten miles off the coast of Kulusuk, Greenland
Gordon scraped a gloved hand over his goggles. It didn't help. The snow and the ice continued the assault on him from every direction, the freezing winds threatening to overturn the rescue cage, the arctic waters looming directly below.
"Gordon, stay with me! You're almost down! This HAS to be it!"
His frozen lips muttered a tight "FAB" when what he really wanted to say was, "Christ, Scott!"
For one and a half hours he'd braved the appalling conditions and so far they'd only managed to haul up the eleven passengers. The four crew members, including the captain, were still trapped on board the stricken boat.
He struggled with the leather harness, removing it, ready.
The cage hit the water hard. Gordon felt the jolt in both directions as Virgil swore into the communications and Alan reacted to yank him back up. His instincts kicked in; dropping and rolling, his face tucked flat against the fiberglass. Seconds later, the Greenland Sea crashed into the side of him, another monster wave almost swallowing the boat.
A string of new orders fired from the cockpit of Thunderbird One. One more wave like that and the Polar Pioneer was toast. They couldn't afford to miss again.
"Alan! You HAVE to get Gordon onto the deck of that boat!"
The winching started over. Gordon couldn't even hear Thunderbird Two's engines above the roar of the wind anymore. He clawed at his goggles, eyes useless behind the icy mask. The cage rocked wildly. There was no way to know if he was over the boat. He could hear Alan's labored breathing as Virgil reminded him that five lives were depending on his accuracy.
Five lives and staying calm even though he knew that he was in the head count.
"Those guys had better be ready for us down there, John."
"FAB! They're ready, Scott."
"About to make contact..."
"Easy does it this time, Alan."
No time to panic or second-guess himself now.
"Here she COMES!"
"Okay Gordon…two minutes… this is IT!"
The rescue cage sailed in low and too fast over the deck, the force of the wind ploughing it into the port-side railing, another wave simultaneously crashing over the back of the boat.
"Pull her to the LEFT!" he barked into the mouthpiece inside his helmet. "ALAN! TO THE LEFT!"
All he could hear was a far-away "FAB" behind a crackle of static as his line to Thunderbirds One and Two began to cut in and out. He tore off the goggles, splinters of ice attacking his eyesight as he prepared to release the security latch. Four people in lifejackets, frozen with panic, watched helplessly as the cage swept back in the other direction before hitting the edge of the deck with a crunch.
A dozen seconds left… maybe a few dozen with any luck. The waves were starting to crest again…this time more menacing… this time much higher than the boat.
He flung open the rescue cage, waving his arms frantically at the stranded crew.
"GO! GO! GO! GO! GO!" he screamed into the elements, his face burning in the ferocity of the combined wind and horizontal snow.
"Okay… two minutes … hold her steady now, Virgil."
"Holding steady and counting down."
"Alan, stand by for final lift."
"Thunderbird Two standing by..."
"GORDON! Have you GOT them yet?
He didn't hear the words. The boat rose with the swell, torpedoed back down. The crew struggled towards the rescue cage. The captain dragged himself last, crippled with injuries unknown.
"Gordon! Come IN! GORDON! This is SCOTT!"
"He's not responding!"
"Take it easy, Alan. Fifty-nine seconds…"
"GORDON, I REPEAT! THIS IS SCOTT! HAVE YOU GOT THEM YET?"
"He's in trouble! Virgil! I need to pull him up!"
"NO, Alan! Forty seconds Scott… thirty-seven, thirty-six, thirty-five, thirty-four…"
"JOHN! WHAT IN THE HELL'S WRONG WITH THE CONNECTION?"
"Thunderbird Five to Rescue Cage…DAMN IT, GORDON! CONFIRM!"
"Twenty-five seconds… twenty-three, twenty two …"
"I'm pulling him up NOW!"
Seconds later the wave crashed over the top of the rescue cage and everything around him just went dark.
THE PRELIMINARY MISSION REPORT
International Rescue Commander Jeff Tracy (Tracy Island)
It sounds like the boys had a tough time during this one, and I'm pleased to hear that despite some of the less than ideal protocols that were followed, Scott was able to hold them together long enough to successfully pull the operation off.
I've never supported the recreational cruises they offer in that area. The Denmark Strait is renowned for naval disaster and the Russian operators knew exactly what they were flirting with when they made the decision to sail out of Kulusuk in conditions as dangerous as that.
I'd hate to think what might have happened to those people if John hadn't picked up their distress call.
Without International Rescue none of them would be alive.
THE AFTERMATH - Thunderbird Two (Nuuk, Greenland)
An "injured" Gordon
The thick black coffee in the white foam cup sure isn't the only thing that's "cold as ice" around here. Outside, another snow-storm is delaying our takeoff. Inside, the temperature has dropped to minus four hundred and fifty-five degrees. Centigrade!
I have no idea what they said to each other while I was recovering in the pod, but whatever it was, it wasn't their usual repartee because now Alan's sitting opposite me refusing to talk to Virgil and Virgil's staring straight ahead, refusing to talk to him.
Add to the mix Scott's current less than happy disposition and what my vision is telling me is more than just "a little bump on the head," courtesy of being slammed head first into the main reinforcing bar of the rescue cage when the final wave hit.
Frostbite, concussion, a suspected broken wrist and now grounded in the middle of the silent treatment.
Isn't this going to be one of the more memorable trips home?
A "stone-cold" Alan
So much for the thanks I get.
"Do you even KNOW how to follow orders?"
"What PART don't you GET about "all five of them could have been killed?"
"I've had a GUTFUL of the crazy risks you take without thinking!"
"Jesus, Alan! Enough is enough! "
Call it insubordination, but he wasn't the field commander and I'd already copped an earful from Scott. What I did saved Gordon's life, so he got just as much back when I spat out the answers as he dished out when he started firing the stupid questions. I've never been this pissed off with Virgil in my life.
I played my part. He played his. It wasn't my fault that the communications with the rescue cage went down when things were critical or that it all nearly turned into a pile of shit because they did.
"How about you just GROW UP, Alan, and for once put yourself in Scott's position?"
I nearly hit him.
I still want to hit him.
I swear Hell's going to freeze over before I sit through one of Dad's bawling outs again.
"…GROW UP Alan… put yourself in Scott's position!"
Is he kidding?
Man, he simply makes my blood BOIL!
An "icy" Virgil
(Updating Thunderbird One - current position - passing over Vancouver)
Some miracles tend to take a little longer than others, but with the mood he's in I don't think he'd appreciate the sarcasm, so I think I'll play it safe for now and keep my opinion to myself.
I know he's worried about the delay in getting Gordon home after everything he's been through and that it's the main reason why he's pushing me to get Two airborne, "not later, Virgil, NOW." Unfortunately, like I told him, it's not that simple. Ferrying the folks to the hospital took a lot longer than I thought. The Captain was a real mess and the conditions I had to fly in were worse than the ones near Kulusuk. Then, by the time I'd landed in Nuuk, off-loaded and re-secured the pod ready for takeoff, the visibility had deteriorated to zero again and before I knew it we were stuck.
"Sorry, Scott, I'll be right behind you just as soon as it's clear enough for me to go," is what I tell him.
What I don't tell him is that I think I've already got enough to deal with here without trying to navigate only flying on instruments, too.
Thunderbird Two (en-route over Quebec)
They make a good pair, all four them. At least that's my view of the situation from behind two dazed eyes. The current combination of painkillers and concussion isn't something Grandma would prescribe, but the wrist was really starting to kill me, despite the latest addition of the splint.
They still haven't said a word to each other and it's been nearly two hours now. I'm not going to risk any further injuries by asking them why or trying to intervene. I've been in the middle of one of their spats before and there are only two words for the experience. "Stay clear!"
Alan's still sitting opposite me, arms folded with a face and a body language to fit.
Virgil's still sitting ramrod-straight in the pilot's seat, staring straight ahead, hands tightly fisted around the controls.
If my head didn't hurt so much I'd probably be trying to figure out what the two of them were thinking.
Then again, looking at the speed Alan's tapping his fingers against his elbow, maybe I don't want to know.
Does he really believe that I don't know what it's like to be in Scott's position? That I don't know what it's like to have the responsibility to lead and command? Does he honestly think I'm still the same "rough around the edges" kid Father asked to sign-up to the outfit eighteen months ago? The one who's still treated like a kid by everyone, no matter what he does?
I always obey orders in the field unless the vibes tell me otherwise. I knew Gordon was in trouble. I did the right thing pulling him up. I'm not explaining myself to Virgil or to anyone else because they think I should have done things by the book. Scott lives and breathes his hunches and he takes ten times the risks that I do.
And I'm not stupid, dammit. I realize that all of them could have been killed. Twenty seconds early could have meant a lot of things, but the point is that twenty seconds early was what got the five of them out alive. Twenty seconds later and I wouldn't have wanted to put myself in Scott's position…or his position…or John's position…or my own position.
Losing a brother and having to break the news to Father is a place none of us ever want to go.
He's such a red-hot volcano. His unpredictability doesn't even come close to the heat he can put into his words. I swear at one point Scott sounded like he wanted to kill him. I had no option but to deliberately disconnect from Thunderbird One's frequency to give him time to calm down.
I don't lose my temper with Alan very often. He's a good kid and he never hesitates to step up to the responsibility. But today the blast was warranted. He might have gotten that rescue cage out of the way in the nick of time, but the fact is he didn't know if Gordon or anyone else was actually on board. The call was Scott's to make, not his and that was all Scott was trying to get through to him when he self-combusted and started mouthing off. Alan hates being called out on his impulsiveness and Scott will never have a tolerance for it, especially when he's dealing with such a precarious situation AND when he's in command.
I don't know if Scott intends to take this further. So far all he's said to Father is that some of the protocols today "left a lot to be desired." That's enough to pique Father's interest but not enough for him to raise it at the debriefing and demand to know what actually went on. The only thing that's still got me all fired up is Alan's continued hotheaded reactions to Scott's authority. If things had gone the other way, Alan knows damn well who would have been first in the firing line and it sure as hell wouldn't have been him.
Without any communication, none of us knew which way it had gone for a full seven and a half minutes.
Seven and a half minutes that felt like a lifetime, especially for someone like Scott.
Thunderbird Two (en-route over San Diego, about to cross the Pacific coast – destination Tracy Island)
Two hours fifty-nine minutes … that's one for the record books. Obviously their standoff has everything to do with the rescue. The last time I saw Alan this quiet was when Tin-Tin was fawning all over that idiot Eddie Houseman six months ago and he didn't know what to do.
John's been on the horn to Virgil and he's said things are going to get "a little interesting" when we get Thunderbird Two back home. Even with the frostbite, double vision, the wrist and the painkillers I've figured out the warning behind the code. Scott's intending to question the procedures that were followed and in front of Father. The first thing I did was check Alan's reaction. There wasn't one. And if he'd done something wrong I know he'd already be panicking.
I'm starting to wonder if any of the fault lies with me.
Our state of the art communications did fail us completely in the Arctic weather.
I did almost wreck myself shoving the captain into the rescue cage and I did have to throw myself in behind him headfirst when I realised that Alan had started hauling her up. Maybe I misjudged the countdown or lost concentration when the communications were cutting in and out. I'm sure not going to admit to that if Dad's going to get involved. In "my recollection", the injuries were sustained as that last killer wave smashed directly over the boat.
I was so relieved when I finally came to and saw Alan standing over me in the Pod.
I'm not going to sit there and say nothing this time. I swear I'm not… even if he does ask Dad to wait until after the debriefing "to have a quiet word with me."
John's message made it obvious. Scott's home and they've already had their preliminary three-way hook-up. If things are going to "get a little interesting," it means I'm in for it… again.
Scott's probably told Dad all about me pulling the rescue cage up early and that it was swinging unsecured in the middle of an Arctic snowstorm for exactly seven and a half minutes. I bet he hasn't told him about the eleven people suffering from various degrees of hypothermia freaking out in the pod during the countdown. Or the reason there's still five of us is because Virgil's baby brother actually did"grow up" and "for once" put himself "in Scott's position."
Dad has another thirty minutes to think about it; enough time to decide whether there's anything he wants Scott to table in front of him other than the usual lessons learned. By the time Thunderbird Two rolls back into the hangar, any chance of giving him my side of the story will be restricted to "explain yourself son." I already know how that one works. Dad's an ex-Air Force colonel and if he doesn't like what I've got to say he won't sit back and pretend to anyone that he does.
It's just a matter of where and when he chooses to say so.
The last time I failed to follow Scott's orders he bawled me out on the balcony for ten straight minutes without even taking a breath.
At least I can always rely on Johnny to give me the heads up. Give us all the heads up. Alan may not be talking to me right now but I know there's nothing wrong with his hearing.
To be honest, the greater his silence, the more thinking I hope he'll do. I'm relieved Gordon's okay and I know Scott is too but he's the one we continue to worry about. For a while there I thought he was getting better. After today I'm not so sure.
I don't want to see Dad bawl him out when we pulled off the impossible thanks to him, but I meant what I said about the blasé attitude to life, the impulsive streak and above all the continual risk-taking. He accuses Scott of taking risks and yes he does. The difference is that Scott has the experience to take those risks and iron self-control.
The writing's already on the wall for Alan. There'll come a time when the rush won't be enough for him he'll think that he's invincible "because things turned out right the last time." What happens then? It point blank scares me. Today he got to see just how much.
I remember when he was younger and starting to make a name for himself in the racing world. He'd make stupid statements like "it's time to up the ante," "you have to look the beast in the eye to win." Then he'd scare us half to death by going faster, taking more risks, winning bigger.
"The more dangerous you make it, the bigger the adventure."
Sometimes I think Dad pulled him into International Rescue to get him off the racetrack before he killed himself.
Life is nothing but a great big rollercoaster ride to him.
Thunderbird Two (one hundred miles from Tracy Island)
We've commenced our descent and Virgil's already sought permission from the Base to land. Dad's asked me how I'm feeling and if I'm still managing to hold up. I told him "A-OK under the circumstances." He was talking about my injuries. I was referring to how I'm dealing with the two not talking to each other in here.
At least Alan's fingers have stopped tapping at a hundred miles an hour. I'm hoping it's a sign that maybe he's started to calm down.
I guess I'll have to wait and see what goes down during the debriefing. Dad said he was delaying it until I get checked out properly in sick bay. I told him I'd rather get it over with. I should have known better than to ask.
"That wrist has to be x-rayed and I need to be sure that everything's going to be all right with the head." He sounded like his usual self, despite the authority, not a commander about to make things "a little interesting."
Irrespective of when it's convened, I've made up my mind what I'm going to say to him about the rescue. We need to upgrade our communications and re-test them under tougher conditions. We need a rescue cage capable evacuating more than five people. And Alan needs more target practice.
LOTS more target practice.
Not one word about where I was before that cage started to be hauled back up.
Tin-Tin calls them "courageous conversations" and I've lost count of the number of times we've had them. I get fired up and lose my temper. She tells me straight I need to settle down.
Somehow I've got the feeling Dad's "quiet word" isn't going to be the only word when I get back to the island. I'm going to have to explain myself to her.
When she asked Virgil if she could talk to me after Dad had finished with Gordon all he said was, "Sorry, Tin-Tin. Not possible." Not possible because he'd have to break the silence first and speak to mewhen he knows darn well that I've got zero intention of saying anything to him.
"Oh dear, all right Virgil," she said in that worried voice she gets. And then I remembered our last "courageous conversation." I'd promised her that I'd listen a lot more. She'd added the caveat, "… and react a lot less."
So, maybe I shouldn't have said the things I said to Virgil. I don't know. Maybe he shouldn't have said some of the things he said to me. I expected what I got from Scott. I didn't wait for the order. It wasn't good enough. I'm the one responsible for Gordon's injuries. I guess I just wasn't ready to hear Virgil back him up.
In short, I didn't stop to listen like Tin-Tin said she expects me to do. And I reacted badly to what they said. In other words, I did it again.
It took her voice over the radio to make me realize that even though I saved Gordon's life, I've not only let her down, but myself as well.
Well, here goes. After a nightmare operation Thunderbird Two's back on Tracy Island. As we taxi towards the cliff face Dad gives me a cheery, "Welcome home, son," with Grandma fussing in the background for me to, "hurry up, sweetheart so I can get your brother into a nice warm bed."
"About time you showed up! How long can it take to fly home from Greenland?
Scott's being a little too cheery for my liking as well.
"A long time, believe me!" is my only comment after nearly four hours cooped up under the weight of Alan's silence.
"You sure got that right!"
Trust Gordon to chip in. I take a deep breath, enjoy the moment before silently thanking God he's still here to grace us with his sarcasm.
And even though I don't agree with the things Alan said or did, I acknowledge we still have our brother purely because of him.
THE FINAL MISSION REPORT
International Rescue Commander Jeff Tracy (Tracy Island)
I'm more than happy to put Operation Polar Pioneer and the Denmark Strait behind us. Gordon's doing fine thanks to my mother and Kyrano's bottomless pots of chicken soup. The crack to the head has been downgraded to a headache. The x-ray of the wrist showed up as a break and was duly put into a plaster cast. He's currently in the sick bay, complaining that he won't be able to go out for the next few weeks and what if we need to launch Thunderbird Four? That's how I know he's well on the path to recovery. My second youngest only ever complains when he's bored or too comfortable. At the moment, it's fair to say that he's both.
The debriefing on the mission went a lot better than I thought. There were acknowledgements all round on what could have been done better. I think all of them gave a lot of thought on the way home to what nearly happened to their brother. When all's said and done, not too many people would have attempted the things they did to save fifteen lives. They're a crack team and I'm proud of them. I told them that before they were dismissed.
On the downside, Alan and Virgil still aren't talking, but they'll eventually come around. They both have their mother's stubbornness. That says everything in my book. If I remember her pattern correctly, things will be back to normal once they acknowledge to themselves that they were both wrong.
As for the captain of the Polar Pioneer, I'm led to believe his irresponsible actions are going to be the subject of a full investigation. I hope they throw the book at him. He and others like him don't belong in the maritime industry. He was just damn lucky my son risked his own life to make sure he got into that rescue cage. I'll be watching the outcome of the investigation with interest because things like this can't be allowed to happen again.
But they will.
I know they will.
That's why there will always be a need for us.