Heroic rescue attempt
A few minutes before noon on April 5, Express III boat captain, Edward Esch, and first mate, Eddie Matz, had just dropped off some crewmembers to the Texaco ship Star Massachusetts that was anchored in San Francisco Bay, approximately 5,000 feet from the shores of Naval Air Station Alameda. Esch is one of the owners of Marine Express Incorporated, a launch service that transports crewmembers, customs, immigration, supplies and parts to ships in the bay. After dropping off the crew, they backed about 50 feet away from the Star Massachusetts and waited until the next group of crewmembers was ready to go ashore. Esch, a commercial pilot with 5,000 flight hours, was topside watching two A-6 Intruder aircraft returning for fleet carrier landing practice at NAS Alameda. Matz was below.
By David Kashimba
“I said to Eddie, ‘Look at those airplanes. These guys are making their turns at about 45 degrees,’” said Esch.
Esch lost sight of one of the A-6s as it touched down on runway 31, but saw him again when he lifted off. As the pilot started to make his turn, Esch began to worry.
“Something didn’t look right,” said Esch, who noticed that the A-6’s wings had tipped at more than 45 degrees. “There appeared to be a valiant effort on the pilot’s part to straighten out his wings and, for a moment, he straightened his aircraft partially, but then it snapped back.”
“As I came topside the plane had just gone inverted,” Matz said.
When the A-6 was within 150 to 175 feet from the water, the boat operators opened their engines to full power. “I knew he wasn’t going to make it,” said Esch.
They were halfway there when they saw the A-6’s left wing strike the water.
“The left wing broke off,” Esch said. “Then the fuselage hit and the right wing broke off. The impact was followed with a muffled explosion, a yellow-orange flame like a flash fire, and light-colored smoke,” said Esch.
“As we pulled up to the wreckage, I saw one piece smoking,” Matz said. “The last bubbles from the sinking fuselage were coming up, and I could see and smell the jet fuel on the water.”
“Our exhaust comes out pretty hot from the back of our boat,” Esch said. “We didn’t know whether that fuel would catch fire or not.”
But when they saw the two pilots, they lost all concern for the fuel.
“I had already taken my shoes off and put my PFD (personal flotation device) on,” Matz said.
“We saw one pilot about 20 yards off our starboard side,” Esch said. “The other was 40 to 50 yards off our port. I saw the life vest for a second on the closer pilot and three to four feet of his parachute. But the chute was caught in the current and started dragging him under, so I told Eddie to go for him.”
Matz dove into the fuel slick and swam towards the parachute.
“I pulled on one end of the cords and it was light,” Matz said. “When I switched and pulled the other end, it was heavy, so I kept pulling. I didn’t see him until he broke the surface right in front of me. His neck appeared to be broken. I’ll never forget the look on his face. For a second or two he must have known what was coming.”
Matz turned Lt. Cmdr. Brian R. McMahon, the bombardier navigator, around so he was floating on his back, put his arm under McMahon and swam to the boat.
“While Eddie was swimming toward me, I slid Express III sideways toward him,
because I knew he had a hell of a load and may not be able to hold him,” Esch said. “I got a line to Eddie and told him to tie it around the naval officer. Then I saw a small white boat approaching with a few people on it, so I yelled for them to get the other pilot who was still floating.”
When Esch saw the people aboard the white boat had heard him, he went back to helping Matz tie McMahon to one of the cleats on the side of their boat.
“When I got him alongside the boat, I knew there was nothing we could do for him,” Matz said. “Our boat was sitting too high out of the water. There was no way we could get him on board.”
“We tied him so he was out of the water from the waist up,” Esch said. “We couldn’t get him out any further because his parachute was still out there in the current, pulling him down.”
As Matz climbed out of the water, he looked up to see an H-53 from NAS’ helicopter squadron HM-15 hovering overhead.
“I just looked up and shrugged my shoulders,” said Matz. “There was nothing more we could do.”
When Kevin Thomtson, a minister with the Unification Church in Berkeley, heard Esch yell in the direction of his boat, he had already been rushing to the scene. He and his small party, including five children from his church, had just returned from a fishing trip to San Pablo Bay when they witnessed the accident. He spotted Lt. Cmdr. Randall F. McNally II in the water.
He was floating but his head was under water,” said Thomtson, who maneuvered his boat alongside McNally so that he and his deck hand could pull the A-6 pilot’s head out of the water.
“I was holding on to him, trying to grab my radio and trying to keep five curious 10-year-olds from seeing this man’s injuries,” Thomtson said.
It took Thomtson, his deck hand and three Coast Guardsmen to lift McNally onto the Coast Guard vessel.
“I didn’t see any parachute attached to the naval officer,” Thomtson said. “But his wet equipment made him very heavy.”
The Coast Guard transported McNally to Yerba Buena Island where paramedics performed CPR to no avail.
A 45-foot Boston Whaler from NAS Alameda’s oil response team soon arrived on the scene to survey the jet fuel that had spewed into the water. The four-man crew, supervised by BM1 Willis Powell, assisted Matz and Esch in transporting McMahon to a second Coast Guard vessel.
But before McMahon could be lifted aboard the Coast Guard vessel, his parachute had to be cut away. Two men from the San Francisco Fire Department arrived on a jet ski to assist. Then Navy divers arrived on the scene from NAS Alameda’s SIMA dive locker. The divers were able to cut the rest of the parachute lines, enabling the Port Services and Coast Guard crews to lift McMahon aboard the Coast Guard vessel which then transported him to Yerba Buena Island.
“I didn’t feel like I did anything,” Matz said. “We arrived on the scene so quickly, I had my hopes up that we might be able to save these guys. But when I pulled the one pilot up, my adrenalin started wearing off.”
“We were there in less than a minute,” Esch said. “We would have loved to have this come out the way we wanted it to, but it came out just the opposite. It gave us a sinking feeling. The only good thing that came out of this was that we made sure the two officers didn’t disappear into the bay.”