"There was a loud rushing noise as we were dragged backward," said Earl W. Fairchild, 27, yesterday as he described the collision of the Coast Guard cutter Cuyahoga last Friday with an Argentinian freighter in the Chesapeake Bay.
"The water started pouring in on the port side. It made a loud 'whoosh' sound. Within seconds we were engulfed by white foam. Everybody was trying to hold onto something."
Fairchild, a Coast Guard officer candidate who was on the cutter's bridge at the moment of impact, was eventually pulled from the water to safety, but 11 of his shipmates vanished when the Cuyahoga capsized and sank.
"I was hanging on by one hand to electrical cables. I saw a buddy disappear under the foam. There was wire wrapped around his leg. He was being dragged under the ship," Fairchild said, his voice cracking with emotion.
"He let out a groan when he went under. My heart sank, I couldn't reach him." But the wire broke and the man survived, Fairchild said.
Fairchild said he saw two other men swept away. "I couldn't reach them," he said.
"Another buddy was down below in the gallery. He told me afterward that the men who were down below heard a loud boom and were thrown from their bunks. It was totally black, and the water was rushing in. He said he started swimming underwater looking for a way out. He turned his head, looked up, and said he saw starlight through an open hatch and swam up through it."
Then, according to Fairchild, "the ship just fell out from under our feet."
Yesterday, survivors of what has been called the worst disaster in the Coast Guard's recent history were counseled by a team of Navy psychiatrists who came to this Coast Guard training center from nearby Portsmouth (Va.) Regional Medical Center.
Members of the Navy's Special Psychological Reaction Intervention Team (SPRINT) headed by Dr. Thomas Carlton, said it was their first opportunity to counsel survivors of a disaster who may develop psychological problems having lived through traumatic experiences.
The survivors, several of them weeping openly, were briefed by Capt. Charles Blaha, the base commander her, before the counseling sessions.
"There are a lot of different responses to situations like this." Carlton said, "there is emotional trauma, guilt, depression and anger. Some people say, 'Why him? Why not me?' Sometimes it's a denial that anything has happened. We are interested in preventing that before it happens."
According to survivors, the Cuyahoga was struck on the starboard (right) side listed, and was dragged backward almost 100 yards on its side by the huge freighter before its stern plunged downward and the ship sank stern first two minutes later.
Afterward, survivors said yesterday, they bobbed in the water for 20 minutes looking for anything that would float. "It was not a panic situation," said Fairchild. "It was organized and very disciplined I was scared, but I suppressed it and tried to think."
According to Fairchild, Timothy C. Stone, and experienced Coast Guardsman from Granada Hills, Calif, who recently transferred to the officer candidates school, "is the hero in my book."
"Stone kept saying, 'swim to me. Swim to me. He kept the group together." Yesterday, Stone was seen with cuts on his face and bandaged left hand. He declined to be interviewed.
Michael Myers, 17, who was serving only his second day on board ship, said he was thrown back and his head when the collision occurred.
"I was dazed. There wasn't a lot of screaming, though. Everybody was just trying to get out. Man, it felt like an earthquake hit."
Myers, who was on watch, said, "I saw a series of lights on the horizon. It was way out there. I didn't think it was a ship when I saw it.
"I reported what I saw to the bridge and they acknowledged it. Fifteen minutes later it (the freighter) was right beside us. I said to my buddy, 'Maybe we should report it again as a ship.' Seconds later, our horn went off, then 'boom,' it hit us. There was a loud thud, the crash of metal on metal. The lights went off, everybody went flying and the white foam started rushing in."
Once the men were pulled on board the freighter, Fairchild said, "people cried and embraced each other. We were pretty close to start with. Now we're shipmates forever."
The Argentinean crew offered the survivors meat, cheese, milk and cognac and provided a radio so the 18 men could hear the initial new reports. "We were worried that our families would think we were dead," Fairchild said yesterday.
Neither Myers nor Fairchild could say how the two ships collided, those last critical moments," said Fairchild, who added, "at night it's hard to tell what direction a ship is going." Myers added, "There were a lot of buoy lights out there on the bay."
Coast Guard officials here refused to speculate on the cause of the collision and said that the facts will come out at the Marine Board of Inquiry scheduled to meet today in Baltimore.
It is likely, sources said, that the investigation will move back to the Norfolk area once the Argentinean freighter, the Santa Cruz, is repaired and leaves Baltimore Harbor. Sources said it was costing the owners of the coal-laden freighter $50,000 day to sit in the harbor.
The survivors, some of whom requested to act as escorts to accompany the bodies of their fellow crewmen home, were reoutfitted yesterday.
A memorial service for the missing and presumed dead crewmen of the Cayuhoga is scheduled to be held at the Yorktown parade grounds tomorrow afternoon.