Fishing Vessel Amanda B gleamed, white and pretty, amid the sunshine and wind-whipped rain enveloping the dock at Woodley Island last Thursday. Aboard the 45-foot fiberglass commercial fishing boat, crab fisherman Alan Mello kicked back in his pilot seat and laughed with his old childhood buddy Ted Scott, sitting at the bolted-down table, who’d come down with him from Crescent City that morning to check on the boat. They and another old friend, Johnny Pappas, had just been through a rather stupid adventure together. And they’d really caught hell from their families for it.
"Of the three of us, though, I’d say Johnny got it worst," said Scott. "He got the tongue-lashing of a lifetime!"
Two weeks before, on March 11, Scott, Mello and Pappas had risked their lives as tsunami waves, triggered by the 9.0 earthquake in Japan, swooped into the Crescent City harbor. Scott, a photographer, Pappas and Mello had gone to the docks to watch the big waves boil in. And Mello had, after the third tsunami surge hit, decided to save his boat by making a run for the open sea.
A Coast Guard helicopter based out of Coos Bay, circling over the harbor filming, captured his escape on video and later put it up on YouTube, where it’s had tens of thousands of views and been linked to from a number of news sites. About seven minutes into the video, the camera notices the Amanda B. She’s almost made it out of the inner harbor, running uncomfortably close alongside a dock, then she’s careening toward the final opening to the ocean, nearly bashing into a big, concrete, immobile channel marker. She narrowly wheels away from that disaster, corners back around it, and then bucks her way through gigantic waves until she’s finally in calmer water out to sea.
The camera lingers on her there. Turns away briefly to eye the rolling ocean nervously. Then whips back to her. Back to the ocean. Then the Amanda B again. Finally the camera turns away.
Other boats were hanging out there in the open ocean that morning, too, riding out the tsunami. But they’d all left the harbor before the first surge hit. Why did Mello, the last man out, wait until the third surge was already coming in to make a bust for it?
Turns out it was one of several, um, questionable choices made that day by the jovial, stalwart, we’ve-made-it-this-far buddy trio.
Mello, 57, who grew up on a dairy farm in Smith River and took to commercial fishing when he was 18, said he’d seen coverage of the huge earthquake in Japan the night before the tsunami came to Crescent City. At 1 a.m., his son Talan, 22, called him from Albany, Ore. Mello had given Talan and his brother, Toby, 26, the weekend off. Normally they fished with their dad. Talan wondered if a tsunami was coming and if Mello was going to take the boat out. Mello said he'd wait and see.
At 3 a.m., a friend of Mello’s, a city councilwoman, called to tell him a tsunami was on its way. Fifteen minutes later someone from the harbor district called him -- they were calling all the boat owners -- to say the tsunami would hit at 7:20 a.m. and Mello should get his boat out of the harbor now.
Mello sat tight -- his boys were away, there were 70 crab pots aboard the boat that needed to be tied down, and he didn’t want to head for the open ocean without help.
"And I wanted to see what happened in Hawaii first," he said. So he watched the news at home.
Around 6:30 a.m. Mello left his house in Smith River and drove toward the harbor, getting through roadblocks by saying his fishing boat was down there. He passed Scott’s house -- the 100-year-old family home that sits right by the water’s edge in Crescent City -- and saw Scott’s and Pappas’ cars parked there.
Scott was indeed at home. "I’ve got two daughters, 23 and 27, and they were both calling me, pissed off because I wouldn’t leave the house," recalled Scott. "At 6:37 a.m., Johnny showed up at my house, and he wanted coffee."
So Scott made coffee.
Mello went to the harbor and called his friends to chastise them for hanging around by the ocean like "a couple of dandies." "When I watched that first surge go back out, and I saw all the carnage, I called them again and said, ‘Hey boys, you might want to get to higher ground.’" And did they?
"No!" said Scott, laughing. "We came down to take pictures!"
There were only a couple of other fishermen down there at that time -- and the press.
Mello decided to go home. He got in his truck and drove as far as the first roadblock, where he stopped. If he went through, they might not let him back in again. He sat in his truck, thinking about it all.
"I couldn’t stand it, so I went back down to the dock," he said.
A second surge came in, boiling through the entrance and whirpooling around the marina, buckling the dock where the Amanda B was tied and sinking boats. One boat got pushed around the marina until it came to a water-logged rest near the Amanda B. Mello waited, then the third surge came in.
"I was in my pickup and I decided right then: ‘That’s the one I’m going to ride out,’" he said. "The water came up, up, up, up, and my ramp floated back together. ... I waited until it was as high as it could go and we ran and jumped on the boat."
Scott ran to help untie, but Pappas, jumping aboard, beat him to it. As they backed out, Scott yelled at the two on board that a life raft from another vessel was stuck on their boat. Mello swung the Amanda B around and gunned it, she belched smoke, and they were off, the raft breaking loose soon after.
"I just stayed behind and kept taking pictures," said Scott. "After a big, big surge came in, I got frightened. It came roaring back around and these loose boats were banging into everything. I watched four or five boats sink. And it sounded like an Alfred Hitchock movie -- clanging, ripping, crunching. When [the surge] went out and the harbor dried up, I watched the Flamingo fall over."
Meanwhile, the Coast Guard helicopter that had been circling the scene finally noticed the Amanda B’s mad dash.
"He came out like a gangbuster -- he was full bore," said Rich Chambers by phone last week. Chambers, a rescue swimmer, was sitting behind the cameraman, Andres Sierra, aboard the Coast Guard helicopter. "And the first thing I thought was, ‘He’s crazy.’ But then, you know, you realize what he’s doing. The water was coming in and pushing boats into each other, and he was just trying to save his boat, because that’s his livelihood."
The helicopter crew tried to hail Mello on the radio. But Mello had that radio off. He was focused on the battle. He’d piloted three boats through the Panama Canal; his daughter, Fathym, 23, was born while he was in the Bering Sea; he’d spent seven summers fishing for hake and whiting out of the Columbia River, where the Coast Guard trains people to handle white-knuckling water. The tsunami was like the Columbia.
"The current was just boiling," said Mello. "And I was fighting that and trying not to get stuck in the mud and trying not to hit that channel marker."
Chambers said they chatted with Mello once he got out to calm water, making sure he was OK. At 3 p.m. that day, the Amanda B motored down to Woodley Island, the closest unbattered port, where Mello tied up at 10 p.m..
Mello, reflecting last Thursday aboard the Amanda B, said the reason he’s lived as long as he has is because he’s a good boatman. But he admits he should have left the harbor way earlier that day.
"The Coast Guard guys, every time they see me now, they come up and say, ‘Man, I just gotta shake your hand,’" said Mello, his face grown somber. "They’re young guys. They like the exciting stuff. I tell them, I didn’t do anything other than what was stupid. I’m a lot of things, but I’m not a hero."