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Ch 11: the Call

Friday, 24 February 1978

There were people crying.  I didn’t know what was happening.  I turned four less than a month earlier.  Mom was at work when her boss came to see her.  Something terrible had happened and she needed to go home immediately.  No, he wouldn’t tell her what had happened, he couldn’t.  She should expect a phone call shortly at home.  On her way home, my mom imagined all of the things that can happen to a four-year old girl.  She saw me being kidnapped, run over by a car, impaling myself with scissors.  Death didn’t cross her mind; it was too horrible to think. 

I saw my mom in the door of our neighbor’s apartment.  I hadn’t even had lunch yet, so I knew she was home early. Working overtime meant she would usually pick me up when I was asleep.  Mom rushed over and crushed me with emotion.  Holding me, saying nothing, she climbed the stairs to our apartment.   The phone was ringing when she opened the door.  It kept ringing and ringing.   After carefully setting me down on the couch, she squared her shoulders and answered the phone in a whispered hello.  Listening, she crumpled to the floor.  The only father she had ever known was dead.  My aunt Kerry was critically wounded.  Mom started to cry.  Not the loud sobbing kind, but quietly, her body shuddering.  I was scared; mom rarely cried, and never like this. 

Soon our apartment was crowded.  Information was difficult to receive from a boat in the middle of the South Pacific.  No one knew what happened, which added more stress.  People were coming and going.  I was happy to see my cousin Jasmine, also age four; finally someone to play with.  It was easier to have her around to distract me from the tense emotions the adults were transmitting.  A typical childhood reaction to being pent up with tense adults - we ran throughout the tiny apartment crammed with people and things - they made a great maze.  We ping-ponged off of people and objects giggling.  Our laughter cut through the taut silence, like the crack of thunder on a quiet summer night.  Confusion resulted.  People yelled at us.  Most of them were crying.  What happened out there on the ocean?  Mayday, mayday, mayday, is all my family heard.  What was so life threatening that the Spellbound had to call out - help me?

DID YOU KNOW . . . About the Origin of the Term Mayday?

Ham radio operator Ron Carpenter intercepted a mayday call from the Spellbound at approximately 8:45 am PST (6:45 am Tahitian time) while talking to an acquaintance in the Marquesas Islands.  It was the first time he’d received a distress signal, but he knew what to do.  Emergency calls have priority over a frequency.  He grabbed a pen and scratch paper, ready to write down the location of the emergency, the nature of the problem, and what assistance was needed.  He took a deep breadth. 

Ron answered the distress call, “This is Ron Carpenter, what is the nature of your distress and your position, OVER?”

The agitated voice of Gary responded, “This is Gary Edwards on the Spellbound, there was an accident, we need medical assistance, OVER”

This caught Ron’s attention. This didn’t sound like a prankster on the net. It sounded like someone was in real trouble.  Ron knew he needed to get as much information as possible in order to report the situation to the authorities.  “Gary, this is Ron Carpenter, what is the nature of your medical emergency?  OVER.”

Gary’s voice crackled in response, “There was an accident fifteen minutes ago.  The boom on the boat came loose and hit my father on the head.  He fell and hit his head on the wheel.  My sister Kerry was injured earlier in the night.  I don’t know what happened to her.  We are trying to revive my father.  My mother has some medical experience.  Kerry is going in and out of consciousness.  OVER.”

Ron was franticly writing while simultaneously trying to think of any additional information he should ask.  “Gary, state your position and I will radio for help, OVER.”

There was silence for a bit.  Ron wondered if Gary was no longer at the radio.  He knew he was supposed to leave the frequency open.  He waited.  Soon, Gary’s voice came over the radio, “Our position is unknown and we are low on gas.  Dad is dead. OVER.”

Ron wanted to ask for clarification on the status of the caller’s father and the other injured passenger, but knew he had to relay the information to the authorities as quickly as possible, “Gary, I will call the U.S. Coast Guard and notify them of your situation.”  And then he added, “Remain available for further instructions.  OVER.”  Other boaters who recently saw or were in contact with the Spellbound soon were jumping in to provide information – the Spellbound’s approximate location, Loren and Jody’s names.

Ron started relaying the message across the Ham radio network.  Anyone on a given frequency can hear (and join) conversations on that channel.  Loren and Jody’s friends were quickly gathering around the distress call from the Spellbound.  They heard an operator make phone contact with the Coast Guard.  “I’d like to make a collect call to the Coast Guard Station in Long Beach,” the operator could be heard saying.  After a pause he continued, “About fourteen minutes ago I received a mayday call from the Spellbound.  The owner’s name is Loren. Last name Edwards. The man who made the call is his son, Gary.  I believe they are in French Polynesian waters, 60 miles northeast of Ahe and 180 miles northeast of Rangiroa.”  The account continues, “According to the son’s report, the owner has fallen and is deceased. There is also a girl who is injured and unconscious.” 

DID YOU KNOW . . . How to Operate a HAM Radio?

The Coast Guard inquires how old Gary is, if he is capable of sailing and navigating the Spellbound, and requests more information on the injured girl.  These questions are relayed through Ron.  Gary responds, “I can navigate the vessel.  I am twenty-seven.  My sister Kerry’s head is injured, she is twenty.  OVER.” 

Ron relays the information through another operator to the Coast Guard, who then requests a description of the Spellbound.   Everyone listening hears Ron describe the Spellbound, “The vessel is 60 foot long, yellow hull, brown mast, and catch rigged.” 

Ron adds that there are five or six passengers on board with complete provisions.  Then the connection with the Coast Guard is lost to static.  Ron waits.

Soon after loosing contact with Long Beach, Ron receives a call from the Coast Guard in Honolulu, Hawaii. “We will have a doctor coming from the Public Health Service Hospital in Honolulu shortly to talk with the Spellbound,” the officer in Honolulu advises him.  Ron calls Gary, “Honolulu will call soon with a doctor to assist with medical information to help your sister.  OVER.” 

Gary remained in radio contact with various Ham radio operators every hour through noon that day and agreed to check in every hour thereafter.  He missed his 1:00 pm call and did not come back on the air until 3:00 pm, when nothing meaningful was said.  And then again, there was silence.

Crammed in our small apartment in Kirkland we waited for news.  Each time the phone rang, a silent dread blanketed the room.  Everyone sitting in the room, especially my mom and my aunt, kept wondering what happened. Was it possible Loren dead? How did it happen?

With nothing new to report, eventually people slowly disperse until there is no one left but my cousin and I, and our moms.  My aunt Bobbie and cousin Jasmine spend the night with us.  We all try to get some rest.  Of course, Jasmine and I sleep the untroubled sleep of children.  Tomorrow, as usual, we will be full of energy and questions.  My Mom and aunt Bobbie cannot sleep.  Before I drift off, I hear them pacing our apartment and whispering to each other, sometimes crying.  Where was their mother? Where was the boat?  How badly was Kerry hurt?  Was it pirates?  Everyone was worried about pirates.  They wait.  And wait.  Wait for more information.

The morning dawns and Jasmine and I are up and running around the apartment.  My mom and Bobbie melt into the couches sipping coffee.   I am surprised my mom hears the light knock at the door.  My mom stumbles to the door, still half-asleep, spilling drops of coffee as she goes.  I see her get up and run over to see who’s at the door.   Maybe Mom invited a new friend over to play.  It’s my great aunts, Vernie and Joy, my grandmother’s sisters.  I can see the shock on my mom’s face.  They have never visited our home before, and now that I’m older I can’t recall them ever coming again.  Mom knows the moment she opened the door they have more bad tidings.  Vernie chokes, her voice barely carrying over the noise from the courtyard below.  My grandmother is dead too. 

Read an excerpt from the last Last Letter from Loren & Jody Edwards little Jody and Kara received.