Matt tried to stay out of the way of the experienced Coast Guard members as they scurried about the deck of the Coast Guard cutter. Nevertheless, the boat ride up the river and through the bayou channels was an adventure. He walked along and admired the fancy rescue equipment that was stowed along the sides of the cutter. He guessed that most of the smaller equipment was stowed in compartments out of the elements. But there was plenty of larger equipment that could be viewed just by walking along.
The scenery along the Mobile Bay and Mobile River was new to Matt, but interesting. During his own rescue he had been attended by rescue workers checking him for injury. Therefore he had not had a chance to look around and enjoy the area. Today he had plenty of time.
The boats he saw in the channel and moored along the shore were of many varieties, from ocean-going tankers, to large offshore barges and rigs, to shrimp boats, to large fishing charter boats, to small run-abouts. The buildings along the shore were also of a wide variety, starting out as mostly manufacturing plants and docks close to Mobile, and eventually transitioning into bayou cabins and lodges along the channel as they moved farther away from the city.
Matt got the distinct impression that several of the crew members thought he was in the way and not welcome on-board their vessel. Others simply ignored him as they prepared for the rescue work ahead. They were testing some of the equipment, and repairing other equipment with new straps or new handles. Although they all seemed to be busy, with plenty of tasks to occupy themselves, there was an easy rhythm about their activities. Matt thought it was almost like watching a professional football team practice for an upcoming big game. They all knew the routine and were very skilled at their tasks. Yet there was an excitement in the air as they prepared for whatever unknowns the rescue might throw their way.
The team leader occasionally barked orders at one crewman or another, much like the captain of a football team. But once Matt got used to his gruff style, he did not seem as intimidating. There was a young man about Matt’s age on board who seemed to have some extra time. He was willing to talk with Matt. His shirt had the name ‘Smith’ on it.
“Yo, trainee, where you hail from?” Guardsman Smith asked him.
“I’m attending medical school at Tulane University in New Orleans. My name’s Matt.” Matt extended his hand to shake hands.
Smith returned the handshake, and told him, “Smith. Brant Smith. Glad to have you on board. You thinking about joining the Coast Guard?”
“Actually, two friends and I were on the train headed to Florida. We only made it as far as Alabama. My best friend, Jackson, died in the wreck. The other is one of the passengers still missing. The ‘Trainee’ badge got me on board as long as I promised to stay out of the way.”
“Sorry about your friends, man” Brant Smith told him. “We’ll do all we can to find the missing folks. But this is the bayou, you know. Sometimes folks just simply disappear.”
“How many rescue missions have you guys been on?” Matt asked, hoping to change the subject.
“I’ve only been here for a few months, after graduating from swim school in North Carolina. The captain there, he’s been on hundreds of rescues. I’ve probably been on one or two every shift during my time here, but most of them have just been stranded boaters. They go out farther offshore than they should, their motor conks out, and they radio for us to come and get them. So we do.”
“That doesn’t sound very exciting,” Matt said. “I thought the Coast Guard went on grand adventures, battling high seas, dropping from helicopters, and pulling folks out of the ocean by the tips of their fingers.”
“We are trained to do all that, and occasionally there is a rescue requiring the full gamut of our training. But for the most part it’s pretty routine.”
“What was swim school like? Was it hard? I knew a guy that looked into it before graduating from high school, but he joined the Air Force instead. How many people graduate at a time?” Matt wondered.
“Good questions. I started out with about two dozen cadets in my class, but only eight of us graduated.”
“That’s pretty tough odds,” Matt acknowledged.
“It’s a tough program, but it’s got to be. You never know what you’ll face out there, so you’ve got to be prepared. Your friend that’s missing – what’s his name?” Brant asked.
“Her name is Anna. She was my friend, Jackson’s, girlfriend. I hate to admit it, but I’m becoming less and less hopeful of finding her the longer it goes. It’s now been three days since the wreck, but I can’t give up until I know for sure. I keep trying to convince myself that she must have gone to a hospital without telling anyone. Or maybe she has amnesia and can’t tell them her name. But I’ve searched all the hospitals around Mobile. No one has seen anyone matching her description.”
“What about the morgues?” Brant reluctantly asked, chewing on some gum. He offered some to Matt.
“I’ve checked there too,” Matt admitted. “Fortunately she’s not there either. So all I can figure is that she’s still out here somewhere. I’ve got to keep looking.”
“We’ve got the team here with us that’ll find her if she can be found. From the briefing we had this morning, the plan is to pull out the lead engine today. If we don’t find her there, then we can call out the search and rescue teams to comb the bayou.” His confident manner gave Matt some hope of actually finding Anna after all. This was the first hope anyone had given him, but he was willing to take whatever hope he could get.
As they approached the scene of the accident, Matt could see a large crane on a barge hovering over what used to be the train bridge. The bridge had large spans missing. Most of the other portions of the steel structure that remained were bent and deformed out of shape.
Matt shuddered as he remembered the nightmare of the crash night. He saw the bank where they pulled Jackson’s body out of the water. The train passenger cars had already been removed from the water, and apparently taken away, because he saw no evidence of them at the scene. The lead engine was still there, with the back end of it sticking out the water below the far side of where the bridge used to be.
They pulled up to the side of the salvage barge, and several of the Coast Guard members transferred over to it. Matt started to go with them, but the captain called to him, “Trainees stay in the cutter,” letting him know that he had to simply watch from his current location.
Although it seeming interesting at first, removing the train engine from its water and mud grave proved to be a hot, time-consuming, slow process. The riggers stretched cables and hooks out over the engine, while the Coast Guard swimmers worked in the water to secure them to the engine. After a couple of false starts, where the engine was not secured to the crane operator’s satisfaction, they eventually pulled the remains of the burned-up, mud-caked locomotive out of the water in order to deposit it onto the back of the salvage barge. There was a loud sucking sound as the engine left its muddy tomb. Matt could hear it above the engines of the crane. The remains of the locomotive were lowered onto the salvage barge, and came to rest at a tilt. Matt could see water seeping out of the burned out doors and windows.
Two Coast Guard rescue workers, including Smith that Matt had spoken with earlier, entered the locomotive through the side door. After what seemed like hours, they came back out covered in mud.
He heard them tell their captain, “We found two bodies in there close to the front. There could be another on the other side, but some equipment’s in the way, so it’s hard to tell.” They went back inside, and another two guardsmen followed them with a large piece of equipment. After what seemed like hours again, Smith came back outside, and reboarded the Coast Guard cutter. He rinsed off with the hose and came to stand beside Matt.
“Hey, man. We looked all through the engine. There were two bodies in the cab, and they appear to be the train engineers, no woman. I radioed to the captain while I was in there. Give me a minute, then you and I can take the dingy and comb some of the channels around here while the rest of the team finishes up. We don’t have too long today, but let’s give it our best shot. Unless, of course, you want to stay here on the cutter. I can go it alone, but I thought you might like to get out a bit.”
“You bet I would,” Matt agreed. He was definitely ready to go look. The life jacket was getting hot. He had been sitting and standing in the boat all day, watching others work. “Anything to find Anna. She’s got to be here somewhere. I know she is. I just hope we find her alive.”
“Don’t get too excited,” Brant told him. “Just follow my lead. Even if we do find her, you might not like what we find.”
“I know,” Matt admitted. “I’m training to be a doctor. I’ve seen some gruesome stuff, but for now I’ve got to hope that she can be found alive and in one piece.”
“Give me a hand with the dingy,” Brant told him. Between the two of them, they easily picked up the small craft off the back of the deck and lowered it into the water.
They climbed aboard, and Smith flipped the switch to start the small motor, propelling them forward. Methodically, he started up the side of the channel, passing under the remains of the train bridge.
“Look at the bank and in the shallow water along the edge, especially in the underbrush or trees that might have fallen into the water. We’re trained to look for bodies in places where the current can’t push them along.”
Matt swallowed hard at the instructions, but vowed within himself to do all he could to find Anna. “How long have we got?” he asked Smith.
“The captain said about an hour, but he won’t leave without us. However, I do carry a radio that he’s not afraid to call if he gets impatient.”
Brant Smith continued to steer the craft expertly in and out of obstacles as they made their way upstream. They both took turns calling to Anna, then listening for an answer.
Matt saw several snakes in the water, and quite a few resting in sunny spots along the bank or on tree stumps. He didn’t like snakes, but he didn’t mention it. When one fell into the dingy from an overhead branch, he just about jumped out of the boat.
“Come here fella,” Smith told the snake calmly. He picked up a metal pole and deftly maneuvered the snake overboard. “You look a bit shaken, Matt. Don’t worry. The snake was just as surprised at landing in the boat as you were. He just wanted out.”
“I don’t like snakes,” Matt assured him.
“What about gators?” Smith asked, pointing at what looked like an old log on the opposite bank of the bayou. As he pointed, the log stood up and slipped into the water.
“Not exactly where I’d want to take a swim,” Matt answered.
Their hour of trolling around turned into almost two before the captain called on the radio and instructed to get back to the cutter.
Matt was very disappointed. Brant Smith told him, “Don’t give up hope. We didn’t find her here, which means she must not be here. Hopefully she is safe and sound somewhere else, and will let you know as soon as she can.”
“I hear you,” Matt answered. “And I’m glad we didn’t find her body. It’s just the uncertainty of not knowing what happened to her. She went upstairs to our seats on the train to get some sleep, and I’ve never seen or heard from her since.”
“What did you say happened to your other friend, Jackson, right?” Brant asked.
“Yes Jackson. He was downstairs on the train with me. After the wreck we were sinking in the water in that passenger car. I escaped. Jackson must have hit his head, because when I went back for him he was already dead.”
“I’m sorry to hear it.” Brant told him honestly. “I see a lot of tragedy in this job, but it never gets any easier. But like I said, we didn’t find a dead body today. So don’t give up hope yet.”
When they got back to the Coast Guard cutter, the captain reported that several crews had gone searching for Anna, but they had not found her either.
With the sun setting in the west, they headed back to base in Mobile.