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Friday, July 7, 2000

Press release photo
Actor George Clooney in a scene from 'The Perfect Storm.'

Reel-life ‘Storm’
a little too perfect

The film shocks a survivor
of a similar tempest that
battered a local longliner

Union: Observer funds 'magic'

By Peter Wagner


He's read the book but won't see the movie. Eighteen months after his own frightening ordeal 800 miles north of Honolulu, former longline observer Eric Sandberg wants no part of "The Perfect Storm."

"I saw a preview at a theater and I about fell out of my chair," said the 35-year-old marine biologist.

The movie, based on the best-selling book by Sebastian Junger, offers a harrowing account of a swordfish longliner caught in a massive storm off the Atlantic Coast.

Sandberg, then a National Marine Fisheries Service observer on the longline fishing boat Red October, had just read Junger's book a week before his own nightmare came rumbling down.

"We got caught in a bad storm that just didn't quit," said Sandberg, recalling his frightening experience Dec. 8, 1998. "We were in sustained 30-foot seas with some 40-foot seas."

Winds were a blinding 50 knots when the crew rose before daybreak to begin hauling in miles of monofilament fishing line laid out the night before. A mountainous sea was building throughout the day when, at about 4:30 in the afternoon, something awful loomed high above the Red October.

"We got hit by a rogue wave that was probably 50 to 60 feet," he said.

Eric Sandberg

The monstrous wave crashed down, the steel-hulled boat went under and something smashed into Sandberg as the crew was scattered into the sea.

Severely injured with a broken back, broken ribs, a collapsed lung and a fist-sized hole in his back, Sandberg struggled with lifeless legs to stay afloat in the raging sea wearing knee-high boots and heavy rain gear.

"I didn't know where the other people ended up because the wind was blowing so hard it was hard to keep the water out of your eyes," he said. "After about 15 minutes I happened to see the boat in between the swells. You really couldn't see much between these huge mountains of water."

He had about given up when the captain of the boat lowered a line and hauled him up with a hydraulic winch. Somehow, two other crewmen were retrieved. The third was never seen again.

The survivors drifted helplessly for two days in a devastated boat before a passing container ship arrived to hoist them to safety.

"That night I was waiting for the boat to go down," he said. "The windows were all gone, the inside was torn out. My survival suit was still on board but by legs wouldn't work to get it."

A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter, refueling on a Navy carrier, finally made it to carry Sandberg away.

Somewhat recovered from his injuries, Sandberg today has a desk job at the National Marine Fisheries Service in Honolulu. "I'm as good as I'm gonna get," he said.

Among things that went overboard during the ordeal, Sandberg said, was his borrowed copy of "The Perfect Storm." The owner of the book, a fisheries observer on another Hawaii longliner, went under several months later in another storm at sea.

In that incident, he said, fishing bait went overboard, attracting sharks which circled the disabled longliner until the crew was rescued by a nearby boat.

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