At first, A.J. Hammac of the US Coast Guard thought the man outside the small shack along a river may have been waving hello to his crew’s helicopter as it flew low over the remote Alaskan landscape.
“On Cape Cod, normally we’re sent on cases where someone’s sent out a sign of distress,” said Hammac, a lieutenant junior grade who has been based at Air Station Cape Cod for the past 2½ years but is currently volunteering in Kodiak, Alaska. “We don’t usually come across someone randomly out there waving us down.”
Still, he alerted his crewmembers about what he’d seen. The pilot, Lieutenant Commander Jared Carbajal, immediately asked if it looked like the person had waved one hand or two.
When Hammac, the copilot, answered that it had been both hands, it became clear that they had to turn around to investigate. They soon learned that the man on the ground was trapped in a terrifying ordeal with no way to call for help.
Hammac, 35, was one of four members on a Coast Guard helicopter who last week helped rescue a man who spent several days fighting off a bear that kept returning to his camp after the animal dragged him toward a nearby riverbank during an earlier attack.
According to Coast Guard officials, the aircrew was completing “an aircraft movement” from Kotzebue to Nome on July 16 to support a science-based mission the next day.
But on their way, they encountered some low clouds, forcing them off their normal flight path, Hammac said in a telephone interview Thursday.
As they were flying over a valley, Hammac spotted the man waving up at them from a small mining encampment. When the crew circled back over him, they saw white letters written across the roof of the man’s cabin. They read: “SOS” and “Help me.”
“We switched on to search-and-rescue mode at that point,” said Hammac, who is originally from Arizona.
Hammac said they landed near the man’s camp and sent the flight mechanic and rescue swimmer on board to speak with him. It was obvious that something had gone terribly wrong, he said.
“He kind of comes over stumbling toward the helicopter and you see him holding his side, and he’s got his leg taped,” Hammac said. “The flight tech came back and said, ‘This guy said that a bear had attacked him and has been harassing him.’”
Hammac said the man, who was in his 50s or 60s, had been at the camp roughly 40 miles northeast of Nome for several days. Sometime after he arrived, a bear got a hold of him and dragged him down to the river, Hammac said.
But the man, whom officials did not identify, had a gun with him, and managed to get off a few rounds during the attack, scaring the animal away.
“We don’t know if he shot the bear or just shot at the bear,” Hammac said. “But whatever he did caused the bear to let him go.”
Despite his efforts, the bear “had returned to his camp and harassed him every night for a week straight,” the Coast Guard said in a statement. The man only had two rounds of ammunition left.
“He hadn’t slept in a couple of days because he was worried about the bear coming back,” Hammac said. “And he wasn’t able to do anything to get out of there.”
The crew noticed that the door had been ripped off the shack where the man was staying. Before they took the man back to Nome, Carbajal removed the last two bullets from the man’s revolver.
Hammac said the clearly exhausted man boarded the helicopter and was taken to Nome, where an ambulance and state police trooper were waiting.
Coast Guard officials said the man “appeared to have bruising on his torso and a leg injury.”
A spokesman for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game told the New York Times, which first reported the rescue, that grizzly bears are prevalent this time of year in the area where the man was rescued.
Hammac said the man was likely prospecting — panning for gold — along the river, a place he knew and visited each year. But there was no cellphone service and the man was unable to reach anyone for help after the bear’s initial attack.
“The only thing he had was waving his arms and painting a sign on his roof,” said Hammac, stressing the importance of having other ways to communicate with the outside world in the event of an emergency.
Had it not been for the clouds diverting their flight path that day, they may have never found the man, he said.
“This guy was lucky,” he said. “If we hadn’t been there, I don’t know what would have happened.”
Before he stepped off the helicopter and walked over to the ambulance that was waiting to transport him to the hospital last week, the man looked over at him, and raised an arm, Hammac recalled. But this time, he didn’t wave.
“He gave me a thumbs up, and I gave it back,” Hammac said. “I think he was pretty happy we found him.”