After 980 hours of waiting, Chris Manning was ready when the order came.
After four years in the Navy as part of an elite helicopter search-and-rescue squadron, Manning was finally getting the chance to put his training to use: to plunge into an unforgiving sea and rescue downed fliers in danger of drowning or dying quickly of hypothermia or injuries.
To the 23-year-old Iowa native with the mop of red hair and the open, polite manner, failure was not an option. He was not about to be deterred.
Not by the 58-degree water that can inflict hypothermia in a few minutes. Not by 10-foot swells and wind-whipped, choppy seas that made him lose sight of the fliers as he swam toward them. Not by the sea spray and toxic jet fuel that permeated the air and water.
And even not by the sharks that must have smelled the blood in the water and came swimming for a closer look.
"I was filled with adrenaline," said Manning. "At the time my total concern was getting them out of the water. Any concern for myself wasn't part of it."
Working in sync with his three fellow helicopter crewmen, he rescued two dazed and injured fliers floating helplessly after the crash of their EA-6B Prowler about 150 miles off the Southern California coast. He also retrieved the body of a third flier and tried desperately to revive him with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
"He risked his own life to bring up the survivors," Capt. Terry Magee, commander of the carrier Kitty Hawk, said of Manning. "He's the true hero in this tragic event."
Crashes at sea are uncommon enough that some search-and-rescue swimmers such as Manning spend a career without ever having to attempt a rescue in the ocean. The dangers to swimmers in such efforts are so great that training is done in swimming pools and tranquil waters such as those of San Diego Bay.
It was sheer luck that the SH-60 Seahawk helicopter with Manning on board was in the air near the Kitty Hawk when the Prowler crashed during routine exercises Feb. 24 about 40 miles from the carrier. The rescue order came from the carrier: "Switch to strike. There's an EA-6 in the water."
The Seahawk, which also provides a surveillance function, has a crew of four, with Manning, a petty officer, serving as the designated swimmer. The copter is assigned to Helicopter Squadron Six based at North Island Naval Air Station.
Since finishing rescue training in 1992, Manning had logged 980 hours in the air--during training and two six-month deployments--without ever being ordered to attempt an in-the-water rescue.
"In practice, it's your buddy who's pretending to be injured," Manning said. "He's saying, 'My arm, my arm,' but you know it's not real. You can see the bottom of the pool. But when you're swimming in 9,000 feet of water, you can't see the bottom and there's no side to the pool."
Three of the fliers were immediately visible as the Seahawk came close to the crash scene and spotted the bright green dye markers. The fourth flier, pilot Lt. Thomas Francis, was not visible and has since been listed as lost at sea.
"The swells were regular, but it was choppy like a storm," Manning said. "It was like pounding your fist into the water."
Lowered by the copter's hoist, Manning, wearing a knee-length wetsuit, swam to Lt. Derrick Busse and Lt. Charles Luttrell, who were floating together, upright in their ejection seats.
"They were pretty incoherent," Manning said. "They could respond and stuff but they were in the beginning of shock."
One said meekly, "Help me get out of the water."
Manning stripped away the first's seat pan and swam with him a short distance before hooking his rescue harness to the hoist. The propeller wash of the descending copter pushed Manning 30 yards away from the second flier.
"It was a serious sea state," he said. "I surf all the time, and I've never encountered water like that."
After making his way to the second flier, Manning rode the hoist up with him to the helicopter and then returned to the water as the helicopter went back to the Kitty Hawk to get medical attention for Busse and Luttrell.
Having plucked two from the water, Manning had the option to return to the carrier and leave the third rescue to another copter and another swimmer. He declined.
"It wasn't a choice," he said. "It's my job."
Back in the water, Manning made his way to Lt. Cmdr. James Dee and put his limp body in a small, one-man raft and, floating alongside, attempted mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. A 5-foot shark swam by.
"I was singing [to myself], doing everything to keep my mind off what was below me," Manning said. "I had already seen the shark and I knew there was blood in the water."
Thirty minutes later, guided by a smoke canister that Manning had fired, a helicopter from the carrier Constellation arrived to retrieve Dee and Manning. All told, the rescuer had been in the chilly water nearly an hour.
Only when he was back on ship did the cold and danger hit him. His body temperature had dropped sharply and his hands were trembling.
Eight cups of hot coffee and a long hot shower restored his temperature but a case of the flu hit shortly thereafter, possibly as an aftereffect of his lowered resistance.
Busse suffered a fractured left arm and assorted bruises. Luttrell had fractures of his left arm, left leg and mandible.
Luttrell, still recuperating at Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego, said he remembers nothing of the rescue. Later, when he met Manning at the hospital, he remembered seeing him aboard the Kitty Hawk before the crash.
"He stuck in my mind because he always had that big, happy face," Luttrell said "How do you repay someone for saving your life? I owe him a bottle of booze."
Under a Navy tradition, rescued fliers give their name and unit patches to the swimmer who saved them. Manning now has Busse's and Luttrell's patches on one of his gear bags, a point of pride among rescue swimmers.
Not that he wants to disagree with the Kitty Hawk skipper, but Manning avoids descriptions like hero. He's ready for his next six-month deployment in a few months.
"I just consider myself a naval air crewman," he said. "I was doing what the Navy trained me for. I was just going by the book."