Ex-County Man Dies in the Icy Outpost He Loved
Burning barrels of gasoline and diesel fuel lined the frozen antarctic airstrip, a place where planes neither come nor go from February to August.
The planned airlift of the body of a former Port Hueneme resident was dangerous, costly and among just a few flights attempted after winter had descended on the frozen continent.
Perpetual darkness had nearly settled in for three months over the bottom of the Earth, where hurricane-force winds and blinding blizzards can kick up in minutes, and the windchill can plummet to 110 degrees below zero.
It was no place for a plane to land. But U.S. officials had little choice.
Much of the wintertime cache of medical supplies for the isolated, 155-member community of McMurdo Station had been tapped to treat Charles Gallagher, a much-loved retired Navy man who called this barren place home.
The austere beauty of Antarctica had lured the Southern California native back for tour after tour since he first discovered it as a Navy fireman a decade earlier.
As McMurdo residents mourned the loss of the gruff, tattooed, cigar-smoking character they loved, some who knew him said it seemed altogether fitting that Gallagher’s life would end on “The Ice.”
The highest, driest, coldest and windiest continent on Earth, they said, had long ago captured his soul. “He couldn’t have scripted it better,” his sister, Bonnie Gallagher, of Palm Springs, said Thursday.
An Air Force rescue team had hoped to reach Gallagher sooner.
But he died of heart failure two days before a planned medical evacuation.
Planning a May landing in Antarctica, federal officials explain, is a three- or four-day job. And rescuers simply ran out of time.
“This, needless to say, was a large impact on the community down here,” said McMurdo Station manager Al Martin in a phone interview Wednesday just hours after the Air Force plane successfully landed and departed with Gallagher’s body.
“It was not an easy experience for anybody.”
Gallagher was “wintering over” at McMurdo Station, the largest antarctic base run by any nation. The sun set there on April 24 and won’t be seen again until mid-August. After a period of waning twilight, three months of permanent darkness settled in Friday.
As command master chief--the top enlisted rank in the Navy--of the Naval Support Force, Antarctica, he had spent four tours of duty at the remote McMurdo research station, which sits on the edge of the Ross Sea.
“It’s a very sobering experience when you step out into the continent at a remote field camp, and to think that no more than perhaps a hundred people have ever set foot there,” Gallagher told a Los Angeles Times reporter during his retirement ceremony at the Port Hueneme Navy base in March 1995.
“You could tell when he talked about it,” Bonnie Gallagher said. “To him, Antarctica was home.”
So deep was his love for Antarctica that Gallagher returned there five months after his military retirement as a civilian employee of the Antarctic Support Associates, a contractor for the National Science Foundation.
The federal agency manages the nation’s activities in Antarctica, investigating the most compelling and basic scientific questions about the present and future of the planet.
For years, the Navy has provided transportation and support services for the researchers there. Navy forces participating in Operation Deep Freeze have been based at the Naval Construction Battalion Center at Port Hueneme, with flight support through the VXE-6 Squadron at Point Mugu.
In a cost-cutting measure, Operation Deep Freeze will be turned over permanently to the Air Force and Air National Guard in March 1998. As a civilian, Gallagher’s job was housing coordinator and recreational director.
With his imposing 6-foot, 5-inch frame, shaved head and chest-length beard, researchers and support staff at the base saw him as sort of a quirky father figure, happy to dispense advice along with alcohol from behind the bar at the clubhouse where he worked.
This year, Gallagher was living his dream. He got to spend his first winter at the isolated base, where temperatures average 40 to 50 degrees below zero.
“He just put his heart and soul into it,” said Martin, who is affectionately known as the mayor of McMurdo. “The community down here saw him as kind of a sage. He clearly enjoyed what he was doing, and he gained the respect of the people he worked with. He was someone you could go to for advice.”
It was two weeks before his death on May 1 that Gallagher began complaining about breathing problems, Martin said. A week later, he was admitted to McMurdo’s medical center, where he was treated by the base’s only doctor.
Gallagher’s illness took many who knew him by surprise. Like others deployed to Antarctica, he had passed strict medical, dental and psychological evaluations. He ran and exercised regularly, and bragged about his 11% body fat, his sister said.
As Gallagher’s condition rapidly deteriorated--it was thought he had viral pneumonia--planning and risk assessment began on the daring and costly winter mission, which can run as much as $800,000, Martin said.
Time was running short.
McMurdo’s community had entered a period of relative brightness called “civil twilight” that lasts from two to four hours a day, though the sun never breaks the horizon. There was only about a week of twilight left. And if base officials were to attempt a winter airlift--the third ever in the program’s history--they had to do it soon.
Air Force officials had decided the weather and lighting were favorable enough to attempt the rescue. They decided on the C141 Starlifter aircraft instead of the ski-equipped LC130 Hercules, which supports the bulk of antarctic operations.
The Starlifter could carry enough fuel to make the 12-hour round-trip from Christchurch, New Zealand--the closest place to McMurdo--without landing. Had conditions at McMurdo proved too treacherous, the plane was equipped to air drop the 5,000 pounds of food, mail and medical supplies and return, said Dave Bresnahan, systems manager in the office of polar programs at the National Science Foundation.
But a mechanical breakdown stalled the plans. And before a new plane could arrive, Gallagher died.
“We just ran out of time,” Bresnahan said.
Still, the concern for the McMurdo community didn’t end there.
Treating Gallagher had depleted vital medical supplies and medicines at the remote base. Should someone else succumb to a medical emergency, base officials would be unprepared.
After another risk assessment, the Air Force decided to fly to the base, pick up Gallagher’s body and deliver the needed supplies.
The family put no pressure on federal officials to retrieve Gallagher’s body, his sister said.
“I felt, my God, don’t risk life and limb to bring him home. He’s quite happy,” said Bonnie Gallagher, who with her brothers grew up in the Mar Vista and Venice areas of Los Angeles.
At McMurdo, crews finished snow-blasting the 17-mile road to the Pegasus airstrip, a permanently frozen airstrip sitting atop the Ross Ice Shelf.
They cleared the 10,000-foot runway and, slowly, over two days, thawed the sensitive electronic navigation equipment that had frozen with the bone-chilling, subzero daily temperatures.
With only a small strip of approach lights to guide the arriving plane, crews ignited 55-gallon barrels filled with a mixture of diesel fuel and gasoline every 1,000 feet along both sides of the runway to help pilots judge landing distance.
Pilots reported seeing the approach lights from 75 miles out and the burn barrels from 60 miles away. The plane landed successfully at 6:45 p.m. Wednesday, dropped off the supplies and brought Gallagher’s body to Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu for an autopsy. The plane spent no more than an hour in Antarctica.
Martin said the experience was “probably the most challenging” in his time as base manager. “It was so emotional for the entire community.” Gallagher’s remains will be cremated and scattered at sea, likely off the coast of Port Hueneme, Bonnie Gallagher said.
Memorial services have been held at the Antarctic Support Associates headquarters near Denver and at the McMurdo base.
A third memorial service is planned for Monday at 10 a.m. at the Chapel of Faith, Port Hueneme Naval Construction Battalion Center. Meanwhile, the McMurdo community is showing its resilience after an event that will probably draw them even closer together, Martin said. People there have already written a song for their fallen friend, and have renamed the bar and clubhouse where he worked “Gallagher’s.”
“It really was his place,” Martin said.