When Cmdr. James Joseph "J.J." O'Connor left a North Carolina air station nine years ago piloting an HC-130 helicopter, he knew a boat was in trouble. Unknown to the 28-year-old Coast Guard officer was that the two-hour flight up the East Coast would take him into the heart of one of the strongest - and now one of the more infamous - storms in recorded history.
By the time O'Connor reached the churning waters of the North Atlantic on Halloween night of 1991, the storm had sunk the Andrea Gail, a Gloucester, Mass., commercial fishing boat with a six-member crew.
The storm's worst damage had been done, but for the next nine hours, O'Connor and his crew flew search-and-rescue missions in the dark, the helicopter shaking in 100 mph winds.
O'Connor- who participated in two sailing vessel rescues and an extended search for the Andrea Gail-has been reliving the deadly storm in connection with the opening this weekend of "The Perfect Storm." The movie is based on the best-selling book of the same name.
In recent weeks, Coast Guard officials have been taking advantage of the Hollywood association with a public relations campaign that spotlights active guardsmen who have been involved in storm rescue missions.
Last week, O'Connor of Crofton and Lt. Cmdr. Kris Furtney, who piloted the Coast Guard cutter Tamaroa during the 1991 storm, told their stories at Curtis Bay Coast Guard Yard, located at the Anne Arundel County-Baltimore City line.
"We arrived just before sunset, and descended below the clouds, 400 feet above the water," said O'Connor, who has worked for the past year at Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, supervising the HC-130 helicopter program.
"There's probably no greater energy force than the sea," he said. "Mountains of water rolling through, seas swept with white foam, being driven by howling winds."
"It was humbling," O'Connor said. "Despite technology and all the information available, when something like this is in the works you just have to get out of the way."
Coast Guard officials are hoping that the movie's heroic depiction of guardsmen will help recruitment efforts and educate the public about the guard's primary mission: saving lives.
"The [Coast Guard's] motion picture office in Hollywood worked closely with the film industry and they felt that the Coast Guard's portrayal in the movie was very positive and very true," said Dottie Mitchell, a spokeswoman at the Curtis Bay yard.
The Coast Guard plans to set up a recruitment tent at an advance screening of "The Perfect Storm" in Pentagon City Thursday.
"The Coast Guard is the smallest of the armed services, and it's hard to get the word out about it," Mitchell said.
Coast Guard officials decided to take advantage of the buzz surrounding the movie.
"These guys went through hell," said Coast Guard headquarters spokesman Lt. Rick Wester, of the guardsmen involved in the rescue. "No movie will ever capture the drama. It's a miracle that anybody survived."
O'Connor's main role in the rescue was to identify sailing vessels in trouble and coordinate with sea-based rescue ships. His aircraft, one of many on the scene, took part in saving the three-member crew of the sailboat Satori and rescuing one person aboard the boat Bazaro.
O'Connor's crew dropped flares to illuminate the boats in trouble, and maintained a vigil above the scene until rescue boats arrived. He said the work was especially difficult because rescuers weren't battling just one storm, but three converging weather systems.
"Ordinarily, a storm has a clear beginning and end," O'Connor said. "But this one seemed to come from every direction."
As a special operations officer on the Coast Guard cutter Tamaroa, Furtney piloted the boat involved in the Satori rescue. He also took part in another operation during the storm to save crew members of an Air National Guard helicopter from New York who had been forced to abandon the aircraft.
Furtney recalled steering the ship through 40- to 50-foot waves and winds in excess of 100 mph that blew "horizontal rain."
"There were green walls of water washing over the bow and we'd lose sight of our crew there," he said.
The crew of the Tamaroa rescued four of the five crew members of the abandoned helicopter.
"It was a bittersweet feeling," Furtney said. "On the one hand, we rescued people and brought them back from the brink. On the other hand, we left somebody out there."
Furtney, the Coast Guard's liaison officer to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, recently had an opportunity to talk to actor George Clooney, who plays the captain of the Andrea Gail in "The Perfect Storm."
"He said half the time he wasn't acting, but just responding to all the water dumped on him," Furtney said. "He said he was wet for six months."
O'Connor took part in the air search for the Andrea Gail over several days, along with other aircraft.
"We searched tens of thousands of miles," he said. "As the days drew on there was a sense that this storm had consumed the Andrea Gail. Still, we never gave up."
The 70-foot boat has never been found.
O'Connor said he has a great deal of respect for the commercial fisherman- like those on the Andrea Gail-who make their living on the seas.
"They're under tremendous pressure to have a successful fishing trip," he said. "The stakes are very high."