He thought they’d missed him when he heard the sound of the Coast Guard helicopter rotors and saw the spotlight pass over his boat. It was 2:30 a.m. on Sept. 29 near Pine Island Sound. The winds and rain of Hurricane Ian still were pounding David Littlefield’s 44 DeFever boat, Elizabeth Pearl. He was there alone, the boat had flipped on its side and he was standing outside the cabin. The water was rising. When the helicopter passed, he thought he’d be there for hours more.
And then he heard the helicopter turn around.
“It was the sweetest sound I’ve ever heard,” Littlefield, 67, from Sarasota County, said at the U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Clearwater on Thursday, emotional as he spoke.
Littlefield was rescued by a U.S. Coast Guard crew in the aftermath of the storm, and one week later, he was reunited with the crew that saved him. Littlefield was the second of seven people rescued that night by pilot Micah Acree, flight mechanic Megan Howard and rescue swimmer Jethro Hauser. By the next night, the crew had rescued 19 people.
Additionally, Clearwater air station crews rescued people from homes and mobile homes. They also rescued 40 dogs, 12 cats and a snake.
In total, crews from the Clearwater station have rescued 130 in the storm’s aftermath.
While meeting with Littlefield on Thursday, the crew talked about the immense damage it saw. Hauser said he saw vehicles in trees. In the air station hanger, Hauser pointed to his shoes covered in a gray muddy substance — it was so thickly caked on them that Hauser said he thought he may have to throw them out. It was the substance he and the rest of the Coast Guard found throughout the areas most impacted by Ian. Walking on it was almost like ice skating, Acree said.
Littlefield piloted his boat south the day before Ian made landfall from Englewood toward Fort Myers — he thought he was getting out of Ian’s way. But his cellphone died, he said, and he didn’t know the storm’s exact path.
He’d made a near-fatal bad choice.
By Tuesday night, he saw another boat anchored somewhere near Pine Island and Sanibel Island, so he anchored, too —thinking it must be a safe place. But by the morning, with the force of Ian beginning to swell, the wind and water were strong enough to drag his anchor along the water bed.
The furniture in his cabin was thrown around in the hurtling waters crashing outside — and beginning to seep inside his kitchen, he said.
Littlefield said if he stayed inside, he knew he’d likely drown. He’d have to climb out and expose himself to the hurricane to have any hope of surviving it.
That afternoon, once the wind and rain died down, he climbed outside. Though he must have been near Ian’s eye, because soon after he crawled outside the howling wind and rain returned, Littlefield said.
He’d tucked an Emergency Positioning Indicating Radio Beacon — or EPIRB — inside his life jacket. He carried three cushions with him, holding them tight to his body. He thought they might stave off hypothermia when the hurricane again began to slam his boat. It was one of the multiple times he thought he might die out there.
Asked what crossed his mind when he thought about death, he said his own “dumb ass.”
The hours slowly ticked by and the sun set as the storm kept churning and the waves kept tossing his boat. He thought he’d have another 12 hours until a rescue crew might arrive in the morning, Littlefield said.
But after 2 a.m., the Coast Guard helicopter flew past Littlefield’s boat, surveying the surrounding area to make sure it was safe to hover. There wasn’t much to see in the middle of the night. It was so dark, he said, because power was out across the area from the storm. Soon, the helicopter began to hover over Littlefield’s boat, the spotlight shining down as Hauser descended. He climbed over the railings of the flipped boat and quickly grabbed Littlefield.
“Thank you,” Littlefield said to Hauser when they first made contact.
He tried to bring a cushion with him. He’d grown close to it, Littlefield said. But more than anything, he said, he was thankful to be alive — and dry.
“Any mariner would do that,” Littlefield said when he was asked why he stayed in his boat during the storm. But in hindsight, Littlefield said he likely would not have made the same choice again.
Somewhere in all that wreckage, his boat is submerged. But somehow, Littlefield said, he hopes he’ll find it again.
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Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Ian coverage
FEMA: Floridians hurt by Ian can now apply for FEMA assistance. Here’s how.
THE STORM HAS PASSED: Now what? Safety tips for returning home.
POST-STORM QUESTIONS: After Hurricane Ian, how to get help with fallen trees, food, damaged shelter.
WEATHER EFFECTS: Hurricane Ian was supposed to slam Tampa Bay head on. What happened?
MORE STORM COVERAGE: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane.