ASTORIA, Ore. (AP) — Eric Petit was trying to loosen a stuck crab pot when it happened.
He was on his 32-foot fishing boat, Ella Ann, hauling in crab pots in "the sink," just inside the Willapa bar in Washington, when the wave came.
It must've hit at the exact moment the stuck pot came loose, Petit said later.
"The wave rolled the boat instantly upside down," Petit said.
Petit and his dock hand Luis Perez found themselves trapped underneath the boat, fighting to find open air. Petit came up and swam to the side of the boat and scrambled on top of it. He scanned the water for Perez - and saw him about 40 feet away.
"I was hollering at him to swim to me, but he kept saying, 'I can't make it,'" Petit said.
Two waves washed over him, and the second swept him off the hull. Petit managed to grab three buoys floating nearby.
About 15 minutes passed and Petit didn't see Perez again.
In what he thought was a pointless effort, he grabbed for his cell phone, still in the left front pocket of his jeans, and with numb fingers, dialed 911. Unbelievably, an operator picked up and Petit was able to speak his location before the phone died.
He took deep breaths as wave after wave washed over his head, submerging him completely each time.
In the air, a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter crew had finished up delivering Christmas presents with Santa and had gone out for a training run when the call came in.
Onboard was Petty Officer 3rd Class Christopher Austin, a 22-year-old rescue swimmer who was working his first shift after finishing his rigorous four and a half months of training. Austin's papers were literally walked through the day before so he could fill the shift. He was shocked to hear they'd be responding to a call for help from two people in the water.
"I couldn't believe it was right off the bat," Austin said.
They headed toward Willapa Bay, not knowing exactly where "the sink" was, said Lt. j.g. Leo Lake, one of the pilots on the crew. Fortunately, the Warrenton command center was able to work with Station Grays Harbor and after a few passes, the crew was circling a debris field.
While the other pilot, Lt. Ben Schluckebier, hovered above the spot, Lake watched buckets, water bottles and a door float on the surface, but no people were visible. Then, Lake looked forward at just the right moment.
"I saw him waving with his hands," Lake said.
But all four could see that the man was struggling to stay above the surface. Seconds lost could cost his life.
Austin sprang into action, outfitting himself in fins, helmet and gloves as fast as he could.
"I understood how quickly the situation was degrading," he said.
"He was fine at first, and then began slowly deteriorating," said Petty Officer 2nd Class Andre Altavilla, the flight mechanic that day.
Schluckebier watched the waves roll over Petit, not knowing if he'd be able to hang on.
"Each time I'm thinking that may be the last time I see you," Schluckebier said.
By the time Austin was lowered down on the hoist, Petit was floating face down in the water.
Petit probably spent over an hour in the water before the Coast Guard helicopter arrived. But to him, it felt much longer.
"I'd go into these shaking fits where I'd just chatter."
What Petit couldn't know was that his body temperature was dropping, reaching as low as 87 degrees. At some point, he lost the buoys.
He watched the helicopter pass close by, but knew they hadn't seen him. The fourth time, though, they did.
"I saw you three times before you saw me," he said.
Petit kept himself motivated to keep kicking by picturing the faces of his daughters, Ella, 6, and MaKenzie, 14, and his wife Kara in front of him.
The last thing he remembers was seeing Austin coming out of the door toward him.
"I waved so much but I couldn't stay afloat. I just couldn't kick anymore."
Austin hit the water and threaded a strap under Petit's arms and across his back. In minutes he was in the helicopter and Austin was doing CPR, trying to get his heart beating again.
Schluckebier made a few more passes of the area, looking intently for Perez, but made the call to head for medical help at Willapa Harbor Hospital.
Petit isn't sure just how long his heart stopped beating. Before arriving at the hospital, though, Austin was able to revive him.
Petit's wife Kara was folding laundry when the hospital doctor called her.
"It's every fisherman's wife's worst nightmare - that call," she said. The doctor told her he was alive, but in a coma state.
On Thursday, Petit's wife, daughter Ella and parents, Norris "Mugs" Petit and Maureen Petit, visited with the crew in the Coast Guard Air Station hangar, marveling at the unlikely chain of events that kept their father, son and husband alive. Petit has made a full recovery.
"I really appreciate it. It's really hard to put into words," Eric Petit told the four.
Kara Petit's emotions were visible as she spoke to her husband's rescuers.
"You did a great job," she said. "I'm so thankful to the Coast Guard."
Eric Petit is mourning the loss of Perez, his friend and employee for close to a decade. Other Coast Guard helicopters searched the area for more than seven hours looking for him, but called off the search the next day. Perez's body was found on Dec. 20. Perez is survived by his wife, Maria, and their 18-month-old son, Louis Emmanuel.
"That's the hardest part," Petit said. "I'm happy to be able to live, but him not surviving is the hardest part to deal with."
Information from: The Daily Astorian, http://www.dailyastorian.com
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.