USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN, BANDA ACEH, Indonesia—On my first relief run aboard a U.S. Naval Seahawk helicopter, I was uncomfortably full from a turkey and mashed potato lunch and battling the lethargy of a tryptophan low from the meat. The day before we journalists had been flown from Pattaya, Thailand, to the USS Abraham Lincoln naval carrier 10 miles off the coast of Aceh, and we’d been held up there for the next 30 hours, unable to leave. From nearly atop the epicenter of the Dec. 26 earthquake, we’d been forced to watch CNN to learn about new developments. Choppers on relief flights were catch-as-catch-could, and, understandably, there wasn’t much room for the press. So, for lack of anything else to do, my photographer colleague Kris and I made it a point to try and learn our way around the 18-floor, half-mile-long ship and had spent the entire day running around like gerbils. When Day 2 rolled around and we hadn’t yet been assigned a helo, we ate a huge lunch and talked about what else we could hunt for on board.
Wandering after lunch, we ran into one of the bored jet pilots who’d been forced to escort befuddled media around the enormous ship. He seemed surprised to see us. “You guys haven’t gotten ashore yet?” he asked. “Come with me; I’ll get you a helo.” And he did, three minutes later, at just about the time I was regretting my gluttony.
My notes from the early part of that day look like those of a woman in the throes of a tryptophan stupor. Sentences run off the lines. Every half page, in capital letters, reads: “DRAMAMINE.” At one point, there’s a series of tic-tack-toe games with the helo crew chief, Jeff Gareis. The irony of going out to feed starving, desperate people in that condition didn’t escape me, but it was almost too ridiculous to contemplate. I didn’t feel guilty, especially since I live in Cambodia and haven’t had turkey and mashed potatoes in years. The physical discomfort was something of a blessing, since it created a buffer between me and the survivors, kept me from confronting something I may have been too timid to face. For that first day, I couldn’t bring myself to meet anyone’s gaze.
Our first relief run was to a village 70 miles south of Banda Aceh, and it took us 45 minutes to fly there. Long stretches of quiet in the helicopter afforded us the opportunity to see just how vast and complete the destruction had been. Palm trees were grounded like chopsticks, the coastline scalloped out like the rind of a spooned-out melon. A mosque stood pristine and gracefully sculpted against the rubble; seconds later, an intact house floated by us. I did half a dozen or more helicopter relief runs a day all over Sumatra, and I never saw the end of it. I remembered covering Hurricane Mitch in Honduras in 1998, how the storm changed the topography so completely that cartographers had to go out and draw new maps of the country. They would have to do the same thing here.
The helicopter crews were sleeping in two- and three-hour intervals. Normally, the Navy deployed them in teams of one or two as support for the fighter jets in wars, or on search and rescue missions; they’d never been organized and sent en masse. The fighter jets usually parked on the carrier’s deck had had to be moved to the hangar to make room for the 17 or so choppers that were on the USS Abraham Lincoln. In the hangar, the planes were crammed in like a jigsaw puzzle—a model of the ship held plastic scale replicas of all the aircraft aboard so the flight controllers could figure out how to fit all the planes in. Walking through the hangar, which was the length of three football fields, involved dodging wing tips, engines, tie-down points and chains, forklifts, trailing edge flaps, noses, bomb hard-points, supply stacks, engine cans, and even two boats.
The choppers were pushed on every run, loaded down with the maximum weight they could carry, and when landing, debris would sometimes fly up from the rotor wash: two-by-fours and corrugated metal sheets and cupboard doors. Sometimes they’d land and the wheels would sink into mud. Or they’d have to shimmy the bird down onto the small foundation of what was once a house. Once, when we boarded a helicopter overloaded with dozens of 5-gallon jugs of water, one of the crew said, “If there’s a problem, we’ll start dumping the water; just push that shit overboard.” On average, Gareis delivered 1,500 to 2,000 pounds of Mona biscuits, rice, ramen noodles, salt, and water per drop. The helicopters weren’t made this for this kind of work; they’d been stripped down inside to fit aid and Medevac’d people and journalists, and everyone knew it wouldn’t be long before major maintenance would be needed. The commander of the air group, Capt. Larry Burt, told me that the Navy had used up their entire first-quarter budget for helicopters in the first five days of the relief operation in Aceh. The day we arrived, in early January, they had managed to deliver 60,000 pounds of aid, and by the time we left a week later, that amount had doubled. Six days in, they had to change their first helo engine; eight days in, they had their first crash—luckily, with no serious casualties.
Makeshift tarp cities dotted the coast like mile markers underneath us. Some of them were atop hills surrounded by water with no way out. People waved and jumped as we flew over, but most often there was nowhere to land. Sometimes, if the pilots spotted small groups of people on a chunk of road waving in desperation below, they’d do what they called a “freelance drop”—an unscheduled relief stop—but those opportunities were few.
On our first drop, Indonesian government soldiers armed with AK-47s ran in flip-flops toward the chopper. They conga-lined the supplies, and in the frenzy a box occasionally dropped into a ravine below, but it was so far down, we could only stare. The soldiers shook our hands quickly, and every time we lifted off with an empty bird, Gareis clapped his gloved hands. There was an unspeakable grandness of mission here, a sense, unlike that of war, of something wholly moral.
As we flew, the helicopter vibrated so hard that even the skin on my wrist shuddered. We made four drops that afternoon, then headed back to the naval carrier for the night. In the sunset, I saw the ship from afar; a wedge of gray in the vast, black ocean, an impossibly large small thing. It loomed closer and closer until we landed. Gareis slept against the wall of the bird, his legs out in front of him, in three-minute intervals. This job was hard on a body; sitting on vibrating metal all day, hauling boxes in and out, wearing a flight suit in 100-plus-degree weather.
On the carrier that night, after a quiet dinner, I thought of the people I hadn’t looked at. True, I didn’t want to confront their pain, but I also knew I couldn’t. It wasn’t just a language barrier—that would have been easy to overcome. It was that I’d seen many of them on television, recounting for faceless journalists lost husbands, children, and mothers, and every time I saw it, I felt discomfited, like it was a frail diminishment of their pain.
That night after those first helicopters relief runs, I couldn’t sleep for a long, long time. Lying in the top bunk, I found that my body still vibrated. My back was sore, and my knees throbbed. Even hours after landing, my body trembled, as if caught in the afternoon’s rotor wash and still careening over a disassembled world.