It was the end of October 1991. Hurricane Grace had rattled up the East Coast and out to sea, where she collided with two other weather systems. The result: 100-foot waves, 120-mile-an-hour winds offshore, and a monster nor'easter that smashed back on the New England coast. Correspondent Martha Teichner reports on the storm that inspired the book that led to the new movie, and the man that chronicled it.
"My girlfriend and I ran outside, and - and it was raining and it was very chaotic," recalls writer Sebastian Junger.
Struggling writer Junger was living in Gloucester, Mass., recovering from an injury he got on the job that paid his bills, cutting trees.
"And we had to watch the waves from behind trees, because the waves were picking up beach cobbles the size of baseballs and flinging them inland," he notes.
He reads: "Swells march shoreward from the horizon in great even bands. In the shallows, they draw themselves up, hesitate and then implode against the rocks with a force that seems to shake the entire peninsula."
What Junger did not know as he watched the storm was that a Gloucester swordfish boat, the 72-foot Andrea Gail, had been lost in it, and that the account he would write about what happened to her and her crew of six would put him on the best-seller list. The hard part about writing the book was that all the main characters were dead.
But Ethel Shatford was not. Her son Bobby was on board. And Bobby's girlfriend Chris Cotter was around. So Junger had a starting point. Ethel Shatford was working when she heard the Andrea Gail was missing. She tends bar at the Crow's Nest, one of three fishermen's hangouts the book calls "the Bermuda Triangle of downtown Gloucester."
"I was just numb," says Ethel Shatford. "It was just first denial. 'No, it's not the Andrea Gail. You have the names wrong.' And but then when we checked with the Coast Guard. No, he was right."
On the night Bobby Shatner died, Chris Cotter had a premonition.
"I had a really bad nightmare that night I woke up from," Cotter says. "He was - I was on this - on the boat and it was a real rocky sea going on, and people were yelling and screaming. And I was digging through all this slime and seaweed or something, and I found, like - there was, like, half of him and I - I knew he was - there was trouble then."
"I was thinking I was going to see the boat pull in, really like tattered from the storm and - but they would be OK," she says. "And they were coming back. And I came here a lot and I would go down by the fishing statue down on the boulevard of the fishermen. I would go there a lot, too, and wait."
For 350 years, the women who loved Gloucester fishermen have waited. The monument, the etched names; this could be a war memorial. But more Gloucestermen have died at sea than ever died defending their country - at least 4,000.
"Boats just disappear out there," says Junger. "It's a big ocean. They just - suddenly, there's no more boat, and people onshore never know what happened."
Ice was a big reason the Andrea Gail had to head back toward home with a storm coming. With what she took on in Gloucester, she was pushing it after a month at sea. Her onboard ice maker was failing, and she had 40,000 pounds of swordfish in her hold on the verge of spoiling.
That last trip she was 1,000 miles east of Gloucester, fishing the Grand Banks, a full week away from port. Winter storms were beginning. It was a dangerous time to be in a dangerous place. But Captain Billy Tyne wanted to cash in one more time.
When the Andrea Gail left Gloucester so late in the season, everybody aboard knew the risk, but everybody aboard also knew that with any luck, a month of fishing could bring in a catch worth $200,000, and that translates into $5,000 to $10,000 for each member of the crew.
Captain Billy Tyne's last radio transmission was at 6 p.m. "She's coming on, boys," he said. "She's coming on strong."
"You can imagine Billy Tyne in the wheelhouse, not being able to see the waves coming - it's at night - but you can hear them," says Junger. "The really big rogue - rogue waves. They - apparently they sound like freight trains coming. You can hear them in the distance, and you can't see them, and then - then they'll hit you.">
Author Junger guesses the boat went down around midnight in 70-foot seas.
"I think probably when she went down, she was pitch-poled, flipped," he says. "Flipped end over end - and would have gone down extremely quickly,...maybe even in minutes." He writes about drowning. "Lack of oxygen to the brain causes a sensation of darkness closing in from all sides, as in a camera aperture stopping down. The panic of a drowning person is mixed with an odd incredulity that this is actually happening."
With his book out, Junger doesn't get to Gloucester much anymore. When he does, usually he performs with Bobby Shatford's brother Brian at the Crow's Nest. There's a picture of Bobby on the wall and a plaque. The fishermen in the place all knew the crew and all have stories about how close they've come to going down.
For example, Chris Rooney's closest call was in 1988.
"And as the next wave pushed it up - just kind of pushed it down as we were turning at the same time," Rooney says. "The boat went down, so you could look at the black water. Just all of a sudden you become a submarine; you get pushed down. You push down. You don't know for...that second whether you're going to come back up or not."
A mutual attraction to danger is what's made the crowd at the Crow's Nest take to Sebastian Junger. The Perfect Storm was a perfect fit for a writer who says he's interested in "extreme situations and people at the edges of things."
"No one knows about these dangerous jobs," Junger says. "Every day that I worked, I was scared I was going to be killed. It creates a tremendous bond with the other people you're relying on, and I'm sure that goes on on fishing boats."
Junger, the best-selling author, has taken time off for tree work, so he won't forget.
"Felling trees is a horribly dangerous thing," he says. "People should know that if they live in wooden houses, they should know how - what it takes to take a tree down and the people who have died taking them down."
"Likewise fishing," he adds.
Since Sunday Morning aired its story in 1997, The Perfect Storm has never not been on the best-seller list; it has sold more than 4.2 million copies.
Sebastian Junger has set up the Perfect Storm Foundation to provide scholarships for the children of Gloucester fishermen, including Bobby Shatford's son.
The Perfect Storm has become a full-fledged phenomenon with the opening of the movie. Last week there was a special premiere for relatives of the Andrea Gail crew and residents of Gloucester.
Actor Mark Wahlberg, who plays Bobby Shatford, was there. So was George
Clooney, Captain Billy Tyne in the film. "The whole time we were doing it, we felt like there was a different kind of responsibility along the way," says Clooney.
"So there was a lot of action, there was a lot of water and then overall, what we didn't want to do was misrepresent anyone. That was important."
After all, their story was true. It is the story of men who lived and died the hard way, and of a town that understands.