Unfortunately, the close relationship between this young Captain and his crew was destined to be short lived. On the evening of 15 December 1996, the Fife was returning to her home port in Yokosuka, Japan, following a successful missile exercise off the coast of Okinawa. The weather was warm and the seas relatively calm for that time of year, and as the ship made her way through the blue waters of the Philippine Sea, the crew was looking forward to being home for Christmas. Commander Tamayo was participating in a bible study session with several of the crew in his in-port cabin when he suffered a seizure, fell onto his side on the couch, and immediately was rendered unconscious.
As the Fife's Independent Duty Corpsman (IDC), I had completed just over two years of my current tour. It was my second full sea tour as an IDC, and I had been blessed with supportive commanding and executive officers. Commander Tamayo followed this pattern. Just after 2200, was paged to the CO's cabin over the IMC. Since it was after taps, I knew something unusual had occurred. As I hurriedly threw on a uniform and some boots, a second, more urgent call was passed. The hairs on the back of my neck rose as I sensed something was gravely wrong; there was an edge in the voice on the IMC. I arrived to find Commander Tamayo lying supine on a sofa, with a weak, rapid pulse, extremely labored breathing, and a blood pressure of over 240 by palpation. As a civilian paramedic I had treated many stroke victims, but I had seen few struck down as suddenly and completely as the Captain.
My junior corpsman, Hospitalman Kelvin Chatman, arrived shortly after I, and we completed our survey and prepared for the worst. The Captain was completely unresponsive and his vital signs continued to decline. I recall telling the Executive Officer and the Combat Systems Officer that the skipper had suffered a stroke or cerebral aneurysm and had to be med-evaced immediately.
As Chatman and I worked on the Captain, assisted by other members of the crew, I heard orders go out for emergency flight quarters, stretcher bearers, and an OPREP-3 Navy Blue. The flash message was out in less than five minutes, and the helo came out of the barn and was prepped for flight. The ship heeled over as we changed course and came to flank speed to cut every precious second off our transit time. We were 150 miles from Yokosuka. Despite our best efforts, the Captain continued to deteriorate, and at 1032, barely 20 minutes after being stricken, went into cardiac arrest.
By now word had spread throughout the ship that the Captain was down. Personnel who were not involved with the situation lined the passageway to the helo hangar, ready to assist the stretcher bearers in bringing the Captain to the flight deck as quickly as possible. Members of the crew continued cardio-pulmonary resuscitation (CPR) while Chatman and I prepared the search-and-rescue litter and other equipment. The Chief Master-at-Arms coordinated the effort of those standing by to assist to move the Captain as soon as the helo was ready. The Captain was secured in the litter, and a line of well-organized crew members moved him quickly down the passageways and up the ladder to the helo hangar, pausing along the way to continue CPR.
I recall walking ahead with my equipment to don my flight gear and prepare to load the Captain on board. I remember thinking, despite the serious nature of the event, how well the entire crew was responding to this emergency. The concern the crew had for the Captain was evident on their faces as we passed. Some patted my shoulder and offered words of encouragement. Orders passed quickly and responses were immediate; there was no yelling, no arguing, no confusion, and none of the light banter that is the hallmark of shipboard evolutions. These were serious sailors completing a serious task in the most professional manner. The Captain would have been proud of them.
Less than an hour from the time of the initial call, Commander Tamayo was secured in the helicopter, and we lifted off. Aviation Anti-submarine Warfare Operator Second Class Kugler of HSL-51 and I continued CPR. There isn't much room for patient care in an SH-60B. After placing a patient in the helo, the head of the stretcher has to be lifted to make enough room to close the door. It is difficult to perform CPR in the helo because one cannot kneel beside the patient at a 90(degree) angle. The forward person must sit or kneel on the deck, the other partially kneels or sits on a seat and bends to perform compression. It is an exhausting effort. Kugler and I alternated performing compressions and ventilations, changing more frequently as the one hour flight wore on.
I have lost other patients. As a volunteer firefighter, I pulled children from fires, removed auto accident victims, and witnessed the results of violent crime and debilitating disease. It is never easy working on a friend, though. Given how swiftly and severely Commander Tamayo had been stricken, I knew the prognosis was not good. The flight to definitive care was too long, yet we continued our efforts as best we could. The long, cold flight continued, and as I worked I couldn't help but think what was going through the minds of the crew back on the Fife.
We landed on the helipad at Yokosuka; the ambulance was standing by and the Captain was transported to Naval Hospital Yokosuka's Emergency Department. Commodore Smith of Destroyer Squadron Fifteen waited for me at the helipad as I unloaded my equipment, and we watched for a moment as the helicopter lifted off for its return flight. We drove in silence to the hospital.
Despite the exhaustive efforts of the Emergency Department Team, Commander Andrew Tamayo died that night from a massive subarachnoid hemorrhage. As so often happens in these cases, there had been no warning, no indication that anything was wrong. He was an active, athletic officer. The Navy prides itself in taking care of its own, and that was certainly true that night. Mrs. Tamayo arrived in company with several of her friends and neighbors. Chaplains arrived to assist and provide support and comfort. Dr. Disney, the attending physician spoke with all the members of the resuscitation team to make sure they were dealing well with this death, then came to see how I was doing. We talked for a few moments in a private office. Was this my first experience with the death of a patient? "No," I said, "But it's the first with a shipmate, and the Commanding Officer at that."
By now I was very tired. I had so many thoughts racing through my mind. I left and slept in a chair in my wife's office. Also an experienced Independent Duty Corpsman, she would understand what I was going through, I thought. She was surprised to find me asleep in her chair when she arrived for work. I hadn't been due back until later that morning. The news came as a bigger shock. Again I sat and talked, telling again one of many recitations of this sad story. The inquiries, reports, statements, and documentation all still were ahead.
I left the hospital and grabbed some breakfast from the fast food restaurant on base, then drove to the quay wall to watch the Fife arrive, her ensign already at half-mast. Somehow, fittingly, the morning was cool and gray. A light rain fell. Commodore Smith accompanied the pilot out on the tug and informed the crew that the Captain had died. As the USS Rodney M. Davis (FFG-60) came alongside to tie up at a nearby pier, her crew manned the rails and placed their covers over their hearts in tribute to our Commanding Officer.
I couldn't think of what I'd say to the crew. The brow was passed and I went on board. The crew was subdued as they went about their tasks preparing the ship for our holiday in-port period. I received many words of encouragement and sympathy. I knew that the crew and I had done all that was possible to save the Captain, and they knew it, too.
We learned later that Commander Tamayo was the first CO in recent memory to die on board a vessel while under way. No one in public affairs, not even in Washington, could recall the last time a crew suffered such a loss in peacetime. We canceled our Christmas Party and donated the money to a charity selected by Mrs. Tamayo.
The crew put together a choir to sing the Navy Hymn at the Captain's memorial service. I sat in the congregation with the rest of the crew, families, and visiting dignitaries. As the choir stood, we weren't sure what to expect. The choir had only two chances to practice. With clear voices the choir offered a rendition of Eternal Father in four-part harmony that rang through the rafters and left not a single dry eye in the chapel. It was a fitting end to an extraordinary effort by an extraordinary crew. Andy Tamayo would have been proud.