BOOK REVIEW: 'The Night Orion Fell': Harrowing True Tale of Freak Accident at Sea, Search and Rescue and the Rehabilitation of Larry Hills

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
BOOK REVIEW: 'The Night Orion Fell': Harrowing True Tale of Freak Accident at Sea,  Search and Rescue and the Rehabilitation of Larry Hills

If Oregon commercial fisherman Larry Hills had been more of an introspective man, he might have paid heed to the hoary seaman's superstition about never leaving port on a Friday. He also might have had second thoughts about taking on a relatively inexperienced man to assist him on the 52-foot-long trawler F/V Fargo. But, drawing on his experience as a veteran fisherman, he didn't give a second thought to what he expected to be a routine voyage, as chronicled in "The Night Orion Fell" (Fern Hill Press, available from, 252 pages, $18.95) a nonfiction account by Abigail B. Calkin of a February 1982 accident at sea that will remind many readers of Sebastian Junger's novel (later made into a major motion picture starring George Clooney) "The Perfect Storm."

Commercial fishing is the most dangerous occupation in the U.S., according to a Money magazine story I located. (link: Second place goes to another occupation that is part of Oregon's economy and culture, logging.

The most dangerous time of the year in a dangerous occupation is the winter season and Calkin graphically shows how dangerous it is by including a list of the people -- fishermen and their Coast Guard rescuers -- who lost their lives from October 1981 to March 1982 in Oregon and Washington state waters (Page 216). In tribute to at least 40 casualties, she lists their names, as well as the lost boats. This particular season set a record for deaths.


  Larry Hills, 34, based in the Tillamook County town of Garibaldi, on Tillamook Bay, decided to go with a two-man crew, with Dick Cooley, 27, as the other man, when the third crew member, Dan Fisher,  couldn't make the trip, having injured his hand washing dishes.  The decision may have contributed to the accident that left Cooley crushed in the gigantic reel that controlled the trawling net -- and left Hills entangled upside down with both arms immobile as a violent storm raged. Even after he managed to get his feet tippy toe on the deck, Hills was unable to use the trawler's radio, so his rescue after 40 hours ranks as a miracle as well as a tribute to the bravery of the Coast Guard. The rescue remains unforgettable in Coast Guard annals, writes Calkin in this gripping account.


Abigail B. Calkin
Abigail B. Calkin

The rescue of Larry Hills was the beginning of the saga of his hospitalization, first in the small local hospital and later in Portland's Good Samaritan Hospital. Sharing in his saga are his wife, Bev, and their studious young son, Lincoln. "The Night Orion Fell" is the story of a man’s continued courage to fight his way through the lonely and painful hours of survival and disability rehabilitation to reinvent himself as a resourceful and contributing member of society working in high desert of southeastern Oregon for the U.S. Forest Service.

Calkin, an educational psychologist who comes from seafaring roots of Nova Scotia and the North Atlantic, and now and works in remote southeast Alaska, draws on her training and her skills as an experienced writer to recount in riveting minute-by-minute detail the psychological struggles as well as the physical challenges Larry Hills experienced during the freakish accident and in its painful aftermath.

About the author

Abigail B. Calkin was born in Boston and raised in New England and New York's Greenwich Village. After moving to a few other states and living in Scotland, she settled in a very small town in Alaska's bush. Her first novel, and fourth book, Nikolin, was shortlisted for a Benjamin Franklin award when it came out in 1994. She ventured into writing about commercial fishing when the woman wallpapering her house told her the story of her husband's fishing disaster and Coast Guard rescue. The events tumbled into her thoughts and became The Night Orion Fell. She also has had poetry, behavior analysis articles, and other nonfiction published. She currently works on books on self-esteem, PTSD, and a memoir about moving to Alaska.

Reviewer's Note: From the above referenced Money magazine article about dangerous occupations:

If ever there was a profession that pits man against nature, it would be fishing. Unfortunately, nature often wins.

"The major problem is weather," said Glen Brooks, a veteran of 30-years of fishing in the Gulf of Mexico. "It's hurricane season now, but even in the winter sudden storms can spring up."

He and his crews tend long-lines, seeking grouper and snapper. The rigs use hundreds of baited hooks that can snag unwary crewmen. "People get hooked and dragged overboard," he said.

Brooks sends employees for safety training, where they learn how to operate and maintain safety equipment like flares, electronic beacons and radios, and how to deal with accidents like fires or collisions. The training has cut fatalities, but can't eliminate them altogether.

In June, a rogue wave swamped three fishermen as they were leaving the Dangerous River in Alaska. Two of the fishermen died of hypothermia before they could swim to shore.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 29 fishermen died in 2010, which was down from last year. But with a rate of 116 deaths per 100,000 workers, it's easily the most dangerous job in America.