Feeling My Way Though the Loss of Our Friend Jim Langei

Jim on the David B
Jim on a trip in Alaska in 2010

Yesterday we lost a good friend, Jim Langei. Some of you know him from the trips he crewed with us on the David B. As I think about the events that took the life of Jim and his wife Stirling, I’m remembering that it was only a year ago today that Jeffrey and I attended a memorial for a friend who’s life was cut short by an avalanche. Last year I just listened to the words of others that were spoken. I let their words heal me and help me to remember, but then a few months later a suicide reopened that wound of loss. This time it was Jeffrey’s words that began the healing, but again, healing wasn’t complete when another avalanche a few weeks ago unstitched the repair to my sickened heart.  Today I need my own words to describe yesterday and to mend this heartsickness I have over the loss of a wonderful person who has been a dear friend to us and to the David B.

***

Even though it was raining in the early morning yesterday, Jeffrey and I were outside enjoying our morning coffee in the hot tub at our house. It was Jeffrey that noted the unusually agitated flock of gulls flying overhead. We talked about it and came up with a few reasons for their behavior. Never, would we have dreamed of the horrible reason for their flight.

What the gulls knew, but we didn’t, was that there had just been an explosion in the harbor, and all the boats in a row of boathouses were consumed. The flock overhead eventually calmed and dispersed leaving Jeffrey and me to our thoughts of the upcoming day and what we planned to do with it.  Finishing our coffee, we soon went back inside forgetting about the birds. While we listened to the news on the radio and tidied up the house, Jeffrey heard a breaking story about a boat fire in Bellingham. He checked his phone. The Port had not called. The David B was safe. Soon we heard the arrival of a news helicopter.

Jim on deck with a book
Jim on deck with a book

“Hmmm, this might be bigger that we thought,” I said, sitting down at my computer.

With a little searching I found a live video stream coming from the helicopter that I could see and hear circling the neighborhood and harbor. In the tiny frame on my computer were flames and black smoke shooting through corrugated metal and up creosote soaked pilings. The whole dock was burning. Oh no I thought. My body shook knowing that our friend Jim and his wife Stirling lived on their boat where the flames were the biggest.

I looked up a Jeffrey who was watching over my shoulder.

“Jim’s boat’s in there.” I tired to control my voice with a whisper.

The phone rang while we stared at the video. I looked at the caller ID. It was Chris, another friend who lives on a boat. She asked me if I knew. I said I did. She said her husband Jeff had heard it. I told her about the video stream on the news, and that from the helicopter footage I could see her boat, 100 yards away from the fire. I could see the David B 150 yards away.

I watched helpless and not knowing if Jim and Stirling were safe. I sent an email to Jim’s work address, telling him how sorry I was for the loss of his boat and home. I wondered if he would respond. I refreshed my email. No auto-responder came back saying he was away. My heart sank.

“Jeffrey. Do you think they got out?”

“Don’t know,” he said staring out the kitchen sink window absentmindedly washing a coffee cup. I could see in his body that he didn’t think so.

Driving the David B
Driving the David B

With our morning chores done, Jeffrey and I sat back down at our computers and read the news flash. “Two missing in Bellingham Boat Fire.” We looked at each other and tears came. The missing two were our friends. We knew it had to be.

***

We drove to the harbor and prepared ourselves for the walk down the dock to the David B. We could see the smoldering creosote pilings, the firefighters, Coast Guard boats, Department of Ecology, and Port employees busy taking care of the situation. I tired to hold in the tears as we walked past the parade of people who had come to look at the dying fire and crumpled buildings. People I love lived there. Do these people here know that? My friends were missing and I tried not to think about them dying in the sunken, twisted jumble of hot corrugated metal and melted fiberglass not so far away. We walked on to the David B. I spent a moment on the back deck trying to take in the scene – trying to not believe that it was real.

The rest of morning I painted below decks. The busy work was a channel for my nervous energy, but the breeze flowing into the David B smelled of burnt plastic and tar. It brought more tears, emotions, and memories.

We met Jim in the fall of 2008 through a friend when we needed a loan for the business. Jim had been recommended to us as someone who understood the needs of a boating business. Through the process of getting the loan we learned that he was boater and was taking a class to get his 100 ton captain’s license. Not long after that we invited him to come north to Alaska with us to help out as a crew member and to show him the Inside Passage so he’d know some great places where he could someday take his own boat.

While I painted, I thought about his first trip with us and how professional he was with our passengers, and then how much fun, Jeffrey, Jim, and I had bar hopping in Ketchikan after the passengers had left.  I thought about how much he liked to read, and how many of the books he brought with him have become part of the David B’s library. I remember him wanting to read late into the night at the galley table and offering  take my one a.m. watch so I could have an uninterrupted night’s sleep.

Dawes Glacier Ice and a Cold Kokanee
Dawes Glacier Ice and a Cold Kokanee

I remembered watching Jim help Jeffrey navigate through the ice in Endicott Arm. I loved watching him at the helm following Jeffrey’s hand signals from the bow. They worked in tandem slowly and carefully dodging icebergs. What was special about Jim was how he was always thinking of new ways to help us promote our business. It was Jim who first suggested that we should dedicate our trips between Bellingham and Ketchikan to boat owners who wanted to learn how to cruise the Inside Passage. Those trips are sold out this year, and I never had a chance to thank him for the idea. I eventually thought about my last email from Jim. It was one asking if he could post some of our trips in the coffee shop that Stirling ran at the top of Gate 3 in Squalicum Harbor. Throughout the day I remembered a friend who was always there to help.

At the end of the day, I cleaned up my painting project and walked out onto the back deck of the David B. Jim and Stirling were still listed as missing. I suspected that they would be for a long time. I watched the smoldering pilings that even Mother Nature couldn’t put out with the downpour she had started an hour or so earlier. As I stared at the destruction, two seals surfaced near the the David B. They looked around the changed harbor and slipped back under water. Watching the seals caused my lower lip to quiver and with a deep breath, I let the sadness sink in a little more. I resigned myself to the reality of their fate. I mourned my missing friends.

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