Before his death on Feb. 9 at 53, Phil Harris, the tough and colorful captain of the Cornelia Marie on Discovery’s Deadliest Catch, fought against all odds, came out of a medically-induced coma following lengthy surgery, spent a few more days with friends and family – and set his two sons on a course for a strong future.
“I think that miraculous recovery that happened so rapidly and blew the doctors’ minds away was so that he could say the things that he had to say to the people he had to say them to,” says Dan Mittman, Harris’s best friend for 36 years.
As Harris recovered from his recent stroke at an Anchorage hospital, “I got five days to actually talk with him,” says son Josh, 26. “We had nine days total that we were there to enjoy a few moments with him. We had our closest people there and it was awesome. ”
Coping with Pain
Phil Harris began this January’s opilio crab-fishing season dealing with injury and concerns about his health on the high seas, according to friends and family. “You talk about pain,” says Josh, “but my dad had four crushed disks in his back, so he had been in pain the whole trip and that affected his fishing, too.”
According to Todd Stanley, the Catch producer and cameraman who’d spent years with Harris, “he seemed like he’d just gotten tireder and tireder. I mean, his pulmonary embolism [in 2008] really did it in for him.”
After hurricane-force winds knocked Harris from his bunk to a desk two years ago, and Stanley and the men on the boat forced Harris back to port to address his blood clot and bad health, the man who had an on-the-job habit of smoking cigarettes, eating high-calorie diets with his crew, drinking cases of Red Bull and downing pots of coffee knew he had to alter his lifestyle.
“He did cut back on energy drinks, quite a bit from what he’d usually do,” says Josh, “but [doctors] have determined that smoking was the cause of this, and that was always his biggest habit. He had changed a lot of his habits but just could never kick the smoking. He started working with that electronic cigarette but, not used to it, he didn’t know how to charge it. He just kept smoking.”
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While off-loading crab in Alaska on Jan. 29, Cornelia Marie engineer Steve Ward found Phil Harris on the floor of his room, unable to move. Harris called for son Josh, who in turn, got Todd Stanley to stay with him while Josh called 911.
“The whole left side of his face was in paralysis, and that was hard,” Josh says. “He couldn’t move his arms or anything, he was just paralyzed on the floor.”
After being treated “damn near two years to the day,” says Josh, at the same St. Paul Sound clinic that helped him with his blood clot, Phil was medivacked to a hospital in Anchorage and underwent a long operation.
Crucial Days in Anchorage
A few days after Jan. 31, Phil Harris came out of a medically induced coma and right away started asking for friends to spend time with him.
“Phil and I have sat up and had many arguments about what it is to produce a good story,” says cameraman Stanley. “When he called me into the room that day, after 20 minutes of trying to understand what he was saying, because he could barely talk, he scribbled on a piece of paper, ‘Got to get the ending, ending to the story.’ I said, ‘Do you want me filming?’ He just looked at me with those blue eyes, man, and he was shaking his head yes, and shaking his hand with excitement.”
‘So He Could Be at Peace’
In the four days prior to his death, “he was Phil,” says Mittman. “We sat up and talked until midnight, not constantly because of catnaps, but that was our quiet time away from the cameras. We talked in detail, and he had regrets, and he shared them with me and he probably shared them with his sons. He accomplished what he needed to get done so he could be at peace.”
Harris talked to younger son Jake, 24, whom he told PEOPLE in 2008 “has fishing in his blood,” about the business. “I’m going to be looking at that [captain’s] chair in a different way,” Jake says. “We definitely talked about it, but I just didn’t expect this to happen so soon. That’s definitely something where I would take over and take the responsibility.”
As for his older son, “he told me to get out of fishing,” Josh says. “I do love fishing, don’t get me wrong, but it was one of those deals where he wanted to see me do something better. He gave me the encouragement. My life goal was to show him I could be a man, you know, and I could fish, and I did the best job that I could, and he recognized that as being a good job and gave me kudos.”
But on Feb. 9, after walking for a bit and working on physical therapy, Phil Harris sat down in his bed next to best friend Dan Mittman to take a break. “He said, ‘Danny, I don’t feel as good as I did yesterday,’ ” Mittman recalls. “They rolled about five doctors through there and they said, ‘You can stay here,’ but, I understood, though.”
Later that day, Phil died with his closest family and friends surrounding him.
For more on the life of Phil Harris, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday. For information on memorials to Phil, go to CaptainPhilHarris.com.