Tragedy Spawns Heroes

By Petty Officer 2nd Class Christopher Evanson

25 years ago, a tragic event claimed the lives of 31 Merchant Marines, and the Coast Guard Helicopter Rescue Swimmer Program was conceived to prevent such disasters from ever happening again.  The program has been a guardian angel to many fates nearly taken by the sea.

On the morning of Feb. 12, 1983, gale force winds and 40-foot waves wreaked havoc off the coast of the small Eastern Shore community of Chincoteague, Va. Conditions were the perfect recipe for disaster, a recipe that eventually claimed the lives of 31 mariners by day’s end. This tragic event proved to be more catastrophic because the Coast Guard was not prepared to respond. The sad conclusion of the S.S. Marine Electric served as a humbling blow to Coast Guard readiness, and the motto of Semper Paratus. The sacrifice of these mariners, however, indirectly saved the lives of thousands of men and women who would confront the mercy of the sea in the years to follow. The doom of the Marine Electric spawned the Coast Guard Helicopter Rescue Swimmer Program, and a new generation of lifesavers at sea.

Tragedy at Sea

The S.S. Marine Electric, a 587-foot motor vessel transporting coal departed Norfolk, Va., for Brayton Point, Mass., on Feb. 10, 1983. Thirty-four merchant mariners were aboard as a winter storm pummeled the lower Chesapeake Bay.  If four-foot seas within the bay were harsh, the seas awaiting the Marine Electric in the open ocean were in excess of 40 feet.

On Feb. 12, 1983, at approximately 2:51 a.m., a Coast Guard watch stander in Ocean City, Md., was notified by the master of the Marine Electric, reporting his vessel was taking on water near the front end of the ship. By 3 a.m., the entire crew was mustered on deck near the starboard lifeboats preparing to abandon ship. At a quarter after 4 a.m., as the merchant mariners were preparing the lifeboats, the ship was struck by a powerful jolt, possibly a rogue wave, capsizing the vessel to the starboard side. The Marine Electric crew was thrown into the frigid Mid-Atlantic waters recorded at 37 degrees Fahrenheit approximately 30-miles off the coast of Chincoteague. What was an initial distress call now became a massive search and rescue case, but the following events proved far more difficult than ever imagined.

At the time, Coast Guard flight crews did not have the ability or power to deploy rescue swimmers in the sea to recover victims. As strange as it may seem, a crewmember simply lowered a rescue basket from the helicopter in the vicinity of a distressed person in the water. The rescue relied almost entirely on the victim mustering the strength to get in the basket on his or her own. In cold temperatures where shock and hypothermia were prevalent, this practice proved futile.

When a Coast Guard helicopter crew based at Air Station Elizabeth City, N.C., arrived on-scene shortly after 5 a.m., the water was flush with strobe lights, yet little sign of life existed. Not until 6:05 a.m. was a Navy rescue swimmer able to assist with the recovery. The Navy dispatched a helicopter crew from Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach, Va., which had rescue swimmers trained for search and rescue. One-by-one with the help of the crew of the 82-foot Coast Guard Cutter Point Highland, the Navy rescue swimmer recovered the bodies of the Marine Electric crew from the surface; nearly three hours after the vessel capsized.

Of the 34-crewmembers aboard the Marine Electric, 27 people were recovered; only three survived. Seven Marine Electric crewmembers were never found, possibly still aboard the ship. The deceased were later pronounced dead by medical examiners who indicated the cause of death to be hypothermia and or drowning. Meanwhile, as the sun rose, the Marine Electric had already begun a slow descent into oblivion, beneath the sea where it lay in perpetuity.

Aftermath

Following this tragedy, the Coast Guard launched one of the biggest Marine Board of Investigations in its history. Making the case more overwhelming were congressional representatives seeking to know how such a disaster could happen, and more importantly how can a similar scenario be averted. After several congressional hearings, the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 1984 was passed to ensure the Coast Guard was properly equipped to respond to such cases.  An excerpt of the act reads, “The Commandant of the Coast Guard shall use such sums as are necessary, from amounts appropriated for the operational maintenance of the Coast Guard, to establish a helicopter rescue swimmer program for the purpose of training selected Coast Guard personnel in rescue swimming skills.”

Introduction of the Guardian

“The Aviation Survival Technician (AST) rating’s job which was created in 1969 has always been to inspect and maintain life support equipment, perform ground handling and servicing of aircraft, and conduct aviation administration duties,” said Master Chief Petty Officer Donald Murray, Coast Guard Aviation Survival Technician Rating Force Manager.

The Coast Guard Helicopter Rescue Swimmer Program would become an extension of the AST mission objective, beginning very subtly in the fall of 1984, as a result of the Marine Electric tragedy. The Coast Guard joined forces with the Navy, which permitted prospective Coast Guard helicopter rescue swimmers to train with fellow Navy swimmers at the U. S. Navy Rescue Swimmer School at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla. The rating initially known as Aviation Survivalman or ASM graduated five members in this first class.

After a few years of training with the Navy, it became apparent the Coast Guard needed to make modifications because some of the methods taught at the joint service school were not applicable to the Coast Guard search and rescue mission. These methods included scuba, deploying parachutes, tree extraction, and mountain rescue. The Coast Guard’s main emphasis is peacetime rescues, not downed military recovery methods. In addition, the program was not without its challenges. The new feature to Coast Guard aviation generated hesitation and concern from pilots with deploying swimmers in hazardous conditions.

“When the program first became operational, there was considerable reluctance to deploy rescue swimmers except under generally favorable conditions, but it soon became apparent, however, that Coast Guard rescue swimmers would frequently be utilized in extreme weather conditions,” said retired Lt. Cmdr. Richard M. Wright, in a 1996 article he authored titled “Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer Program”.

Rescue swimmers assigned to Air Station Elizabeth City officially became the first operational unit with helicopter rescue swimmers March 5, 1985, with air stations throughout the country following suit throughout the following years. “The Coast Guard went fully operational with the rescue swimmer program in October of 1991 meaning all Aviation Survivalmen, [first class petty officer] and below stood rescue swimmer duty at every Coast Guard air station across the country,” said Murray.

Since its inception, the Coast Guard Helicopter Rescue Swimmer program has enhanced the Coast Guard search and rescue mission. “The addition of a Rescue Swimmer asset to Helicopter search and rescue teams has had significant impact on the mission. Hurricane Katrina is our most recent reminder of the value of this asset,” said Senior Chief Petty Officer Lewis Hart, who supervises the Aviation Survival Technician “A” school in Elizabeth City.
In the two-plus decades of the programs existence, several innovations in training have allowed rescue swimmers to adapt to unpredictable situations that they often encounter.

“The Rescue Swimmer Program has evolved in a number of ways but mostly in more advanced gear and training. The development of the Advanced Helicopter Rescue School in Astoria, Ore., helps train AST’s in advanced techniques such as vertical surface rescue, sea cave rescue, heavy surf rescue, and swift water rescue,” said Hart. In addition, innovations in sport science became an objective in training rescue swimmers. “The AST ‘A’ School has also developed a Train the Trainer ‘C’ School that teaches advance fitness and exercise physiology for training AST airmen and for operational fitness,” added Hart.

It has been 25 years since 31 souls from the Marine Electric perished. Since this tragedy, it can be said that many lives have been indirectly saved. It is sometimes though tragedy that good can be extracted, and the Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer has fostered this. Coast Guard Helicopter Rescue swimmers have saved or assisted countless lives in the most harrowing of circumstances. In Hurricane Katrina, more than three-thousand lives were saved as the search and rescue operation unfolded on live television. In addition to survival skills in extreme elements, rescue swimmers are trained emergency medical technicians employing basic skills to victims while transporting to medical facilities ashore.

Nevertheless, perhaps the most important thing to remember is that rescue swimmers do not operate alone. It takes an entire flight crew to make saving lives a reality. “Rescue swimmers are highly visible in search and rescue cases and subsequently receive a lot of media attention,” said Hart. “It would be fair to say that the media reports deemphasize the team concept with regard to the rest of the crew in such cases,” he added. With lessons learned, the Coast Guard stands by for the next search and rescue case, always ready.

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One Comment

  1. There were those who recognised the need for helicoprer rescue swimmers in 1981.

    The SAR case study pertinent to the MV Prinsendam incident was completed February 3, 1981.

    Rear Admiral Robert J. Knapp, Commander, Seventeenth Coast Guard District wrote “The training and expertise of the Air Force pararescuemen was responsible for the survival of passengers in the last lifeboat. It is notable that we were forced to rely on another agency to provide these personnel. I recommend we develop a similar, highly-trained, well equipped rescue elite.”