Coast Guard Flight Crews Recount Braving Storm to Save Nine Lives Monday

Portsmouth, Va.–Though at the controls of the HH-60 Jayhawk helicopter Monday morning, Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Daniel Molthen was taking commands from the flight mechanic in the doorway of the aircraft.

“Forward left. Baaaack right,” crackled over his radio earpiece. Aviation Maintenance Technician 2nd Class Dan Cancetty’s words were almost lost in the 50-knot winds howling through the open door: “Forward left. Baaaaack right.”

Molthen was attempting to hold his helicopter steady in the buffeting winds to make life easier on the person dangling below it in a cage. This was the second person he and his crew had hoisted aboard this morning from the sailboat Seaker, which was see-sawing violently in the storm-tossed ocean below, ten miles from the coast of North Carolina, and closer than that to the treacherous Diamond Shoals.

Suddenly a mountain of water loomed ahead of Molthen.

Deftly, the pilot brought the helicopter up, letting a massive wave pass below him. Not only must he concentrate on the commands in his ear, he was responsible for avoiding any obstacles that threatened the aircraft. This included not only monstrous waves, but a violently dancing sailboat mast that threatened to impale the helicopter.

“It was pretty hairy. I tried to keep the aircraft between the people in the water and the boat so it wouldn’t be any danger to them,” Molthen remembers a day later. With tumultuous seas, there is always the risk that people in the water can be swept into or under a vessel. “But that was pretty tough considering the weather. We were looking at 25-foot waves, sometimes 40 feet. I tried to stay out of the way of the mast, but I had to hover directly over it a couple times, right about 20 feet.”

Molthen and his crew’s rescue would be the first of 3 successful search and rescue missions that Coast Guard units accomplished Monday. A little past 6 that morning Sector North Carolina received a message from Seaker that she was drifting toward the shoal water. Though two Coast Guard 47-foot Motor Life Boats were dispatched to rescue its crew, the helicopter reached Seaker first.

Not everyone was eager to leave her, though.

“When we landed [at Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City, N.C.] and shut down, we had an opportunity to talk to the sailors,” recalls Molthen, who said that this mission was one of the most challenging he’d flown since arriving at Elizabeth City from Alaska two years ago. “One of the women was pretty shaken up, and we had to help her to the ambulance. She kept thanking us, over and over again: ‘thank you, thank you.’”

“The gentleman who was the captain was quieter. It was like he was stunned. Initially he didn’t want to get off of the boat when the rescue swimmer arrived . . . he wanted to wait it out.”

A command decision from Molthen’s co-pilot, Lt. j.g. Andy Clayton, overrode the man’s recalcitrance, though. Despite the potential loss of his sailboat, he and his wife and his daughter were fortunate to escape without injury.

Unfortunately, the weather didn’t leave everyone unscathed.

Two hundred miles away, night slowly evaporated into a leaden dawn as the 3-person crew of the sailboat Lou Pantai skated down the surface of 40- to 50-feet waves in their life raft. The night before, their sleep had been interrupted when a rogue wave capsized their boat. The rest of the night was spent pumping water out of the flooding cabin. As dawn broke, the Lou Pantai righted, but the crew abandoned her as she began to sink. They then climbed into the life raft.

This was the condition in which Aviation Survival Technician 2nd Class Drew Dazzo saw them as he leaned out of the door of another Coast Guard helicopter hovering above. After sizing up the situation, his pilot, Lt. Cmdr. Nevada Smith, made the decision to send him into the tempest below; a choice he said later would be his hardest of the day.

When he hit the water, Dazzo felt like he was caught in a spin cycle.

“It was like a washing machine there,” says Dazzo, who quickly made his way to the life raft, the top of which had been shredded by wind. He reached it and the shivering souls aboard. Now came the decision about whom he should put in the rescue basket first.

“I asked who was hurt most, and they all pointed to a guy huddled in the middle, whose ribs we later found out were broken,” Dazzo remembers. “I got him out first, and then the rest. Up in the helicopter I gave the injured man oxygen, but he was stable.”

Because of their location, Smith made the decision to land at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point in North Carolina. After landing, himself troubled by back spasms, Dazzo joined the three sailors in the emergency room. While receiving medical attention—and letting their passports dry out for perusal by immigration and customs officials—the sailors expressed disbelief at the change in fate brought on by the storm.

“They said they had heard that it was supposed to be just a low pressure front going through,” says Dazzo. “They said they had no idea.”

Monday’s final rescue was injury-less, but no less dramatic.

The sailboat Illusion was en route to Massachusetts from Bahamas with three people aboard when her anchor came loose during the storm. Waves breaking over the ship’s bow caused the anchor to beat a tattoo against her aluminum hull, ultimately piercing it. Taking on water, the crew initiated its Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB), which notified the Coast Guard it was in distress and its location.

At about the same time, Lt. Scott Walden was behind the controls of a third H-60 sitting on the tarmac at the Morehead City, N.C., airport. He had arrived at Air Station Elizabeth City Monday morning expecting a day filled with paperwork. Instead, he was told, he said, “to get suited up and ready to fly.”

A signal from another EPIRB had been reported off the coast, and Walden and his crew headed out anticipating a rescue. When a C-130 failed to locate the missing vessel, the Flying Colours, Walden flew to Morehead City to refuel and wait. As he was topped off, the call came in to assist the Illusion. On the way there, though, the weather offered a reality check.

“We had been briefed that there would be low visibility, but 100 miles out, we ran into that plus rain and significant turbulence,” says Walden. “We picked our way through it, though, and the C-130 vectored us to the boat’s location.”

Unfortunately, like a mirage, the Illusion’s position was continually changing. Its crew hadn’t been able to furl all of their sails entirely; some canvas remained up, and with the winds, it was propelling the ship along at a smart six-knot clip. This complicated Walden and his crew’s mission. Usually, the rescue swimmer would coax people off the boat one at a time into the water adjacent to it, and connected to him, have them hoisted into the hovering helicopter. However, with its sail up, the Illusion would leave the swimmer far behind in the water.

“We deliberated a bit, trying to figure out which was the best way to bring them on board,” recounts Walden.

Then fortune smiled on them.

“All of the sudden, the clouds parted and it cleared up—we had blue sky for a minute,” remembers Walden. “The waves were still bad, as were the winds, which made life difficult for the flight mechanic. But we had to proceed.”

The flight mechanic, Aviation Maintenance Technician 3rd Class Justin Cimbak, began lowering the swimmer to the water. Disconnecting himself from the line, the swimmer made his way to the first sailor, a female. In the meantime, Cimbak retrieved the line. He then attached the basket, sent it back down, hoisted her aboard, and then retrieved the swimmer. By that time the boat had traveled almost a mile. The helicopter followed, and Cimbak repeated the same process. For the final hoist, he retrieved the distressed sailor and the swimmer simultaneously. As Walden had predicted, the weather left Cimbak beat.

“It was so much more difficult. The basket blows around in the wind and it creates quite a workout. You’re guiding the steering cable with your hand, so it creates quite a strain on your arm.”

The strain was also taxing in other ways.

“I was nervous at first,” says Cimbak. “You always want to limit the amount of hoisting you do . . . The more you hoist, the longer you have to hover. It consumes fuel … but [also] you want to limit the amount of time you spend on scene. The less time you spend on scene limits the amount of stuff that could go wrong.”

“Adrenaline kind of took over, though: total reality was thrown at us. But I was really confident that we could save these people. And we got it done.”

After dropping off the Illusion’s three crew members unhurt in Morehead City, Walden and his crew ultimately arrived back at Elizabeth City themselves at 6:30 that night, exhausted. It was a day like none he had never experienced—and a far cry from the tedium of paperwork. Like his fellow pilot Smith, who described his feelings following his successful mission as akin to “the end of the championship game—and you won,” Walden was elated.

“We saved what, nine lives? That’s a pretty good day’s work for the Air Station.”

As well as for the rest of the Coast Guard units involved in the search and rescue attempts, including the small boats dispatched initially for the Seaker; the command centers at Sector North Carolina and Fifth District; a C-130 crew from Air Station Clearwater, Florida, and; the cutter Tampa, the latter two of which are continuing to search for Flying Colours and her four-person crew off the coast of North Carolina.

Hopefully, there will be yet one more happy ending to Monday’s drama.

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