Coordinated international effort leads to rescue of two men off Costa Rica

By: Petty Officer 3rd Class Levi Read

Every story has a beginning, middle and end. The story of a Coast Guard search and rescue operation is no different.  Often times though, when a search and rescue operation is recounted, you hear how it began and how it ended, but more often than not the middle section goes untold.

This is the untold and behind the scenes look at the successful search and rescue earlier this week of two American citizens off the coast of Costa Rica. This successful rescue operation started early the morning of Monday, April 27, 2009, and ended with the location and rescue of Stephen Szukics, 55, of Fort Worth, Texas and James Winningham, 45, of Murphys, Calif.

Monday, April 27, 2009 3:05 a.m.

Ed Skinner, a search and rescue coordinator at the U.S. Coast Guard Rescue Coordination Center in Alameda, Calif., responds to an Electronic Position Indicating Radio Beacon alert that triggers the response, search and eventual rescue of Szukics and Winningham 50 miles west of Costa Rica. The EPIRB is registered to the Black Pearl, a 55-foot pleasure craft homeported in Loch Lomond Marina, San Francisco.

This and countless other EPIRB alerts are triggered via a series of satellites operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA weather satellites pick up the 406 MHz EPIRB signal and send an electronic message to the United States Mission Control Center which then electronically accesses the registered information entered online by the owner of the EPIRB. The current position and registration information is relayed electronically from the USMCC to the nearest rescue coordination center.

After receiving the alert from the USMCC, Skinner starts to gather information in order to narrow down a possible search area. From a complete registration of the EPIRB, the Coast Guard has a description of the vessel, name of the vessel, and personal contact names and numbers. And, after talking with Szukics sister, the Coast Guard also now has a copy of the Black Pearl’s float plan and last known port call, a small town in Mexico.

3:56 a.m.

The Coast Guard receives two possible positions from the NOAA weather satellites, 138 nautical miles south southwest of the Mexico and Guatemala border, or 50 nautical miles west of Cabo Velas, Costa Rica.

4:01 a.m.

The RCC in Alameda runs an Automated Mutual-Assistance Vessel Rescue alert notifying merchant vessels in the vicinity of the EPIRB signal of a possible distress at sea. AMVER is sponsored by the United States Coast Guard and is a voluntary global ship reporting system used worldwide by search and rescue authorities to arrange for assistance to persons in distress at sea.

4:37 a.m.

Because of the location of the Black Pearl’s EPIRB signal, watchstanders at the Rescue Coordination Center in Alameda contact the rescue coordination center in Costa Rica, in compliance with the Safety of Life at Sea Treaty of 1974.

The SOLAS Convention is generally regarded as one of the most important of all international treaties concerning the safety of merchant ships. The first version was adopted in 1914 in response to the Titanic disaster. This treaty outlines each participating country’s search and rescue area of responsibility.

8:23 a.m.

RCC Alameda passes the updated EPIRB position to a law enforcement aircraft in the vicinity and asks them to fly over the position. The air crew does not see any signs of distress. The aircraft is able to hear the 121.5 MHz homing signal but can not track it because the aircraft does not have direction-finding equipment.

11:44 a.m.

RCC Alameda contacts an amateur radio operator and requests assistance with HAM NET radio communications. The operator passes information about possible people in distress to fellow HAM radio operators in the South American region.

2:13 p.m.

Another search is conducted by a law enforcement aircraft with negative results. The air crew confirms they hear a 121.5 MHz beacon and tries to hail the vessel on channel 16 VHF, but receives no response.

3:15 p.m.

An AMVER vessel headed to San Diego diverts to the search area with an estimated time of arrival of 7:30 p.m.

4:30 p.m.

The law enforcement aircraft completes another search with negative results.

7:25 p.m.

The AMVER vessel reports they have a small craft on their radar, approximately four nautical miles off their port bow. The small craft is not responding to radio calls. The same AMVER vessel arrives on scene shortly afterward and sees no signs of distress nor anything on the radar. The vessel is released and continues toward San Diego.

8:30 p.m.

In coordination with Costa Rican authorities, the RCC Alameda formulates a plan to divert the Coast Guard Cutter Sherman, a 378-foot high endurance cutter homeported in Alameda, Calif. on a law enforcement patrol in the Eastern Pacific, and conduct a first light search with a  C-130 aircraft beginning the next morning. The Sherman has an ETA at the search area of  7 a.m. Tuesday.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009 2:11 a.m.

RCC Alameda receives the 22nd position update of the EPIRB signal from NOAA weather satellites. The EPIRB signal has moved nearly 17 miles since the original position was passed 22 hours ago.  The new position of the EPIRB signal is passed to the Sherman.

6:30 a.m.

A Coast Guard C-130 crew from Air Station Sacramento is airborne and en route to the predetermined search area. Factors used for selecting a search area include accuracy of data, the number and capabilities of search and rescue assets, environmental conditions, size of search target and type of detection aids.

7:20 a.m.

The Coast Guard C-130 aircrew spots a life raft in the vicinity of the EPIRB position and contacts the Sherman, which is approximately 50 miles away and en route. The ETA of the Sherman is 2.5 hours.  The C-130 aircrew confirms that there are two survivors in the life raft.

The Coast Guard assets that eventually locate Szukics and Winningham in their life raft have direction-finding equipment that was able to home in on an exact position being transmitted via satellite.

7:50 a.m.

The C-130 aircrew drops supplies to the life raft that include food, water and a radio. The Sherman makes communication with the two men in the life raft and confirm they are Szukics and Winningham from the Black Pearl.

8:40 a.m.

RCC Alameda contacts Costa Rican authorities and reports locating the mariners that had been missing.

9:34 a.m.

The Sherman arrives on scene, launches its smallboat and prepares to rescue the two survivors.

9:48 a.m.

The crew of the Sherman successfully transfers the two survivors from the life raft to the cutter.

“The captain of the Black Pearl helped save his own life and the life of his shipmate by taking his EPIRB with him when they abandoned ship…great move,” said Capt. Jay Jewess, Chief of Incident Management Branch Eleventh Coast Guard District. “Without doing this, I’m not sure we would have found them as the C-130 was able to home right in on them using their DF-430.”

“They told me they were pretty darn happy to see that Coast Guard aircraft wave its wings at them this morning,” said Capt. Mathew Bliven, commanding officer Coast Guard Cutter Sherman. “Fortunately they did a number of things right to ensure their survival until we could reach them, such as having a survival bag and carrying a 406 MHz EPIRB.”

The two men where brought aboard and medically evaluated and will be transported to land at the cutter’s next port call where they will be allowed to continue to their planned destinations.

“You never know when the sea is going to deal you a bad hand, so taking those precautions probably saved their lives,” said Bliven. “It certainly made the Coast Guard’s job a lot easier. My crew is glad it turned out well and that we get to return them safely to their loved ones. That’s a good day at sea for us.”

The coordinated effort between RCC Alameda, Calif., RCC Costa Rica, C-130 aircrew, and the Sherman made sure there was a successful beginning, middle and end to this search and rescue operation.

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