Rescuers on the Rio Grande: Coast Guard team saves lives at the border

Members from Coast Guard Maritime Safety & Security Team Houston lift a child from the reeds on the U.S. riverbank of the Rio Grande, July 7, 2022. The boy and his mother, two non-citizens who crossed the river, got stranded and signaled for the Coast Guard crew’s help. (U.S. Coast Guard photo, courtesy Maritime Safety & Security Team Houston)

Members from Coast Guard Maritime Safety & Security Team Houston lift a child from the reeds on the U.S. riverbank of the Rio Grande, July 7, 2022. (U.S. Coast Guard photo, courtesy Maritime Safety & Security Team Houston)

Story by Petty Officer 1st Class Corinne Zilnicki

Search and rescue cases typically have a clear beginning, middle and end. Dispatchers receive a call for help and work swiftly to pinpoint the location of anyone in trouble. Coast Guard crews jump into boats or aircraft, rush to the scene and render assistance. Then the crews bring distressed, shaken boaters back to shore, deliver the wounded or ill to higher medical care and reunite families with their missing loved ones.

Search and rescue on the Rio Grande, however, is different.

Coast Guard members patrolling a 47-mile, uncharted portion of the riverine border between the U.S. and Mexico often find themselves swept up in the middle of a dire emergency, compelled to react to life-or-death circumstances with little to no forewarning.

On the early morning of June 2, an underway Coast Guard crew received word from U.S. Border Patrol agents there might be non-citizens trying to cross the river around the bend up ahead.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Jarrett Guerra, coxswain of the 29-foot Response Boat–Small crew from  Coast Guard Maritime Safety & Security Team Houston, eased the boat’s throttles forward, peering through the shadows for signs of movement. His two crewmen, Petty Officer 2nd Class Jake Flores and Petty Officer 3rd Class Corey Connolly, clicked on their flashlights and maneuvered to the bow of the boat to stand lookout.

Suddenly, their flashlight beams fell upon an overturned raft in the middle of the river, illuminating a scene of utter distress. Two women were thrashing in the water near the raft, struggling to stay afloat. At first one of the women was clutching a small figure, a 1-year-old boy, but within seconds the child slipped from her grasp.

The baby boy drifted toward the bow of Coast Guard boat, then moved rapidly to its stern, at which point Guerra instinctively yanked the vessel’s throttles back into neutral. Now unable to actively maneuver his boat, Guerra fixed his gaze on the small boy as the current pulled him farther away.

“I can vividly remember the infant bobbing face down in the water,” Guerra recalled. “To me, that baby looked lifeless.”

The coxswain shouted for his crew to get the baby out of the water. At nearly the exact same moment, Jake Flores shouted back, “I’m going in!”

In one seamless, well-practiced movement, Flores stripped off his law enforcement gear and leaped off the boat, swimming doggedly after the baby boy.

“I just couldn’t let a kid drown in front of me,” Flores explained.

Within seconds, he grabbed the infant, fought the current back to the boat and held the limp child up to his teammate, Corey Connolly.

Shining his flashlight down at the baby, Connolly noted motionless limbs, a chest not rising and a pallid, gray face. Connolly, who had only been in the Coast Guard for a year and a half, immediately dropped to his knees and began CPR.

“At that point, my training just kicked in,” Connolly said. “You go through first aid training hoping to not have to use it on anyone, but I’m glad it helped at that moment.”

While Connolly administered chest compressions, coxswain Jarrett Guerra turned his attention to the two women still splashing nearby, clinging to the side of the vessel. He pulled the terrified, exhausted duo from the water and helped his teammate, Flores, clamber back into the boat.

All eyes were on Connolly, still rhythmically pressing on the baby boy’s chest, head bowed as he worked. After about three rounds of CPR, the infant stirred, then began coughing up water.

“I was very relieved and happy to see he was OK,” Connolly said. “It would have been devastating if it had not gone as well as it did.”

Flores, a father to a 2 year old and 4 year old, scooped the baby into his arms, gently soothing the small child, who was dressed only in a soaked t-shirt, shorts and doubled-up diaper.

The Coast Guard crew headed to the riverbank and convened with an emergency medical services team from McAllen Border Patrol Station, who transported the survivors to nearby Mission Regional Medical Center for further medical assessment and care.

This was not MSST Houston’s last encounter with a child in grave danger that month. On June 16, two weeks after Guerra and company’s rescue of the women and baby, Petty Officer 1st Class Keith Coddington was underway with three teammates when they received a call from Border Patrol agents.

“We heard that a raft full of people was getting ready to cross the river, but beyond that, we didn’t know many details,” said Coddington. “Sometimes we don’t really know exactly what’s happening until we get on scene.”

As soon as the Coast Guard crew rounded the bend and spotted the raft, bedlam ensued. The coyote, or human smuggler piloting the raft, instantly jumped overboard and made a beeline for the Mexican side of the river. Three of the 12 non-citizens aboard the overloaded raft panicked and followed suit. One child successfully swam to the U.S. riverbank, one hoisted himself back into the crowded raft, but the third child, a teenage boy between the ages of 12 and 15, struggled to keep his head above the water.

Crew members Cmdr. Dawn Prebula, Chief Petty Officer Charles Havlik and Petty Officer 3rd Class Jacob Hatcher hurled life rings, tossed heaving lines and extended a boat hook to the drowning teen to no avail; the boy’s head vanished under the water.

Without hesitation, Chief Havlik shed his gear and jumped into the Rio Grande, reaching out for the submerged teenager. Wrapping his arm around the boy, Havlik paddled back to his team’s vessel and helped push the teen up onto the deck. The boy was shaken, but otherwise unharmed.

The Coast Guard crew secured the raft and the 10 people still aboard, including four more children ranging from toddlers to teenagers. The families were disheveled, dehydrated and weary; the 2-year-old child Prebula hoisted out of the raft bawled nonstop, impossible to console.

Keith Coddington, also a certified EMT who spends his rare free time volunteering with the McAllen Border Patrol Station EMS team, said non-citizens crossing the Rio Grande are often in rough condition and susceptible to environmental hazards.

“A lot of people aren’t wearing life jackets and don’t know how to swim,” Coddington explained. “They’re often exhausted, hungry and thirsty. Then they try to start swimming and are sometimes unable to do so.”

To discourage such risky behavior, Coast Guard crews deployed to the Rio Grande work with Border Patrol agents to deter illegal crossings. The mere sight of the Coast Guard vessels gliding up and down the river is often impactful enough to dissuade non-citizens from rafting or swimming across; in June 2022, MSST Houston crews successfully deterred 748 non-citizens from traversing the river.

“Deterrence happens so search and rescue doesn’t have to happen,” Guerra reasoned.

When deterrence fails or people evade detection, Coast Guard crews do what they are predominantly sent by the Department of Homeland Security to do: save lives. In June 2022, MSST Houston crews saved seven lives and assisted 37.

According to Lt. Josh Moore, MSST Houston’s deployable team leader, rigorous training is key to the unit’s success on the Rio Grande.

“Our coxswains are highly trained and possess more advanced qualifications than the average boat driver,” Moore explained. “When they run into situations like these, it’s almost second nature for them to act quickly.”

All MSST Houston personnel undertake water survival training biannually; members jump off 12-foot platforms, then swim and tread water while fully dressed in their uniforms and tactical gear. Members also practice quickly shedding their law enforcement gear before entering the water, a skill exhibited by both Flores and Havlik during their rescues of the drowning children.

Beyond their finely honed skillsets, Moore lauded his teammates’ commitment to saving lives and their will to make a difference in challenging situations.

“We know our guys are great and that they are good at heart,” said Moore. “As heroic as their actions were, I’m not at all surprised by their decision to jump in and save people in need.”

Rescuers on the Rio Grande

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