A busy night for Air Station Kodiak

Air Station Kodiak rescues 4 from Kimberly

KODIAK, Alaska - A Coast Guard MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter aircrew hoists four crewmembers from the ice nearby their grounded fishing vessel Jan. 25, 2012. Extreme weather conditions left the fishing vessel Kimberly crew stranded in Portage Bay overnight. U.S. Coast Guard video by Air Station Kodiak.

On the dark, windy and bitterly cold night of January 24, 2012, Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak personnel were called into action to combat the havoc being played on mariners in Alaska’s notorious coastal waters.

The crew of the 58-foot fishing vessel Kimberly was witnessing firsthand some of the worst conditions the Gulf of Alaska has to offer that night, reporting winds gusting up to 100 knots. The Kimberly crew sailed into Portage Bay in an effort to escape the ferocity of Shelikof Strait, a common tactic in Alaska maritime practice. Unfortunately, their efforts were met by inexhaustible gusts, ultimately resulting in grounding. There is no better time to call the Coast Guard.

At about 8 p.m., Communications Station Kodiak watchstanders received the Kimberly’s call for help and notified the rescue crews at Air Station Kodiak.

After assessing the situation, a Coast Guard MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crew launched and was en route to the Kimberly with every intention of rescuing the stranded fishermen. However, Mother Nature had other plans.

“The weather in transit wasn’t bad,” said Petty Officer 1st Class James Bogert, an aviation survival technician with Air Station Kodiak.

Bogert’s observation would quickly change, however, as the crew approached the Kimberly.

“When we got on scene it was like being in a very rough wind tunnel with no visual cues in front of the vessel. We were being bounced around like a tin can,” he said.

The Jayhawk crew recorded wind speeds of 80-90 knots as they tried multiple times to lower a hoist cable with a radio to the stranded men. With every safe option exhausted and a dwindling fuel supply, the aircrew was forced to head back to Kodiak, more than 100 miles away. The fishermen had no choice but to wait for calmer weather in the shelter of their vessel.

Over the next several hours constant HC-130 Hercules airplane flights, conducted by three vigilant air crews, as well as another unsuccessful Jayhawk hoist attempt were coordinated with the help of watchstanders at Sector Anchorage.

When a third Jayhawk crew was launched to assist the Kimberly in the still-dark morning, a new and urgent facet presented itself. A second mayday call was received by the command center. The 68-foot fishing vessel Heritage was sinking on the west side of Kodiak Island, and with people in the water, immediate response was required.

The third helicopter crew diverted to the Heritage’s location. Once on scene, a quick inspection determined that there were two people in the water, both wearing their survival suits.

“After a brief crew discussion we decided that a basket deployment in the current conditions would be impossible,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Joshua Harris, an Air Station Kodiak avionics electrical technician. “A direct deployment of the rescue swimmer would be the fastest way to retrieve the people in the water.”

Petty Officer 2nd Class Steven Fischer, an aviation survival technician, went into the water. He quickly reached the first survivor, and in a short time the delicate operation of rescuing the two from the sea began. By the time Fischer and his first frigid passenger were hoisted back to the door of the hovering helicopter, Harris’ hands had gone completely numb. With no dexterity, he was unable to operate the controls necessary to bring the two men inside the cabin. Quick thinking and good communication between Harris and one of the pilots, who had secondary controls to the hoist, got the two inside safely.

Immediately Fischer redeployed into the water, and the second survivor was recovered without a hitch. As all this was happening, the fishing vessel Tuxedni, a good Samaritan vessel, had arrived on scene to assist with the rescue. They were successful in retrieving five people from a life raft floating nearby. All seven crewmembers of the Heritage were now safe.

Meanwhile, the struggle to rescue the stranded crew of the Kimberly was ongoing. Even as the rescue was being performed at the site of the Heritage sinking, a fourth Jayhawk crew was headed to the Portage Bay area.

The crew of the helicopter battled still-fierce winds and abnormal turbulence, but eventually had the Kimberly’s orange life raft in sight.

Lt. Cmdr. James Harkins, Jayhawk pilot and assistant engineer officer of Air Station Kodiak, said it was the coldest environment he and his crew had ever operated in. A combination of the -6-degree temperatures and the 60 knot wind created a wind chill of somewhere between -60 and -40 degrees.

The Kimberly and its life raft were high and dry. The fishing vessel sat awkwardly tilted on the icy shore.

Though far from calm, the winds had decreased enough for a rescue attempt, and the sub-zero temperatures demanded a hasty recovery.

The decision was made to lower Chief Petty Officer Charles Fowler, an Air Station Kodiak aviation survival technician, down to the ground to gauge the situation. From there, Fowler assessed the Kimberly crewmembers to determine who should be hoisted first.

Fowler struggled to get the survivor suffering most from exposure safely into the basket. Petty Officer 2nd Class Joshua McCarthy, an Air Station Kodiak aviation maintenance technician, was faced with the equally daunting task of helping the severely hypothermic man into the cabin safely.

Operations became even more challenging as the second fisherman was lifted to the helicopter. Because of ice from the first rescue retrieval was now on the deck of the helicopter, McCarthy was having trouble pulling the basket through the door. Through coordination with the co-pilot, Lt. David Wright, who expertly operated the hoist controls from his seat in the cockpit, the man was finally brought safely into the cabin.

It was not much longer before the aircrew was able to hoist the other two survivors and Fowler, who was quickly losing feeling in his extremities, to the safety of the Jayhawk.

With all four men safely rescued from their long night of peril, the pilots pointed the helicopter in the direction of Kodiak and headed home. Medical personnel were standing by to treat the survivors of both emergencies.

By the time the long morning was over, the crews of the Heritage and Kimberly had much to be thankful for.

In the unpredictable waters off America’s Last Frontier, knowing that brave Coast Guardsmen and good Samaritans are ready to jump into action when things go wrong is a comforting thought.


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