Rescuers heroic actions recognized after 24 years

Debra Neilson, one of the two survivors of the sinking fishing vessel Wayward Wind, gives her thanks to the Coast Guard HH-3F Pelican helicopter crew who rescued her more than 24 years ago Thursday, July 19, 2012, in Kodiak, Alaska. Neilson later explained that the aircrew also saved the life of her future daughter whom she was carrying at the time of the rescue. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Klingenberg.

Debra Neilson, one of the two survivors of the sinking fishing vessel Wayward Wind, gives her thanks to the Coast Guard HH-3F Pelican helicopter crew who rescued her more than 24 years ago Thursday, July 19, 2012, in Kodiak, Alaska. Neilson later explained that the aircrew also saved the life of her future daughter whom she was carrying at the time of the rescue. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Klingenberg.

By Caitlin Goettler

It looked as if a blizzard had hit Kodiak on Jan. 18, 1988. Temperatures were below freezing, and the wind was howling at 40 miles per hour, blowing the falling snow in every direction. It was one of those days best spent peacefully indoors with a cup of cocoa, a warm blanket and a good book. But out on the water in 15-foot seas, the fishing vessel Wayward Wind was calling for help.

Shortly after midnight one of the ship’s crewmembers notified the ship’s captain, William “Red” Nietupski, that the vessel was taking on water. Nietupski instructed the crewmember and four other people aboard to put on their survival suits.

Aboard the vessel were Nietupski, his fiancée, Debra Nielsen, and crew members James Baglien, Dave Descloux, Michael Descloux and Jay Rasmussen.

While Nietupski tried to pump out the excess water, another crewmember sent out a distress call. Within 30 minutes, the 86-foot trawler was completely submerged and all communication with the vessel was lost.

After an HC-130 Hercules aircraft located two of the crewmembers about 115 miles southwest of Kodiak, an HH-3F Pelican helicopter crew, which included then Lt. Joe Mattina and Lt. Chris Brozterman and Petty Officer 1st Class Marty Heckerman and Petty Officer 2nd Class Claude Brown, arrived on scene.

Rescue swimmers were not used at the air station at that time, and Mattina and his crew had to use several challenging maneuvers to recover the crew of the Wayward Wind in the harsh weather.

The ½ mile of visibility, gusting winds and roaring seas forced the aircraft below 100 feet as the crew successfully hoisted the first survivor in a rescue basket from the water.

Nielsen, who was carrying her unborn child at the time, was in severe shock.

Rasmussen, the second survivor, had injured his shoulder and was unable to pull himself into the rescue basket, forcing the crew to use a scooping maneuver to recover him from the water, which was nearly impossible in such conditions.

After several attempts, the crew successfully lifted Rasmussen into the helicopter just before reaching minimum fuel. Mattina and his crew were then forced to divert to Sitkinak Island for fuel and were relieved by a second Coast Guard helicopter crew.

Despite search efforts throughout the rest of the night, the remaining Wayward Wind crewmembers were not found until much later, about 8 a.m., when the fishing vessel Cougar recovered Nietupski, Baglien, and Dave and Michael Descloux, who had all succumbed to the elements.

Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo, 17th District commander, said he remembered the case. Back then, he said, the Coast Guard didn’t always recognize their crews as they should. he thought the case was overlooked, and at the time, people may have been too critical of the circumstances to recognize the extraordinary effort of these men in very difficult conditions.

Due to the attention and diligence of Capt. Bill Deal, recent commanding officer Air Station Kodiak and his command cadre, including former executive officer Cmdr. Joe Deer, they saw to it their their comrades were not forgotten and that their efforts were called to the attention of those who came before and can serve as an example to current and future crews. Each member of the crew was recognized July 19 when Ostebo presented them with an Air Medal at Air Station Kodiak.

Now retired after achieving higher ranks, the HH-3F Pelican helicopter crew, dressed in flight suits, accepted their awards in front of a crowd of about 300 people in Hangar 3. Among those in the crowd was Nielsen, who still lives in Kodiak with her daughter, Danica, now 24 years old. Nielsen made a presentation of her own and gave each member of the crew a photo of her daughter, a hug and her sincere thanks.

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