And now for the rest of the story

Petty Officer 3rd Class Holli Satterlee, a Coast Guard Sector Anchorage, Alaska, watchstander, receives a hug of gratitude from Dennis Dunn at a meeting Oct. 12, 2012. Dunn and three friends were rescued by a Coast Guard helicopter crew after their brief and garbled mayday call was heard by Satterlee as she stood watch in the Sector Anchorage search and rescue command center Sept. 20, 2012. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class David Mosley

An Air Station Kodiak-based MH-65 Dolphin helicopter crew, forward deployed to Cordova was called upon to rescue four hunters whose boat sank and stranded them on a remote beach 13 miles northwest of Cordova Sept. 12, 2012.

The helicopter crew located the four men and safely returned them to Cordova, however, the rescue case could have quickly turned into a tragedy if Petty Officer 3rd Class Holli Satterlee, a Coast Guard Sector Anchorage watchstander, had missed the hunter’s short, and extremely garbled, mayday call for help. Her alertness at her post, listening for mariners in distress, allowed her to catch the brief call for help that resulted in four lives being saved.

That emergency call led to a tale that included man against nature, close calls and a little luck before it was all over. In the words of Paul Harvey, “and now for the rest of the story.”

Former soldiers and friends Dennis Dunn and Matt Palmer both residents of Alaska’s Mat-su Valley were goat hunting at Point Gravina, in Prince William Sound, with Matt’s dad Joe Palmer a Boise, Idaho, resident, and their friend Tom Daniel, a Lacrosse, Wisc., resident.

“During the week out there, we had terrible weather,” said Matt Palmer. “We were watching the weather forecast and thought that we had a window to get back to Cordova, but on the decided day the weather started looking bad.”

Despite the local forecast for bad weather, the hunters decided to try and make a run to Cordova aboard their 19-foot boat. Before leaving, they made the decision to place their small inflatable boat on board with them – a decision that directly resulted in their rescue.

Their trip started off well, but it quickly turned into a battle to stay alive.

“We came around the corner into Orca Bay and it changed just like that,” said Matt Palmer with a snap of his fingers. “It was just as the forecast predicted. 60 knot winds and six-foot waves that were building (in size) by the moment! We were stuck and could not turn the boat around for fear of capsizing.”

Matt Palmer steered the boat into the waves fighting the winds and seas in a relentless battle that he likened to being in a washing machine. Everything changed for the worse when they had to cross Sheep Bay, they began taking on water over the bow and portside.

“The bilge was pumping and things seemed fine, when all of the sudden I felt the boat get heavy in the rear and I had water coming into the pilot house around my knees,” said Matt Palmer.

The relentless wind and waves had taken a toll on their boat and it was going down. All Matt Palmer could do was make a quick radio call for help and then abandon ship with his father and friends.

“We ended up in the little boat that we had brought on board,” said Dunn. “We were abandoning ship”

According to Dunn the transfer to the smaller boat did not go smoothly. Joe Palmer became tangled in rope and was pulled under water before he was able to get free. The men also had to cut the smaller vessel free of the 19-foot boat that threatened to drag them all under water. Once free, they were able to recover an oar, a little food, some plastic bags and a large tarp.

With land nearby, they made their way to the beach while using a “zippy bag” to bail water from the boat, keeping them afloat. Not knowing if their mayday call had been heard, they set about making shelter by using the tarp as a wind and rain break.

“We went into the wood line, built a shelter out of the tarp and built a fire,” said Dunn. “We were drying our clothes when we heard the helicopter.”

It turns out that the brief Mayday call issued by Matt Palmer had been heard, not only by Satterlee at Sector Anchorage, but also by the Cordova harbormaster. With multiple locations having received the call for help, a search area was quickly established and the helicopter crew was launched from the Cordova forward operating location.

The rescue crew was returning to Cordova for fuel after conducting one search when something caught their eye. They spotted a life jacket that the hunters had tied to a tree as a signal and decided to turn around and investigate. Matt Palmer and Dunn heard the helicopter and started running to the beach to call for help.

“It was amazing that we even heard the helicopter with all the wind howling,” said Matt Palmer. “We dropped everything and ran for the beach.”

Standing on the beach they met their “rescuer,” Petty Officer 3rd Class Omar Alba, a Coast Guard aviation survival technician and the rescue swimmer aboard the helicopter. Alba assessed the hunters’ condition while the helicopter departed to Cordova to refuel.

The helicopter crew quickly returned and retrieved Daniel and Joe Palmer on the first of two trips.

“While we waited to be picked up, Matt and I played rock, paper, scissors to determine who would be lifted up by the basket and who would get to swing up with Omar,” said Dunn. “I won and got to hug Omar as we were lifted into the helicopter.”

They were taken directly to the hospital in Cordova by the helicopter crew. As they were being attended too by the hospital staff, an Alaska State Trooper talked with them about their experience.

“As the trooper talked with us, he got kind of choked up,” said Dunn. “He told us that he had never recovered anybody from that area in those conditions alive, ever. It was then it really sank in. It was a pretty miraculous that we survived.”

Less than a month after being rescued, Matt Palmer and Dunn, accompanied by their families, met Satterlee and most of Coast Guard Sector Anchorage’s search and rescue watchstanders at a meeting Oct. 12, 2012. At the meeting they got to hear their call for help replayed.

The families stood silently as a static filled and a garbled mayday, which was over moments after it was started, was played. They were astounded that there rescue came from such a small amount of information.

Once safely rescued, Matt Palmer and Dunn reflected upon the events. According to Dunn, they realized that their decisions not only ended up putting their lives in danger, but also put the lives of the rescuers at risk as well.

“Meeting with the command center guys brings some closure to the situation,” said Matt Palmer. “The mission of safe guarding the folks who end up in situations like ours is the service’s most important mission. We are so appreciative for what they do, words cannot express.”

To listen to Matt Palmer’s mayday call for help, please click on the following link:

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