Heroism in the face of danger

_D170515In the midst of a severe winter storm, Nov. 12, 2012, a Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak MH-65 Dolphin helicopter crew deployed aboard the San Diego-based Coast Guard Cutter Sherman sat vigilant, ready to respond should they be called on to aid any seafarer in need of rescue – a call they heeded when the crew of the tug Polar Wind radioed for help after running aground in the violent Bering Sea.

The crew of the Dolphin helicopter immediately launched from the Sherman and made short work of locating the grounded vessel being battered by 10-foot waves dangerously close to a 200-foot cliff.

While the Dolphin’s pilots struggled to keep the aircraft on station while being buffeted by gusting winds and strong downdrafts, Petty Officer 3rd Class Omar Alba, a rescue swimmer at Air Station Kodiak, readied himself to deploy from the helicopter to the unstable vessel and begin rescuing the five-man crew.

Without hesitation, Alba departed the aircraft to the deck of the Polar Wind, assessed the condition of the crewmembers and prepared them for immediate extraction.

“The first hoist was pretty standard and it wasn’t until the first helicopter had to depart that things got hairy,” said Alba.

Unfortunately, Alba was only able to extract three crewmembers before the Dolphin’s fuel ran low, forcing the pilots to depart the scene to refuel. All the while weather conditions worsened and seas upward of 20 feet began to rock the already battered tug.

Despite personal danger, Alba volunteered to stay behind with the two remaining crewmembers of the stricken vessel to ensure their safety while awaiting the return of a rescue helicopter.

“What was supposed to be 15 minutes stretched into 40 and the weather worsened significantly,” said Alba. “I had to start looking for another option available to me to get both the remaining crew and myself off of the ship safely.”

Forty-five minutes later, a Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crew, forward-deployed to Cold Bay, arrived on scene just as Alba was preparing the remaining two Polar Wind crewmen to abandon ship. Alba was repeatedly dragged from one side of the icy vessel to the other while struggling to control the helicopter’s trail line during the hoist and extraction of the two men.

“Getting the rescue basket was no problem,” said Alba. “It is when you put a human in there, added to the sway of the ship, that a 45-pound basket turns into a 200-pound-plus wrecking ball, but we were still able to successfully rescue the last two men.”

For his heroism and successful rescue of five crewmembers who, without Alba and the Air Station Kodiak helicopter crews’ assistance surely would have perished, Alba received a Coast Guard Commendation Medal from the service and the Admiral of the Ocean Sea Awards Mariners Rosette from the Seafarers International Union Dec. 3.

“I never do this job for the awards, I do it for the job satisfaction,” said Alba. “They say if you find a job you love you will never have to work a day in your life. I believe I have found that job.”

For more information about the Polar Wind case please click here. For more about the Admiral of the Ocean Sea awards please click here.

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