Last April 18 was a warm and blustery day in Chicago. Winds were blowing out of the west at better than 20 knots and the air temperature was headed for the low 70s. Shortly after 2 p.m., Stanko Bojanovic, 65, a Serbian immigrant who spoke little English, decided to take his two- year-old grandson, Lazar Ognjenovic, for a walk in Belmont Harbor on Lake Michigan. He pushed the boy in a stroller, along the pedestrian path atop the seawall. But then Bojanovic accidentally let the stroller go just as a gust of wind came up. It propelled the stroller–and Lazar–off the wall and into 14 feet of 42-degree-Fahrenheit water. Bojanovic dove in after Lazar, but could not rescue the boy. The harbor master pulled Bojanovic out of the lake. The shaken grandfather could only point back to the water and say, “boy, two.” Witnesses called 911.
Fire Department One, a 2007 Bell 412EP, had just finished refueling at Midway Airport when it got the call. Pilots lieutenant Kenneth Straman and firefighter/EMT Anthony Lisanti were up front, while rescue divers/EMTs Brian Otto and William Davis rode in back. Straman juggled the frequencies and Lisanti did the flying. The crew got an expedited departure out of Midway and climbed to 400 feet agl, making a ground speed of close to 150 mph with the brisk tail wind. They were on scene in less than four minutes and pulled into a hover. Otto and Davis jumped into the lake.
They were quickly joined by three other fire department divers, two from Dive Truck 687, whose crew had been practicing submerged vehicle rescues at a nearby fire department training pool, and another from a rescue squad. After an estimated three minutes, the divers located little Lazar, about 12 feet away from the seawall in murky water on the lake bottom. They brought him up, still strapped in his stroller. The boy had been under water almost 20 minutes and at the hospital he initially showed no evidence of brain activity. However, after weeks of hospitalization and several months of rehabilitative therapy, Lazar Ognjenovic, now three, shows no ill effects from his ordeal and has no memory of it.
Last month, members of the rescue team and their supervisors talked about the events of that afternoon and how the Air Sea Rescue unit’s structure, training, equipment and personnel made that mission, and the nearly 500 other missions its flies annually, possible.
The unit has been flying continuously since 1965, initially with Bell 47s, then 206s, surplus UH-1Bs and Hs, and finally the 412s. It flies VFR-only operations with minimums established by the unit’s 11 pilots and governed by the mission. Generally that means ceiling and visibility of 500 and two at night and 500 and one during the day, but there is some flexibility. The fire department generally dispatches ground units and, when possible, department boats, as part of a coordinated, multi-level response to water-related calls. Most missions on Lake Michigan are conducted within three miles of shore but, due to mutual-aid pacts with other agencies and jurisdictions, they can extend up to 26 miles over water.
The pilots are recruited from the ranks of the fire department and require a minimum aviation background, according to Deputy Chief Harry Vergis, who joined the department more than 30 years ago as a paramedic and now heads the unit. Minimum requirements usually include a commercial helicopter certificate; five of the unit’s 11 pilots hold CFI-H certificates while the others are all commercial pilots.
Some have flown helicopters in the Army or Navy and some have transitioned from fixed-wing, multi-engine experience.
The pilots are sent to Bell for initial training and FlightSafety International for recurrent instruction. Civilian mechanic Mike Maihlan is also sent to annual schools either at Bell or Pratt & Whitney Canada. “The benefit of those schools cannot be ignored,” said Vergis. “We understand they are expensive, but we are operating multimillion-dollar aircraft now.”
In addition to flying rescue missions, the unit’s 412s fly in support of law enforcement. Both were flying near Grant Park on election night 2008, during President Obama’s victory speech there.