Golden Hour Award: Bering Sea rescue in bad weather saves injured crab catch crewman

HAI Convention News » 2010
February 21, 2010, 6:24 AM

A Coast Guard helicopter crew that performed a challenging rescue of an injured fisherman in the Bering Sea will be honored tonight with HAI’s Eurocopter Golden Hour Award. The award was created in 1982 to recognize the efforts of air medical service helicopter pilots who, through a particular rescue or through contributions over time to the air medical industry, advance the use of helicopters in this mission.

It was several hours before sunrise Jan. 30, 2009, in Juneau, Alaska when the U.S. Coast Guard’s District 17 headquarters received a distress call from a crab fishing boat in the Bering Sea with a badly injured crewman. The man had been struck in the head by a falling wooden tackle block, which crashed to the deck after hitting him. According to the emergency call, the fisherman’s life was in danger.

The matter was relayed to a Coast Guard flight surgeon who decided the man’s condition warranted a medevac flight. The crew of USCG HH-65C Dolphin 6573, located in Cold Bay on the Alaskan Peninsula, received the request. “If the flight surgeon says [a person] needs to come off the boat and we feel like we can safely do it and bring our crew back, then we’re going to do it because they don’t make that decision lightly,” aircraft commander Lt. Jason Smith told AIN.

Just after 6 a.m., the Dolphin carrying Smith, copilot Lt. Greg Gedemer, flight mechanic Blaize Potts and rescue swimmer Matthew Thiessen rose into the snow-filled darkness and headed for the vessel Kodiak some 90 nm away and south of Sanak Island. According to Smith the weather was typical for the area at that time of year, with blowing snow, low ceilings and icing at the surface. In IMC, the crew used charts and GPS to navigate to the reported location of the crab-fishing boat.

Aided by continuous communication with the vessel, the rescue crew spotted the crabber–which was illuminated by powerful sodium lights–plowing through 12- to 15-foot seas. While the lights helped locate the boat, at the same time they interfered with the use of the night vision goggles worn by the pilots to see in the otherwise dark conditions. Amid the 60- to 70-knot winds, the helicopter jockeyed into position above the boat and attempted several practice runs. During one attempt, rescue swimmer Thiessen– who was lowered in a harness– struck one of the fishing tackle cranes that cluttered the vessel’s foredeck, leading the flight crew to conclude that influence of the wind and waves on the moving boat were too great. Smith ordered the vessel’s captain to stop his engines to perform a dead-in-the-water hoist, and the crew selected a different spot to access the vessel. “We had to position the helicopter right over the pilot house and all the antennas, which provided the most room to put the swimmer down because of the obstacles on the boat,” said Smith. “That made us have to raise our altitude to around 100 feet, a much higher hoist than what we prefer to do.” The position also forced the pilots to have to continually switch their goggles on and off as they struggled to keep in line with the boat that was below and behind them.

Despite the conditions, the patient was safely hoisted onboard in a litter, Thiessen quickly followed, and the helicopter headed back to Cold Bay to meet an inbound medevac airplane dispatched from Anchorage. During the return flight, as the patient’s blood pressure began to drop, the crew learned that the airplane would be delayed by the weather. They landed the helicopter near a medical clinic in Cold Bay, where with the help of a local medical professional, the injured man was kept stable until the transfer aircraft was able to land. “Up here in Kodiak, I’ve probably had about five or six [rescues] in the Bering Sea that I would consider something I don’t want to do again if I didn’t have to,” said Smith, who joined the Coast Guard in 2003 after eight years of service in the Army. “But this was the most challenging one.”

Speaking for his crew, Smith noted their appreciation for being chosen for the award. “We humbly accept this award and are honored that something we see as our duty should receive such recognition.”

The award will be presented at tonight’s Salute to Excellence Awards banquet from 8 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. at Hilton Americas Houston. Admission to the banquet is included with full Heli-Expo registration.

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