Long Island

Gut instinct leads rescuer to dying mariner

Posted on 30 December 2010
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Coast Guardsman receives the Association for Rescue at Sea's top honor for his 2009 life-saving feat

Coast Guard aviation survival technician Salvador 'Pepe' Carire receives his AFRAS gold medal.When Coast Guardsman Salvador Carire saw a dim light flashing in the distance during a rescue mission in December 2009, his gut told him to go after it.

Because he did, he was able to save commercial fisherman Robert M. Cooper of Point Pleasant, N.J., who was trapped inside an overturned life raft in the cold Atlantic Ocean.

Carire, 36, an aviation survival technician first class at Coast Guard Station Atlantic City, N.J., received the Association for Rescue at Sea's Vice Admiral Thomas R. Sargent Gold Medal Award in September.

"To me, I was just doing my job," Carire says. "That's how I think of it. I got into this job not because of the awards, but because I want to be able to go out and help people in crazy situations."

About 8 p.m. on Dec. 23, 2009, Air Station Atlantic City received an EPIRB distress signal from the 38-foot scallop fishing vessel Alisha Marie. It had three crewmembers and was about 36 nautical miles southeast of Barnegat Light, N.J. A rogue wave had rolled the vessel over, according to the crew, and it was rapidly taking on water.

The first rescue crew left about 10 minutes after the call in an HH-65C Dolphin helicopter. Carire stayed behind as part of the second crew.

The initial crew flew for about two-and-a-half hours, found nothing but debris from the Alisha Marie and had to return to the air station to refuel, Carire says.

Carire and his crew departed about 10:30 p.m. and returned to the location, fighting 30- to 40-mph winds. After surveying the scene for about 45 minutes, Carire noticed something.

"We were all wearing night-vision goggles and I looked out the helicopter window on my right and in the far distance I see a dim flashing light, probably about three miles out - I was barely able to see it," Carire says.

The crew flew over to the light and saw an overturned six-person raft. No one was in sight. Just as the crew was about to head back to base, Carire sensed that he should continue to investigate.

"Sometimes people tie themselves up to rafts so they don't get lost, especially in rough seas, and the waves were at least 12 feet high," Carire says. "I told the guys, 'I want to listen to my gut this time.' "

At 11:40 p.m., Carire, wearing a dry suit, was hoisted down into the 38-degree water about 30 yards from the overturned raft and began swimming toward it.

"I looked underneath the raft and couldn't see anything, and then I realized the flashing light was actually the saltwater-activated strobe going off," Carire says. "But since the raft was overturned, it was barely visible underneath the water."

Carire banged on the side of the raft and yelled, but got no response. He climbed atop the raft to flip it over, but a large wave hit him, knocking him off and carrying him 50 yards away. Undeterred, he swam back and climbed onto the raft a second time. Then he felt something beneath him strike his leg.

"I knew there was someone in there," Carire says. "The raft didn't have a ballast bag to keep it upright and I knew I had to give it everything I had to get this thing flipped over. I just yanked with everything I had; this adrenaline rush seemed to give me massive strength."

Carire managed to flip the raft, which was partially filled with water. He found the zipper for the canopy and ripped it open to find Cooper inside, reaching up to him.

"I started asking him questions, if he was OK, but he was barely talking. He was so cold," Carire says. "When I got him into the rescue basket, I noticed he was only in boxer shorts and a long-sleeved T-shirt, and I thought, 'Oh man, this guy is lucky to even be breathing.' "

Carire, who was beginning to develop signs of hypothermia himself, deflated the raft with his knife and waited in the water until Cooper was hoisted. Then Carire was hoisted into the helicopter by his harness.

"We all got to work warming this guy up. It was midnight by the time we got him in there," Carire says. "He was in bad shape. We had to cut all of his clothes off and put him into one of our hypothermic bags ... which was tough to do because he weighed about 275 pounds."

Carire believes it was Cooper's extra weight that kept him alive in near-freezing water for more than three hours. The crew squeezed him into one of the bags and put him on oxygen as they flew him to AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center in Atlantic City, arriving about two-and-a-half hours later.

As Cooper warmed up, he told the crew that he had gotten into the life raft immediately after the vessel was knocked over. He last saw crewmembers William Brown Jr. and Joseph Bell, both of Newport News, Va., pulling on their survival suits on the deck of the doomed Alisha Marie.

"We searched for another day and a half for them, but never found anything else but debris," Carire says. "[Cooper] received the best Christmas present of all that year. It was a miracle he was even alive after being in the cold water that long."

Others honored

The sea rescue association awarded silver medals to Coast Guard Auxiliarists Robert M. Joseph, Leo G. Lake, Paul G. Sadeck and Rodney P. Thomas for the rescue of three men in Buzzards Bay, Mass.

While aboard the Auxiliary vessel Amy Julie on the morning of Aug. 26, 2009, they spotted a 17-foot center console that was submerged to the gunwales in 4-foot rolling seas and 25-knot winds, according to the Coast Guard.

On board were two men wearing life jackets, in water up to their waists. The men spoke Spanish and only limited English, so Thomas spoke to them in Spanish and learned that there was a third crewmember who had fallen overboard near a red buoy about 1.25 nautical miles away, the Coast Guard says.

Using a VHF radio, the crew contacted Coast Guard Station Menemsha. It instructed them to bring the two men onto the Amy Julie and search for the third man, which meant heading into oncoming seas. He was found close to the buoy. His left arm was around a child's orange life jacket and he had a cushion tucked under his right arm, the Coast Guard says.

"He looked exhausted and, as we approached him, he lost the cushion," Sadeck says in a Coast Guard press release. "We threw him a life ring and it landed right over his arm. We pulled him to the boat and lifted him aboard."

The three men were brought to shore, where the Fairhaven Fire Department ambulance met them. The auxiliary crew did one last sweep of the area to ensure that no other boaters were in peril.

AMVER Award

The Atlantic Merchant Vessel Emergency Reporting System, or AMVER, Award was presented to the captain and crew of the M/V Andes, a Greek-flagged tanker managed by the Tsakos Group, for rescuing seven Ecuadoran fishermen on June 5, 2009, according to the association.

For information on AFRAS, visit www.afras.org.

This article originally appeared in the Home Waters sections of the January 2011 issue.