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Heroism cited in tough Bering Sea rescue

Coast Guard swimmer Abram Heller’s first real operation earned him a medal for saving eight fishermen

Sitting in a life raft filled with frigid water and three hypothermic survivors in the Bering Sea was the type of extreme situation Abram Heller knew was a possibility when he signed on as a Coast Guard rescue swimmer. And that possibility was the reality of his first rescue mission.

Heller was awarded the gold medal of the Association for Rescue at Sea for his actions.

Heller, a rescue swimmer for three-and-a-half years, was awarded the gold medal of the Association for Rescue at Sea Sept. 23 in Washington, D.C., for saving eight fishermen when the 192-foot Alaska Ranger sank in March 2008 after losing its rudder.

“We were 120 miles away when we got the call, and the other Coast Guard helicopter was 200 miles away,” says Heller, who is 25. “Considering it was the Bering Sea in the winter at night with very, very few resources available, it was an act of God that 42 of 47 were saved.”

Heller joined the Coast Guard right out of high school. He was attracted to the rescue swimmer specialty because he relished the idea of a career that involved both flying and swimming. “I had done nothing like this before,” Heller says of the Bering Sea rescue. “This was the first time I ever got in the water for a search-and-rescue case. … [I had] done a handful of medevacs, but nothing too strenuous.”

Heller says his team first got the emergency call about 3 a.m. March 23 aboard the 378-foot Coast Guard cutter Munro. Alaska Ranger was taking on water about 125 nautical miles west of Dutch Harbor, Alaska. The crippled fishing vessel was about 120 miles north of the Munro’s position.

Crew aboard the Coast Guard cutter Munro wait for survivors from the Alaska Ranger to arrive by helicopter.

A helicopter was launched at 5:40 a.m., and Heller was on the scene about 45 minutes later in the early morning darkness. He says seas were 10 to 20 feet. The air temperature was 12 F and the water temperature 34 degrees. “It was the warmest night we had had that whole week of deployment,” says Heller.

Ship already gone

They passed an HH-60 Jayhawk helicopter that had flown from St. Paul Island, near the Aleutian Islands, and had already picked up about a dozen survivors. The helicopter crew had tried to transfer the survivors to the Alaska Ranger’s sister ship, Alaska Warrior, but they couldn’t because of deck ice. The Jayhawk was en route to the Munro when they passed Heller.

“The [Alaska Ranger] was completely gone by the time we got there,” he says. “About half the survivors were in life rafts and half were still in the water, minus the dozen in the Jayhawk.”

Heller describes the weather that night as “fickle” — intermittent clear skies and snowflakes. The waves were rolling but not breaking as Heller gazed into the cold sea. He recalls his thoughts clearly.

“There was a moment of nervousness when I was sitting outside the helicopter, ready to get hoisted down to the first survivor,” he says. “I remember looking at him waving his arms … and I thought, OK, this is it. I’ve done this a million times in training, but this isn’t training — this is it.”

The plan was to get the men who had drifted farthest from the life rafts first and work back toward the rafts. Heller says the first survivor wasn’t much trouble, though he thrashed around a bit when Heller put him in the basket. “He was pretty hypothermic and acting a little bit drunk,” he says.

Heller says rescue swimmers are trained to grab survivors from behind so they can’t grab hold of the rescuer. “He did try to grab for me, but he was so slow I was able to just swim around behind him,” Heller says.

‘Take this guy first’

Heller says the second survivor managed to get in the basket by himself, and the third was hoisted successfully, as well. The next two were clinging to tangled fishing gear. “One seemed in much better shape than the other,” says Heller. “He said, ‘If you’re going to take both of us, take this guy first.’ ”

Seamen Gregory Crane and Nathan Cramer assist a crewmember from the Alaska Ranger.

That man wasn’t talking, and his hand was caught in the debris. After carefully working the fisherman’s hand free, Heller began pulling him back toward the basket, which was off to the side so it wouldn’t get snagged in the debris.

“I remember at some point asking him how he was doing, and he replied to me,” Heller says. “I didn’t hear what he said, but I didn’t really care either because I was just glad he was capable of replying.”

Heller says the man was calm until he saw the basket, which he grabbed. The rescue swimmer says it took five to 10 minutes to get him into the basket correctly. Heller watched him being hoisted up, then swam back to retrieve the other survivor.

Heller didn’t learn until two hours later, back on the Munro, that so much water had gotten into the man’s survival suit that the weight pulled him out of the basket. By the time he reached the door of the helicopter, he was clinging to the edge of the basket with his feet and torso hanging out. Flight mechanic Alfred Musgrave tried to lift the man’s legs but was unsuccessful. He turned to grab a knife to cut the bottom of the suit to let the water out and, when he turned back, the man was gone.

The helicopter crew tried to alert Heller. “They tried to get my attention by using the spotlight on the helicopter … but there was a wave blocking the view,” he says. “I had no idea the guy even fell.”

Meanwhile, he had retrieved the other survivor. The man who had fallen out of the basket was lost. His body was recovered later by the Alaska Warrior crew.

No more room

Back in the helicopter, the crew discussed strategies. They had no room for additional survivors and were running low on fuel. But there were four more men in survival suits in the water, arms linked together.

The pilot, Lt. Timothy Schmitz, had a plan. He suggested deploying the helicopter’s six-man life raft and having Heller stay with three of the men so they could take one more back to the Munro. Heller agreed. One survivor was hoisted, and Heller helped the other three into the life raft.

“The whole process took about 15 minutes,” he says. “The last man into the life raft was this big, heavy guy who I had to fight to get in there for about five minutes.” Once in the raft, Heller turned on his EPIRB and waited. Since all of the men were in various stages of hypothermia, he kept talking to them to keep them alert.

“I wasn’t thinking about much until I had some down time in the raft, and I realized I had swallowed salt water. Between that and the bobbing raft I was starting to feel queasy,” says Heller. “I got some water in my suit, so I was a little damp.”

Then the top part of the life raft deflated, leaving only the bottom ring, the raft floor, and a lot of icy water. “It was basically just holding us together,” says Heller.

A long 45 minutes later, the helicopter returned and loaded everyone in for the flight back to the Munro. “It was just a race against time,” says Heller. “When we got back to the ship I went to the galley, got some hot chocolate and just laid down. I didn’t realize it was over; I didn’t even take my dry suit off. I thought I was going to have to go back out there.”

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This article originally appeared in the December 2009 issue.