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Into the storm - A 12-hour rescue mission

The duty day for this helicopter flight crew at Coast Guard Air Station Clearwater, Fla., began at 7 a.m. like any other day, but it didn’t end until 10 o’clock the next morning.

The duty day for this helicopter flight crew at Coast Guard Air Station Clearwater, Fla., began at 7 a.m. like any other day, but it didn’t end until 10 o’clock the next morning. In those 27 hours four men were tried, tested and pushed to their limits during a daring 12-hour rescue in the eye of Hurricane Katrina off southern Florida.

On Aug. 26, 2005, the air station received a report of an activated EPIRB from the fishing vessel Mary Lynn, 85 miles west of Key West and just 10 miles from Katrina’s eye. A Clearwater HH-60 Jayhawk rescue helicopter crew was alerted to the situation, and Lt. Cmdr. Craig Massello, aircraft commander, began assessing the situation.

“I didn’t know what to think,” says Massello. “When I checked the initial information, I noticed the position of the Mary Lynn was in the middle of Katrina’s radar picture. I spent about 10 to 15 minutes looking at the radar, thinking of how we would proceed and talking it over with our operations officer.”

Before making the 210-mile trek to the Mary Lynn’s position, Massello asked for feedback from his flight crew. “I was nervous about it,” says Petty Officer 2nd Class (AMT2) Robert Cain, the flight mechanic. “But your adrenaline kicks in, and you put fears aside knowing that there are people out there that need your help.”

Massello — along with Cain, Lt. j.g. David Sheppard, the co-pilot, and Petty Officer 3rd Class (AST3) Kenyon Bolton, the rescue swimmer — took to the air at about 10 p.m. in 40-knot winds, determined to at least attempt to rescue the three people aboard the Mary Lynn.

“For the first 100 miles or so the weather was the same: scattered showers, 45-knot winds, gusty and dark,” recalls Massello. “Then things started to deteriorate. The winds were sustained at 75 knots, with gusts up to 85 knots. I couldn’t make out the water, even though we were only 300 to 500 feet high.”

About a third of the way through the flight, the air crew received another distress call. The fishing vessel Mister Natural was taking on water with a crew of two on board. The helicopter diverted to the vessel’s position and made contact with the captain. Based on the weather conditions and the fact that Mister Natural was able to make way toward land, the fishermen opted to stay on board, only to be rescued later by a Coast Guard helicopter out of Air Station Miami. Meanwhile, the Mary Lynn rescue had become more urgent during the Clearwater crew’s hour-long diversion.

Massello was advised that the Mary Lynn crew had attempted to deploy a life raft, but it capsized, and all three people were adrift in the 40-foot seas. The air crew abandoned their original plan of coming in from the backside of the storm in an effort to fly through the weaker portions of the rain bands and wind. As a result, they found themselves battling the front right quadrant of Katrina, the strongest portion of the storm.

“The sound of the rain was constant, and there was absolutely nothing that could be seen through any of the windows for hours,” says Sheppard. “We had no concept of the surface conditions or if we were even in the clouds or not.”

With the aircraft taking a beating and tensions running high, the crew was rewarded with a bit of good news. A Coast Guard C-130 from Air Station Clearwater that had been providing cover over the Mary Lynn corrected the initial report of the crew being in the water. The life raft indeed had been deployed, capsized and floated away, but the crew was still on board the vessel.

“We all breathed a sigh of relief,” Massello says.

However, the good news was no cause to relax. Weather conditions were treacherous, and the two-hour trudge from the Mister Natural to the Mary Lynn proved to be far greedier on fuel than originally anticipated. Now on scene, the Jayhawk had only 15 minutes to safely hoist all three people in very difficult conditions and still have enough fuel to get back to land. That would be cutting it close.

As tempted as the pilot and crew were to start hoisting the crew to safety, Massello concluded that it would safer to head to Key West and refuel rather than rush the rescue and put both the mariners and the rescuers in additional peril. As the crew headed for Key West, the C-130 co-pilot, Lt. Cmdr. Andy Delgado, a former HH-60 pilot, calmly conveyed the situation to the Mary Lynn crew.

“I could see the crew on the stern of the vessel holding on and looking up at us,” Cain says.

The helicopter fought 75-knot headwinds all the way to Key West and landed with maybe a half hour’s worth of fuel left. The air crew took a brief break during the refueling and headed back out.

Dawn finally broke as the helicopter reached the stricken fishing vessel, and the daylight gave the air crew more visual cues to act upon. However, Massello insisted that Bolton, the rescue swimmer, not come off the cable at any point during the hoists, for his own safety. This meant that the Mary Lynn crew — Mark Gutek, Anita Miller and Charles White — would have to jump into the water and allow Bolton to secure them.

“The first hoist wasn’t pretty,” says Cain. “When we were in position near the back of the boat, we got too close. He [Bolton] swung and hit part of the stern. Then, right before I put him in the water, I had him too low on the hook and he hit the front side of a wave.”

“The wind was blowing so hard that my fins were forced downward, and our hover was more like forward flight,” Bolton says. “Miller jumped in the water, and I swam over to her and wrapped the quick strop behind her back.”

While Bolton prepared for the hoist, the hoist cable jerked him so hard that it wedged into his harness. The metal V-rings of the quick strop had slipped off, and the hook was jammed open. Bolton quickly replaced the V-rings and closed the hook, making sure it was safe. Cain hoisted the pair into the helicopter, where Bolton was able to inspect the hook.

During the second hoist, a line for the life ring the survivors were using when they jumped into the water got tangled around the hoist cable. “This is a very serious situation,” Cain says, “because we are attached to the boat at this point, and if it starts to sink, it could pull us down with it.” Moreover, the cable could snap and spring up into the rotor system. Luckily, the last survivor had seen the tangled lines and was able to help Cain free the hoist cable.

As Bolton began securing Gutek into the quick strop, he saw a shark swim between his legs. “I was surprised it was so close to the surface in such rough weather,” he says. “It made me think twice about what was out of sight.”

The third and final hoist went well, and soon White was safe on board the helicopter with his fellow crewmembers. The entire operation took about 30 minutes. “On the return flight Rob [Cain] and I had to tend to the survivors,” Bolton says. “We gave them food, and I bandaged the captain’s [Gutek] hand where he had been badly burned by a flare.”

Although Key West was closer, the headwinds meant a choppier ride. The crew opted for the smoother run to Clearwater. “Our ground speed was around 200 knots, which is ridiculous for a helicopter, and we made record time back to the air station,” co-pilot Sheppard says. “Everyone was a bit giddy — partly, I think, from disbelief in what we had just lived through and partly because of sheer exhaustion.”

At 10 a.m. Aug. 27 — 12 hours after their initial departure — the crew touched down on familiar and steady ground. Massello credits the success of the mission to his skilled crew and a well-built, properly maintained aircraft.

Earlier this year, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Tom Collins presented the flight crew with the first Distinguished Flying Crosses to be awarded for operations conducted during Hurricane Katrina. More than 200 of Air Station Clearwater’s personnel rose from their seats to give a standing ovation to the four men.

Tasha Tully is a Coast Guard public affairs specialist 1st class stationed in Saint Petersburg. Danielle DeMarino contributed to this report.