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Rescue drama on the Bering Sea

A Coast Guard helicopter is downed by a wall of water while airlifting the crew of a freighter in 30-foot seas

A Coast Guard helicopter is downed by a wall of water while airlifting the crew of a freighter in 30-foot seas

A Coast Guard aviation maintenance technician faced blinding snow, 45-knot gales, and 30-foot seas in rescuing three fellow air-crewmen and a mariner when a helicopter was downed while airlifting the crew of a disabled freighter on the Bering Sea last December.

In honor of his bravery, AMT3 Gregory Gibbons was given the Association for Rescue at Sea’s annual gold medal at an Oct. 4 ceremony in Washington.

The following account of the rescue was compiled from AFRAS reports. On Dec. 8, 2004, the crew of the Coast Guard cutter Alex Haley responded to Selendang Ayu, a 738-foot bulk freighter disabled and adrift near Unalaska Island in the Bering Sea. Efforts to take the vessel in tow to anchor it in Skan Bay were unsuccessful due to high winds and towering seas.


Early in the day, two Coast Guard helicopters were able to rescue 18 of the freighter’s 26 crewmembers. The remainder stayed behind hoping the freighter might be saved. Later that day, the vessel’s one remaining anchor failed, and the captain reported that she had run aground and was taking on water.

Gibbons, Lt. Timothy W. Eason and Lt. Robert K. Kornexl boarded an HH-65B Coast Guard helicopter and set off from the Alex Haley to rescue the eight people still on board the freighter. They were joined in transit by another Coast Guard helicopter, and it was decided that Eason, Gibbons and Kornexl would remain nearby as backup while the other crewmembers performed the rescue.

Hovering above the freighter, the chopper lowered a rescue swimmer onto the deck and, one at a time, seven of the crewmembers were hoisted to the aircraft. Before the freighter’s captain could be rescued, however, a massive wave slammed Selendang AYU’s bow, throwing a wall of water into the air, which covered the helicopter and sent it plunging into the sea.

Eason was at the controls of the other helicopter, and hovered 150 feet above the crash. Fighting wind, snow and darkness, he maintained his position while Gibbons rigged a rescue basket and Kornexl radioed the Alex Haley. Gibbons, assisted by Kornexl, lowered the basket to the water within arm’s length of the survivors, pulling the pilot, co-pilot, flight mechanic and one of Selendang Ayu’s crewmembers aboard the helicopter. The other six crewmembers from the freighter, who had been on the helicopter at the time of the accident, were missing. The freighter captain and the rescue swimmer remained aboard the ailing ship.

With the cabin full, the helicopter running low on fuel, and the survivors in need of medical attention, Eason was forced to take the aircraft to nearby Dutch Harbor. On shore, the four survivors were removed from the helicopter. Eason, Gibbons and Kornexl refueled and immediately set off again to rescue the remaining two on the freighter, which had since broken in two.

They were able to locate the battered freighter again by following the rescue swimmer’s emergency strobe. Hovering 200 feet in the air, the helicopter crew managed to safely retrieve the captain and rescue swimmer. A search for the six lost crewmembers was unsuccessful. Again low on fuel, Eason, Gibbons and Kornexl returned to Dutch Harbor after a tough three-hour effort.

AFRAS is a non-profit foundation that supports services concerned with saving lives at sea. The association has awarded the gold medal to an enlisted member of the Coast Guard for extraordinary bravery every year since 1982.

More awards

In addition to the gold medal, AFRAS also awarded its silver medal and the Amver plaque for bravery during rescues at sea.

The silver medal, awarded to a member of the Coast Guard Auxiliary, was presented to three members of the Leech Lake Auxiliary Detachment in Minnesota. Jay P. Croy, Linda R. Croy and Richard J. Runde rescued a sailboat crew that began experiencing symptoms of hypothermia during a race last year. The following was taken from AFRAS reports.

Aug. 22, 2004, was the second day of the 33rd annual Leech Lake Regatta and Sailboat Race in Walker, Minn. At about 1 p.m. the Coast Guard Auxiliary received a distress call from the captain of the 25-foot sailboat Wind Dancer. The boat had dropped out of the race, and the captain reported that two of his three crewmembers were suffering from hypothermia, and he was no longer able to handle his vessel. With 15- to 20-knot winds, 30- to 35-knot gusts, 4-foot seas and the air temperature around 57 degrees F, the Croys and Runde, aboard a 20-foot Grady-White, responded.

As the Auxiliary crew approached Wind Dancer, they found the sailors soaking wet and noticed only two were wearing PFDs. The skipper explained that because they were so cold and wet, one crewmember was “incapacitated,” and another was becoming “impaired.” He said he was unable to sail Wind Dancer to safety and was worried that he and his crew, in the deteriorating conditions, were in danger.

With waves coming over the bow of the Grady-White, Jay Croy determined it would be too dangerous to pull alongside Wind Dancer for the evacuation. Instead, the Auxiliary crew decided to take the sailboat in tow. Linda Croy and Runde tossed lines to Wind Dancer and attached a “survival” pack — including PFDs and a thermal rescue blanket — to a line, and floated it back to the racers. The auxiliarists then towed Wind Dancer about 3.5 miles to Stony Point — an effort that took an hour and 15 minutes in the rough conditions. Wind Dancer was beached, and the crewmembers, who had been taken aboard the Grady-White, were stripped of their wet clothes and put into anti-exposure coveralls. The Auxiliarists rushed to Shores of Leech Lake Marina, where the crew received medical attention.

The Amver plaque, which AFRAS presents annually to an Amver-participating vessel for exceptional humanitarian service while aiding in a rescue at sea, was given to the crew of the Carnival cruise ship Holiday for rescuing five fishermen who went overboard north of Cozumel, Mexico. The following account was taken from an AFRAS report.

On Aug. 21, 2004, the cruise liner Holiday was transiting the Yucatan Straits when two crewmembers said they heard what they believed were cries for help coming from the water. The ship’s captain, Orazio D’Alto, was called to the bridge, where he turned the ship around and initiated man overboard procedures.

Forty minutes later, the forward lookouts heard screams again and discovered two people in the water off the port side. A rescue tender was launched, and its crew recovered the Mexican fishermen. They told crewmembers that three more people were still in the water. The rescue tender crew continued searching and, nearly three hours after the initial report of the screams, pulled the remaining three fishermen aboard the tender and brought them to the ship.

It was reported that the survivors were from a recreational fishing boat that had sunk nearly nine hours earlier. Among the survivors was a 10-year-old boy and his father, who were found clinging to a piece of wood and not wearing PFDs.

The Amver Safety Network is a worldwide voluntary computer-based ship reporting system comprising ships from more than 140 nations. The Amver award was established in 1996.