As Coast Guard rescue swimmer Jon Geskus readied himself to jump out the cabin door of an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter into towering seas, he could think of only one word: awesome.
Geskus and Lt. Daniel Cathell were two of four crewmembers who received the Sikorsky Humanitarian Service Award at the "Salute to Excellence" Awards Banquet held in Houston earlier this year for the rescue of four fishermen during Hurricane Ike in 2008.
The award is given once a year to a crew that has shown heroism using an Igor I. Sikorsky aircraft, such as the MH-60 Jayhawk. Geskus, pilot Lt. Cmdr. Mark Turner, co-pilot Cathell and flight mechanic Jason Menezes were recognized for bravery and skill.
Cathell says he did not have much access to water growing up in Oakland, Md., and his family couldn't afford a boat. But he knew from the time he was 12 that he wanted to help save lives.
"When I see the face of a person I've just saved, it's a rush," Cathell says. "I just continue to get excited about helping people. It keeps me going."
On Sept. 7, 2008, a Sunday, the crew found themselves off the coast of Providenciales Island rescuing four men whose 67-foot fishing boat, Midnight Sun, was caught in the eye of the storm.
"It was the most difficult case I have ever done," says Turner, who is now stationed at the Office of Search and Rescue at Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, D.C. "I was working with a pretty junior crew - with 15 years in the Coast Guard [at the time], I was the most senior guy there. Everyone else only had a year or two of experience."
Turner and his crew were in Providenciales, Turks and Caicos Islands, assisting hurricane relief efforts. Turner says his crew was flying the Jayhawk, transporting four British territory officials from Providenciales International Airport to the island of Grand Turk about 8 p.m. to survey hurricane damage. En route, the crew received a call from an HU-25 Guardian Falcon Jet that they were needed to save a sinking fishing vessel that was about 120 miles from the shores of Providenciales.
"We were only in the air for about five or 10 minutes," says Geskus. "We just had to turn right back around."
Turner says the crew dropped the officials off at Providenciales International Airport and were on their way to the fishing boat, battling 70-knot winds with co-pilot Cathell.
"The Falcon was flying over the Midnight Sun on its way to Great Inagua to survey damage there," Turner says. "It heard the crew's mayday call over the VHF."
Geskus says the Falcon left the scene about 10 minutes before they arrived about 8:30 p.m., but it had dropped flares so the crew could better see the vessel in distress.
Geskus says the Midnight Sun probably had anchored off Providenciales two nights earlier, on Friday, Sept. 5, but by Saturday morning Ike had dragged the vessel 120 miles offshore toward Great Inagua in the Bahamas, southwest of Providenciales, snapping the anchor line in the process.
"They were unable to get their engine started," Geskus says. "We communicated to them via VHF and they told us they would not last the night."
In addition to engine trouble, the boat was taking on water, Geskus says. He describes the boat as being "tossed around in the waves like a toy."
"The vessel had two A-frames in the back and one in the front and it was out of Jamaica," Turner says. "With all that rigging, we knew it would be dangerous in those conditions to lower our rescue swimmer down to board the vessel and collect the passengers, so we had to instruct the crew to abandon ship one at a time."
Turner says the crew normally would deploy the rescue swimmer, then lower a harness, or "basket," in which the swimmer could place the survivors. But there was nothing normal about this rescue. Turner says the crew was at a 90-foot hover and the waves were up to 45 feet.
"I mean, here we were with the eye of Hurricane Ike about 40 or 50 miles south of us," Geskus says. "Normally we would have the Falcon to aid us as backup, but there was nothing other than us and God's hand holding us up in those conditions."
Turner says the crew decided to send Geskus down to retrieve each crewmember using a Quick Strop, an adjustable sling that lashes the person to the rescue swimmer. Menezes lowered and hoisted Geskus.
"This was my very first operational hoist on a search-and-rescue mission," says Menezes. "I had just made the position of flight mechanic about a month before after being basic air crew."
The first rescue took nearly 30 minutes. Geskus struggled with the first survivor, who had jumped into the water.
"He just gripped onto me and I was unable to get the device around him," Geskus says. "When he realized I wasn't pushing him away, but trying to get the gear around him, it went more smoothly."
When the crew successfully hoisted the first survivor, Geskus realized that the waves had stripped off one of his scuba booties and fin.
"I remember we discussed whether or not he could head back out there since we didn't have extra gear and he said, 'Sure, why not?,' " Cathell says. "Those rescue swimmers are crazy. They live for stuff like this."
During the next hoist Cathell found that he was losing control of the Jayhawk as the wind pushed the helicopter back over the Midnight Sun's rigging. "I totally thought we were going to hit the boat, so I bear-hugged the guy so if we hit, the boat would hit me instead of him," Geskus says.
Cathell says a burst of adrenaline got him to seize the controls and pull the Jayhawk away from the boat and out of harm's way.
"This was truly a team effort," Turner says. "Everyone played a role."
The other survivors were lifted successfully, but Geskus remembers getting hit by one of the gigantic waves.
"I felt like a wrecking ball going into a building," Geskus says.
The crew of the Midnight Sun was slightly hypothermic, but otherwise OK. As Geskus worked to warm up the survivors, Cathell and Turner began the grueling ride back to Providenciales International Airport.
"It was really rough, but we were all so pumped on adrenaline that we had no idea how tired we all were," Cathell says.
This article originally appeared in the Home Waters section of the December 2010 issue.