Survivor turned politician to the rescue

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Congressman fights closure of Coast Guard air stations critical to quickly reaching mariners in distress

It may have been 34 years ago, but Mark Kirk remembers with great detail the events of June 15, 1976.
Unable to right his capsized Sunfish about two miles from shore on southern Lake Michigan, Kirk, then 16 years old, decided to leave the boat and swim ashore.

U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk, a Republican representing Illinois' 10th District and a Navy veteran, has been a consistent advocate for search-and-rescue funding. His support stems from his own rescue by the Coast Guard as a teenager.

After 40 minutes in the 42-degree water, however, hypothermia began overtaking the 130-pound teen dressed in only a shirt and shorts.
"I was ready to roll over and start gulping water," says Kirk, now a 50-year-old U.S. Republican congressman. "I was very much embracing death at that point, heavily hypothermic. I looked up and saw the Coast Guardsman standing over me and he threw me a life ring and said, ‘Grab this.' The next thing I knew I was on the deck of the small Coast Guard boat."
Kirk, whose body temperature was 82 degrees, made a full recovery. He says he owes his life to the Coast Guard, so it's no surprise that this U.S. representative from Wilmette, Ill., is leading a fight to keep the federal government from shutting down Coast Guard helicopter stations in Waukegan, Ill., and Muskegon, Mich., which are now open during the summer months.
The $5.5 million cost-cutting plan would retain only the Coast Guard helicopter station in Traverse City, Mich., on northeastern Lake Michigan. The move would jeopardize thousands of boaters in Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and Michigan, Kirk says.
"A helicopter launched out of Traverse City in response to an emergency in southern Lake Michigan will arrive at least a half an hour later [than if launched from Waukegan or Muskegon]," says Kirk. "Arriving to just collect the bodies doesn't make sense."
With the two bases closed, Coast Guard response time would increase from 17 minutes to more than an hour, says Kirk. But the Coast Guard says its search-and-rescue operations will remain effective despite the closures, due in part to an aircraft upgrade in the Great Lakes region. Five HH-65 helicopters will be removed from active service, while four HH-60 choppers will be relocated to Traverse City.
"The HH-60 helicopter has the added capability over the HH-65 to operate in extreme cold-weather conditions, including icing," said Adm. Thad W. Allen, Coast Guard commandant, in his budget request before the House Appropriations Committee. "The HH-60 helicopter has double the flight time endurance of the HH-65, providing additional operational range for search-and-rescue missions and security patrols in the Great Lakes region and along the northern maritime border."

Mark Kirk

Another survivor
The House should act on the appropriations bill by June, but the Senate could vote as late as September, so a final decision may not come until after the November election, says Kirk.
"Maybe we shouldn't be adding missions to the federal government and deepening our financial woes," he says. "But the American people do expect the government to do some things as part of their core mission, and one of the core missions of the federal government, stretching back to early history, is search and rescue of Americans in peril by the United States Coast Guard."
To help him oppose the closures, Kirk recently tapped another boating accident survivor who was rescued from Lake Michigan by the Coast Guard. Jim Emma was one of seven men aboard the 36-foot charter boat Fin Seeker that sank in 12- to 14-foot seas more than three miles east of Waukegan in May 2008. The Coast Guard rescued all seven.
"The waves were throwing the boat right out of the water and smashed the windshields right out of it," recalls Emma, 58, of Geneva, Ill. "It filled full of water and it sank. Just like that."
The men were in the 41-degree water for about 45 minutes. "One wave ripped my life jacket right off me," says Emma, who appeared with the Kirk at a press conference in April to contest the air station shutdowns. "I had pretty much given up. I told my buddies, ‘I'm done. I can't do this anymore.' Then they started to scream at me. Someone said, ‘I think I hear a helicopter.' I saw the HH-65 helicopter over my head and it gave me a shot of adrenaline."

Turning point
Recalling his own rescue, Kirk says the warm air of late spring lured him and his friend to the water that day. They capsized a few times, which was common for a Sunfish. But the water temperature was cold - so cold it paralyzed his friend and Kirk was unable to pull him back on the boat. "So I towed him to shore," says Kirk, who served 21 years in the Navy Reserve. "He was done sailing that day and said, ‘I'm going to walk home.' "
Kirk needed to get home, too - and to return the family sailboat. "I decided that I would take one long tack out and one long tack in to make it easy," he recalls. "But I capsized a couple of more times and in one of them I lost the centerboard, so I really couldn't control the boat. I lost the halyard and ended up watching the sunset standing on the upside-down boat with only a ski belt on."
The youngster knew he would be unable to make it through the night. "I dove in for about a two-mile swim ... thinking that I had swum a mile once in the high school pool, so if my life depended on it, I could probably do this," Kirk says. "I got only about halfway and went through a classic near-death experience - reviewed my life, began to see the light."
Luckily, a teen who was working in a boathouse on shore, saw Kirk struggling with the Sunfish. "He was watching this Sunfish capsizing, righting, capsizing, righting," says Kirk. "It was unusual, because Sunfishes come home at night and this one wasn't."
The teenager called the Coast Guard.
"[The rescue] was a turning point in my life, because every day after that day has been a borrowed one," says Kirk, a Republican from the 10th District of Illinois who is serving his 10th year in Congress and is seeking a Senate seat. "I had absolutely no focus prior to that event. After that, I really didn't want to pursue a career in money or anything like that. It was all public service."

This article originally appeared in the July 2010 issue.