[from the stabenow.com vaults, first posted February 11, 2004]
So this is what we did last night.
It’s about eleven-thirty, most of the ship has turned in for the night. I’m brushing my teeth and EO Tony Erickson knocks on the door to tell me we’ve caught a SAR case.
I shoot up to the bridge. It’s jammed with the usual suspects reflected in the glow of all the electronics screens. All four engines are all ahead full, and it feels like we’re riding a juggernaut.
A fisherman on a longliner about 25 miles away has got a fishhook through his eye. His skipper is on the VHF with the Ops officer. He sounds tense but in control. He says they’re not set up for a hoist by helo, he’s got two masts and a guy wire running from bow to mast to mast to stern down the centerline of his ship.
The winds are calm and the seas no more than three feet. It’s full dark, no moon yet, Orion looming large on our starboard bow. By now everyone who is always there during an incident is present, the Captain, XO, Ops, Chief Petty Officer Ross, Petty Officer Brown, BM3 Elwell and BM2 Gourley. HS1 “Doc” Brouhard, the ship’s corpsman, stands by for medical assessment and recommendations. The aviators are piped to the bridge. Lieutenant JG Nolan is the HCO, the helo communications operator, what you’d call the tower if you were on shore. Lieutenant JG Jansen is the LSO or landing signals officer, air traffic control, on the hangar deck.
Everyone gathers round the Captain. The longliner’s skipper repeats that he is not set up for a hoist by helo and is clearly apprehensive at the prospect. First option discussed is to lower a boat, drive over to the longliner with Doc and an EMT on board, lower the injured man into the boat, bring him back to the Alex Haley, stabilize him, and helo him to the clinic on St. Paul.
Our aviators, LT Leary and LT Eason, ask how long the longliner is. The answer is 170 feet. They are confident that in 170 feet they can hoist from somewhere, guy wire or no. LCDR Thorne, the XO, playing devil’s advocate, points out if they get there and they can’t hoist, it’ll take that much longer for us to lower a boat and bring the injured man on board.
Meanwhile Ops is getting name, age, like that of the injured man from the longliner’s skipper to forward to the St. Paul clinic, calling the longliner’s agent in Dutch Harbor to apprise her of the situation, and calling Anchorage to arrange a Lifeflight from Anchorage to the clinic. The longliner skipper says it’s a three-inch J-hook with the bale still attached. The shank is bent and he doesn’t know where the hook and the barb are. He’s padded it with gauze and tape and he doesn’t want to mess with it any further. Nearly everyone on the bridge from the Captain on down yells “Don’t touch it!” Or thinks it loudly.
Everyone has weighed in pro and con, we’ve got all the info we’re going to get. The Captain calls it, we’re go for helo launch with NVG (night vision goggles). The aviators head for the hangar deck, the XO takes the conn, PO Brown calls out range and bearing. The hangar is retracted, the helo rolled out and the rotors unfolded, after which we dim all the lights, as even a penlight can cause the night vision goggles to white out.
We launch and the helo lifts off to port and roars past our bow, almost invisible against the night sky. (Later, Ltjg Jansen reports to the Captain that the deck crew performed perfectly, and aviator LT Leary seconds that opinion.) The Alex Haley continues running full ahead for the longliner in case they aren’t able to hoist and we have to launch a boat after all.
We monitor communications between the helo and the longliner. The helo has the longliner douse some of their lights and requests that the injured man be brought to the port side of the longliner’s stern, and to get him in the basket when they drop it.
I’m staring forward through the bridge windows, and I see a tiny light move off the larger light on our starboard bow. “They’re off,” someone says, and no one cheers out loud but there is a huge exhalation of breath all over the bridge.
There is relief and gratitude in the longliner skipper’s voice when he thanks us for our assistance. “I didn’t know you could do that,” he says.
In all, it took about ninety minutes from the time the call came in to the time we heloed the injured man off the longliner. To my admittedly uneducated eye, it was a textbook operation from start to finish.
I’ve never seen my tax dollars better spent.
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