A Rescuer’s Story: Message in a Bag Saves the Day

>Have you ever wondered what it would be like to face a potential mass casualty like the recent ice rescue of 134 fishermen trapped on a floe in western Lake Erie Feb. 7, 2009? How would you communicate the dangers to those in trouble? How would you get all those people safely off the ice?

Below is an email I got from Lt. Sarah Wyne, an aircraft commander from Air Station Detroit, who responded to Saturday’s case. It’s a story about the men and women who put themselves at risk to save others, and touches on the skills and characteristics that make Coast Guard men and women true Guardians.

The following words and photos are from Lt. Wyne, aircraft commander of CG6522:
“My crew and I just returned from our morning training flight on Saturday morning. We cut it a bit short due to some high wind advisories in the area. The day was unseasonably warm at 45 degrees with some strong winds out of the south, as high as 50 knots up at 1,000 feet.

As I was walking up to the locker room to change, the search and rescue (SAR) alarm went off, kicking everyone into action. The line crew started getting the helicopter out on the ramp, the copilot, Lt. Ian Stal, started heading towards the helo to get it started.

I ran up to the communications center to get the details. The operational watch stander, YN2 (Yeoman Second Class) Joyce Lambton in formed me that the Ninth District Command Center was reporting there were as many as 500 stranded on the ice in Lake Erie, but no other information was given except to launch immediately.

I made my way down to maintenance control, where we check the maintenance records and sign for the aircraft we are taking. I told the watch captain, AMT2 (Aviation Maintenance Technician Second Class) Brenton Weller who would later be the flight mechanic on the CG6553, the second helo to arrive on scene, that I wanted the mass casualty raft on the helicopter. He sprinted off to make that happen.

Once we were airborne and flying directly into a 35 knot headwind, we started brainstorming about what we may find and what might be required of us. One of the most exciting aspects of being a search and rescue pilot is not knowing exactly what you are going to find on scene. You have to be able to assess a situation and work with the crew to come up with a safe and effective course of action in a matter of minutes.

When we arrived at the 8-mile-long ice floe, we took a few minutes to get a rough count of the people stranded and the options for getting them off. We noticed a bridge someone had fashioned out of a dismantled shanty spanning the narrowest section of the crack in the ice. We reported the position to Station Marblehead so they could start sending fishermen on ATVs that way if they thought it would be safe. There also was a large group of 75-100 fishermen gathered on a southern point of the floe waiting to be ferried across the great water divide.

The most concerning thing we saw was the vast number of fishermen in groups of 1 to 20 that were still fishing, unaware they were in danger. If only there was some way to let them know their situation.

We noticed that many of them had their own personal airboats. We relayed that information to Station Marblehead, letting them know that these guys and their boats would be a big help in rounding up the outlying fishermen and ferrying people to shore. Station asked us if we had any way to communicate with them. AET2 (Aviation Electronics Technician Second Class) Trevor Sly, our flight mechanic, said, “We have three message blocks.”

We asked Station for their phone number and Trevor wrote a message on a piece of paper asking the fishermen to call CG Station Marblehead immediately. He sealed the paper in the plastic envelope, we pulled into a hover, and Trevor threw the first message to a group of fishermen fishing around their airboat. We located another group of fishermen that had three airboats with them. Trevor wrote another message, we pulled into a hover, and he tossed the second message out the door.

As we were starting to get low on fuel, we could hear the CG6553 on the radio; they were on their way down to help us out. At about the same time, we noticed a single individual packing up his fishing gear and starting the walk back to shore. He was alone, on foot, pulling his gear behind him on a child’s sled, and about three miles from shore. From the way he was leaning into the wind, we could tell he was bucking a pretty good headwind, wearing only rubber boots wading through about three inches of slush on top of the ice. He was completely unaware that in about two miles he would reach a crack in the ice that stretched as far as he would be able to see in either direction.

Then what?

He would choose a direction, possibly get lost, or fall through the ice, and we would be out here searching for him all night. With our fuel supply still dropping, we quickly discussed how to communicate with him. We had a hand held radio, but there was no guarantee if we dropped it to him, he would know how to use it. We came to the decision to put AST2 (Aviation Survival Technician) Bret Fogle, our rescue swimmer, down and leave him with the fishermen while we went to get fuel.

Once we refueled and were airborne again, we called AST2 Fogle on the radio and returned to pick him up. As we suspected, the fisherman had no idea of his situation. AST2 Fogle helped him flag down an airboat that took him safely to shore, so AST2 Fogle was waiting by himself when we arrived to pick him up.

We continued to fly over the floe, and noticed that all the fishermen had made their way to the edge of the ice for transportation back to shore, and it looked like the civilians with the airboats had gotten the message and were part of the rescue efforts. Not too long after that, we were directed to return home, the CG6553 and CG6503 from Air Station Traverse City would remain on scene to clean up the loose ends. We all breathed a sigh of relief and returned to Detroit in record time thanks to that great tailwind. — LT Sarah Wyne, Schedules Officer, U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Detroit”

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