Boat sinks off Alaska; Coast Guard rescues 5

AP News
Posted: May 22, 2011 11:55 PM
Boat sinks off Alaska; Coast Guard rescues 5

A Coast Guard rescue swimmer and helicopter plucked four men and a teenage boy from a life raft Sunday as their pleasure boat sank about 85 miles north of Kodiak Island in Alaska.

Names of the people on board the 60-foot Nordic Mistress were not immediately available, said Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Lally, but all were from Anchorage.

The agency took a mayday call by VHF radio late Sunday morning from the vessel. A man is heard excitedly describing the boat as a 60-footer with a white hull in need of immediate assistance.

"We're taking on water. We're going down," the man said. "We need your help out here."

A Coast Guard operator in Anchorage asked if the vessel carried dewatering pumps.

"That's a negative," the man replied. "No pumps."

A helicopter crew from Kodiak departed at 11:50 a.m. The Coast Guard also diverted a HC-130 Hercules fixed wing airplane to help search for the vessel.

The helicopter pilot, Lt. Jon Bartel, said he launched 27 minutes after the call in low clouds of about 600 feet.

The helicopter reached the position given by the mayday caller 45 minutes later at 12:35 p.m. but the vessel had drifted, Bartel said.

"We just set our navigation system to point right at the position he gave," Bartel said. "I think he had drifted a half mile or a mile to the east."

The people in the life raft saw the helicopter before the crew saw them.

Bartel had the helicopter pointing north and the hoist operator, flight mechanic Devin Lloyd, spotted a red star flare fired from the raft.

The helicopter crew found the Nordic Mistress was partially submerged. All five people on board had donned red suits and boarded a life raft. The 8-by-8-foot life raft was bobbing in 6-foot seas with winds blowing at 15 mph.

Bartel lowered the helicopter to just 12 to 15 feet above the water and the rescue swimmer, Petty Officer Rafael Aguero, jumped in.

"It's the most expeditious deployment we have," Bartel said, and only allowed during daylight rescues.

Aguero swam to the raft. The plan was to swim each survivor away from the raft and into a rescue basket dangling from the helicopter.

"That way you don't have everyone in the water at the same time, spreading apart, potentially," Bartel said.

The first rescue, a 14-year-old boy, was the most challenging, he said, adding that the boy was "a little bit scared."

"He was a big kid, though. He was definitely making our rescue swimmer work to get away from the raft and into that basket," Bartel said.

After that, the crew got into a rhythm, Bartel said. Aguero swam the four men to the basket one by one and Lloyd hoisted them into the helicopter. Lt. Vincent Jansen was the second pilot on board.

The five rescued people were flown to Kodiak.

Aguero was in the water 22 minutes, Bartel said. The rescue swimmer was part of the Coast Guard crew that last week recovered the bodies of five clam diggers who died when their 22-foot skiff was swamped by rough seas and strong winds in Cook Inlet

"I'm glad we were able to get him a good one after that," Bartel said of the rescue.

The cause of the sinking of the Nordic Mistress has not been determined. Lally said the amount of fuel on board the vessel was not known but no sheen was immediately spotted.

Bartel called it a near perfect rescue.

"You couldn't ask for better survivors, to be honest," he said. They were prepared to make a mayday call by VHF radio, they gave an exact location, they donned immersion suits and they signaled their final location with a flare gun, he said.

"It was just perfect," Bartel said. "There was no searching. We went right to them."