The winners of 2004’s Helicopter Heroism Award half expected a false alarm when they launched Feb. 28 for a tanker explosion. Instead, this U.S. Coast Guard aircrew found themselves flying into an unusual hell.
Feb. 28 started off as a fairly routine evening at Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City. Petty Officer 3rd Class Dave Foreman and Aviation Electrical Technician Sam Pulliam had just finished dinner. Lt. j.g. Steve Bonn was hanging around a nearby office. Lt. Eric Bader had just sat down with his wife and children, who had come by with a pizza dinner. At 6:30 p.m., the alarm sounded.
Foreman and Pulliam grabbed all their gear and bolted for the alert aircraft and began to prep the HH-60J Jayhawk for rollout from the hangar and launch. Bader and Bonn gathered what information they could about the call. It sounded serious–reports of a 600-ft. tanker exploding 50 mi. east of Chincoteague, Va., or about 150 mi. northeast of their North Carolina base. As the crew went through their preparations, additional details were piped throughout the air station. The tanker, the M/V Bow Mariner, had 32 souls on board. Vessels in the area reported a 500-ft. ring of fire.
"It sounded obviously catastrophic," said Bader, the aircraft commander.
The crew rushed to launch and were airborne within 12 min. of the alarm sounding. Still, they half expected to be turned around.
"We always get stood down for false alarms," said Dave Foreman, the crew’s rescue swimmer.
That would not be the case this night. With reports of people in frigid Atlantic waters, possibly surrounded by fire, Bader, as aircraft commander, had raced to launch and get to the scene. "We went at absolutely max Vne," he said.
The crew of Coast Guard Aircraft 6026 was racing toward a hell they could not imagine–flat seas and calm winds that seemed picture-perfect for a rescue, save for the 3.5 million gallons of lethal, explosive chemicals (the Bow Mariner’s former cargo) that coated the waters and saturated everyone and everything in them.
Before the night was done, the four crewmen would pluck six sailors from the wreckage–the only survivors of the tanker’s destruction. En route to the hospital, Foreman and Pulliam would alternate between caring for the survivors and sucking air through a cabin door vent to stay clear-headed amid the stench of chemicals that now saturated the aircraft cabin. For their efforts that night, the crew of Coast Guard Aircraft 6026 has been named recipients of Rotor & Wing’s 2004 Helicopter Heroism Award.
Only after the Jayhawk was aloft did the implications of the mission slowly start to emerge. Bonn, in the cockpit’s left seat as co-pilot, was on the radio, taking relayed information from the command center. The Bow Mariner had been carrying 3.2 million gal. of ethanol, 193,000 gal. of bunker fuel and 48,000 gal. of diesel. People on shore reported hearing the explosion on the ship. Several vessels in the area reported people and life rafts in the water, which that night was 45 deg. F. or so. Bader began to wish he’d taken the time to load extra fuel before launching. The question of hazardous materials crossed his mind. "I got a C in high-school chemistry," Bader said. "I didn’t know what ethanol was."
The command center came back with those details. The Bow Mariner’s cargo "was extremely toxic," Bonn recalled hearing over the radio. "It was extremely hazardous."
The command center advised the crew that they did not have to go into the area of the explosion. "Initially," Bonn said, "they didn’t want us to go into the area."
In the cabin, Pulliam and Foreman were getting themselves ready. As the flight mechanic, Pulliam back at the hangar had unloaded water pumps used to empty flooded vessels. Foreman "took about all the burn kits we had," he said, "and grabbed some extra cylinders of medical oxygen." He would later decide against using any of it.
"We like to talk about what we’re going to do" while inbound to a call, Pulliam said. So the pilots and crewmembers discussed the predicament they faced. They all agreed that the mission should proceed. The crewmembers all donned their night-vision goggles. Foreman began putting on his dry suit in preparation for going into the water, although no one seriously thought he would be lowered into the dangerous mess being described for them.
A C-130 launched from Elizabeth City to serve as a command and control platform arrived at the scene. Its crew reported that the stern of the Bow Mariner was still visible, but it was pitched forward about 45 deg. and whatever else was left of the tanker was submerged. "But obviously there was no way it was going to be saved," Bonn recalled. The Hercules also reported a lot of debris, several lift rafts and strobes from salt water-activated lights on life vests. The C-130 directed Aircraft 6026 to search the area south of the stern, while an HH-65 from CGAS Atlantic City, N.J. searched to the north. The stern would sink before Bader and his crew got on the scene, gushing steam as it went down and leaving roiling surface waters in its wake.
Bader’s Jayhawk arrived less than an hour after the alarm had been sounded. "The aircraft has plenty of power," Bonn said. "We were just zipping along."
Bader said the situation below his helicopter "was like a scene from `Titanic’," the hit 1997 film about the 1912 sinking of that famed ocean liner. There was debris, life boats, life rafts and life jackets everywhere the eye could see. His crew was amazed by the number of flashing strobes on the surface. They seemed to be all over. "Our first thought was: Great! We’ve got a lot of survivors and they’re all spread out," Bonn said. "Then we thought: Damn! We’ve got a lot of survivors and they’re all spread out."
But as Foreman said, "we were not seeing a sign of a ship anywhere."
Bader descended to 100 ft. for a flyover of the search area. There were, indeed, a lot of strobes. Some were attached to life vests on crewmembers from the tanker. "We checked out a lot of them," Bader said. "None of the lights were people who needed to be saved."
The scene was made eerie by vapors that the crew could see rising from the surface with their NVGs.
The crew from Atlantic City brought up one survivor, but Bonn said he died en route to the incident’s designated triage site at Salisbury Airport in Ocean City, Md.
The Hercules was equipped with a C-130 Airborne Sensor with Palletized Electronic Reconnaissance, or Casper system, that allowed them to scan the surface with a gyroscopically stabilized forward-looking infrared imager. Using Casper, the C-130 spotted a life raft. The Herc crew radioed Bonn: "Hey, we think we see people moving in that raft." They directed the Jayhawk to it.
Bader circled to head into the wind and did an auto approach to a 50-ft. hover near the raft. "As soon as we got down, we could see a survivor," Bonn said. Pulliam saw the man stand up in the doorway of the raft and wave his arm. That’s when the stench hit.
The vapors the crew had seen in their NVGs belonged to the millions of gallons of ethanol released from the Bow Mariner, which were now floating on the surface and evaporating. At the 100 ft. for the flyover, the fumes weren’t evident. At 50 ft., they were. "The fumes were really intense," Bader said.
He retreated to 100 ft., where breathing was better. But hoisting from 100 ft. can be tricky on a calm, sunny day, let alone at night. The crew had spotted a large, wooden boat 200-300 ft. from the life raft, just at the edge of the surface sheen created by the spilled fuels. They attempted several times to signal that boat to move toward the raft, but the boat–which had been placed in the water by one of the surface vessels responding to the explosion–didn’t budge. The sailors on it weren’t going anywhere near the life raft. "They made that clear to us eventually" Bader said. It dawned on the Coast Guardsmen that the choking fumes at 50 ft. were obviously much worse on the surface, and the boat faced the added risk of being surrounded by any re-ignited fire.
Bader and his crew decided to have Pulliam lower the rescue basket to the surface and try to lure the raft’s occupants on to it. The decision to lower the basket was a dicey one, given the fuel-air mixture on the surface. "A lot of times when you put a basket in the water, it will spark," Bader noted. He descended to 70 ft., where the air was still tolerable. The crew also wanted to stay a bit high to avoid tipping the raft with the HH-60’s downwash.
"Sam put the basket right next to the raft," Foreman said. But no occupant made a move to climb, or even fall, into it. He suspected any occupants were too injured and hypothermic to have the energy even for a fall.
"At that point," Bonn said, "Dave was, like, `Put me down! Put me down!"
None of the crew wanted to lower Foreman into that noxious, flammable soup.
"That was absolutely the last thing I wanted to do," Bader said.
"We’d discussed that the rescue swimmer would be the last resort," Pulliam said. But now Bader polled the crew. "Either he goes down or we don’t pick them up," he said. "How do you feel about that?"
Pulliam replied, "That’s just about the only way we’re going to get them I agree."
As Bonn puts it now, "If we didn’t go forward and execute some rescue, those people were going to die in front of us."
For his part, Foreman said, "I threw something out there. I said, `You put me down. If I get uncomfortable or go unconscious, you’ll bring me up.
"I don’t think the pilots were very happy" with his proposal. Foreman said. But they agreed.
So Foreman finished suiting up, hooked on to the hoist cable and had Pulliam lower him into the water a short swim from the raft. The crew remained concerned about tipping the raft.
The plan was for Foreman to demonstrate to any survivors on the raft how to get into the rescue basket, then place one survivor in it and send him up to the helicopter. But when Foreman got to the raft, it was like a cave. It was already dark outside, and everything inside the raft was covered with the black pitch of the fuels. The rescue swimmer had to get down and feel everything with his hands to figure out whether an object was a human or a piece of gear. On top of that, "the ethanol was coming up off the water like a fog," Foreman said. "It was eerie."
"We had no idea," Pulliam said. "The raft looked normal. It looked like a normal hoist."
Foreman identified six people. The guy at the door spoke a bit of English and helped with translating for the others, who spoke none. They were all hypothermic and suffering from exposure to the ethanol. (The substance, in extreme exposures, can cause blindness, coma and death. And Foreman was literally and figuratively swimming in the stuff.) One of the six seemed to complain of a back injury. The sixth appeared to be dead.
It was apparent to Foreman that none of the survivors was capable of helping himself into the rescue basket. He sent up one, then abandoned the plan, leaving himself exposed to the noxious and toxic waters.
"He didn’t tell us, `I’m not coming up,’" Bader said. "He said, "I’m going to send them up.’"
Saturated in sea water laced with ethanol and the other fuels, the rescued survivors carried the stench into the cabin. "After the second guy, I immediately got a headache," Pulliam said. "With each lift, it just kept getting worse." He said he’d never smelled anything like it. "Not even close."
On the surface, Foreman had decided a few things. He was going to really pay attention to his body’s reaction to this environment. He was going to check repeatedly on how he felt. And "I won’t over-exert myself."
But by the lift of the fourth survivor, it was apparent to Bader, Bonn and Pulliam that the fumes were affecting Foreman. His conversations over the radio weren’t making sense. He’d lose his train of thought. His speech was slurred. (Inhalation of ethanol can cause intoxication.)
"The pilot caught my attention," Pulliam said. "From our angle, it didn’t look like Dave was moving. Then he gave us a little wave. That happened two or three times."
Foreman thinks he may have been busy cutting away the canopy of the raft for easier access to the survivor with the back injury when his crewmates thought he appeared dazed. But he can’t say for sure.
The concern is obvious to anyone familiar with helicopter ocean rescues. "If Dave became incapacitated, there was no one else who was going to be able to get him," Bader said. He told Pulliam, and had Bonn tell Foreman via radio, to wrap up the operation. Foreman checked again on the raft occupant he’d thought was dead, rubbing his sternum hard to see if he responded to the pain. The guy did, enough to let Foreman that he also had a back injury.
Running out of time (and nearly out of fuel), Pulliam now had to assemble the helicopter’s two-piece litter for this sixth and last survivor, lower the rescue basket to retrieve the fifth, get everyone positioned in the cabin and recover Foreman. Pulliam thinks he took forever assembling the litter. His crewmates disagree.
"The flight mechanic did an outstanding job of getting the rescue litter together," Bonn said.
"Sam’s assembly of the litter was critical to the success of the whole thing," Bader said.
Foreman had trouble, however, getting that last survivor in the litter. "He wasn’t a big guy," he said. "But he was coated in oil. I couldn’t get a grip on him." He decided to get the man into the water, then work him into the litter, which is basically a backboard designed to prevent additional injury to a damaged spine. This from the man who said he wasn’t going to over-exert himself.
With the survivors on board, Pulliam lowered the hoist cable to recover Foreman. But Foreman wouldn’t grab the cable and hook on to it. "To me," he said, "it was the flight mechanic–he just wasn’t getting the hook to me. To the pilot and flight mechanic, they were, like, `Why isn’t Dave grabbing the hook?"
In addition to working the radios, Bonn had been tracking fuel consumption and planning navigation. While the designated triage area was in Ocean City, he’d never personally flown up there. Also, he knew that site was manned by firefighters and emergency medical technicians who would do their own assessment of the survivors before transporting them to a hospital.
"The survivors had extremely life-threatening injuries," Bonn said. "It started to feel like it was going to take to much time."
He calculated that they had enough fuel to fly directly to a Level One trauma center in Norfolk, Va. Bader agreed and they headed back.
In the back, Foreman and Pulliam were tending to the survivors. The cabin now reeked, and Foreman found himself holding his breath while he worked on a survivor, then leaning to the vent in the cabin door to get fresh air. The survivors needed the extra oxygen he’d brought on board. "Hell, I needed it." But he didn’t know if the oxygen might ignite the goop that was all over, as it does to grease. So the oxygen stayed stowed.
That didn’t appear to hurt. All six of the sailors recovered by the crew of Aircraft 6026 survived and were released from the hospital.