Before Katrina struck Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, it wreaked havoc on vessels in the Gulf of Mexico. Massello and his HH-60 Jayhawk crew from CGAS Clearwater, Fla. were among those who came to their aid. For one mission, Massello and crew were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. An honor normally given for heroism in combat, it recognizes "extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial flight." Of the Coast Guard’s "superb results in its response to Hurricane Katrina," its commandant, Adm. Thomas H. Collins, said, the heroic efforts of Massello and his crew in rescuing the three crewmembers of the fishing vessel Mary Lynn on Aug. 26-27 "stand out in particular."
The Mary Lynn was about 85 mi. west of Key West and about 210 mi. from our position near Tampa. The report I got was that the hurricane was no longer a factor, that it had pulled away from the Mary Lynn‘s position.
I had one chart that had lat/long and a computer screen with just a radar picture of the storm. I was looking at one, then the other, trying to put the same point on each, and realized the hurricane was right there. It was right in the middle. I spent a good 10-15 min. just looking at it and thinking, "There is no way we were going to be able to get through that." I shared the information with the crew. We decided we would go. We would try and we’d see how far we could get into it.
We took off at 2200. We were planning to go directly to Key West, which normally takes 1.5-2 hr., then west. This would allow us to come in the backside of the storm, which is usually a weaker portion of the rain bands and wind.
As we got just even with Fort Myers, we were advised another fishing vessel with a two-man crew was also in trouble. They were headed north-northeast toward land and taking on water. . .. We hovered nearby and asked the captain if they wanted to come off. They didn’t. Since they were still able to make way, we advised them to just keep going and maintain good communications with the Coast Guard.
As we were departing there, we were informed the Mary Lynn‘s crew had tried for a life raft that capsized and all three–two men and a woman–were now in the water. At that point, we abandoned our original plan and went straight-line towards their last position. We’d asked for a C-130 from Clearwater to provide cover for us, so they were on the scene through out the night, keeping tabs on the Mary Lynn, calming them and giving us updates on the position.
Because of the situation, just to get to the Mary Lynn we had to fly through the front right quadrant of Katrina, the strongest portion of the storm. The C-130 reported that the people were still on board the boat. We all breathed a sigh of relief . . . Then we started talking about fuel. We opted to go directly to the Mary Lynn and not refuel at Key West because under normal circumstances we had plenty of fuel with a normal reserve.
It was so dark we were using the radar. Finally, there came a point where the rain bands were just everywhere. We were about 90 deg. off course a few times trying to get through the heavier rain bands, so it took us a good 1.5-2 hr. just to get to the Mary Lynn (after 45 min. to the other boat and 45 min. there). We knew we wouldn’t have much time on scene due to fuel, so we asked the C-130 to conduct the vessel briefing and inform the crew we would only have about 15 min.
At first, we considered trying to hoist all three people in that time. As we pulled into a hover the first time around, we were about 10 mi. from the eye. Winds were about 85 kt. After one failed attempt at a hover, I realized this wasn’t something I wanted to rush. The hoists would be hard enough; we ran a significant risk of doing more harm than good by hurrying. I knew that this would be the most challenging hoist I had ever done. The Mary Lynn‘s crew was scared, but on the boat. They were safe. I was running fuel numbers in my head and talking to Dave and finally said, "You know, the C-130 is still here with them, so let’s go get gas." So we went to Key West.
We had about a 75-kt. headwind. We had about 1,500 lb. of fuel, or roughly 1 hr., 20 min., which from our position nomally would have been plenty. However, the Doppler radar’s computer was showing a 2-hr. ETA to Key West. So it was kind a tense moment there. But the headwind component started dying down. We landed at Key West around 0300 local, refueled and were airborne again by 0400.
The weather became progressively worse as we neared the Mary Lynn. We tried pulling into a hover, and before I knew it we were drifting left at about 30 kt. So we departed and came back around, and it was the same thing. We were under NVGs at night, and trying to do the hoist like that just wasn’t working. Since sunrise was in less than an hour, I thought we should just hold our position and wait for a little bit more light, more visual cues. We just pretty much hovered over the boat until the sun came up.
The seas were about 40 feet. I’d told KC there was no way was he coming off the cable; I didn’t want to risk losing him. So we devised a plan using all direct hoists, with the rescue swimmer remaining attached to the cable.
Rather than slamming KC into the boat, we had the Mary Lynn crew jump into the water one at a time so we could keep a good eye on them, then moved KC in to grab each one. So he goes in, the girl jumps 2-3 ft. to him in the water, he picks her up and we move away from the boat for the hoist. It took about 10 min. for each hoist.
Once we had everyone on board, we started heading toward Key West–and back into that headwind–but we realized conditions would probably be better to Clearwater and we had the fuel. So we went straight home. It was roughly 0900 when we got back. Start to finish was just over 11 hr., with 9.3 hr. in the air. —As told to Douglas W. Nelms