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Rescuing The Rescuers
by U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Levi Read - February 27, 2016

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There are several qualities that make the Northern Oregon coast majestic– the constant surf, for example. It sounds like roaring thunder as it breaks against jagged cliff sides and enters natural caves, then draws back out, rhythmically repeating the process in a symphony that has carved the coastline across eons. From a distance, the white wash seems perfectly synchronized and almost placid, but the same breathtaking waves that beckon tourists from around the world are some of the most unpredictable and treacherous as well.

One of the best places to experience the Oregon coast is Cape Kiwanda, the smallest headland among Three Capes Scenic Route in Lincoln County, Oregon. But its spectacular wave action, keyholes and caves often make it the backdrop for Coast Guard search-and-rescue cases.

In the early afternoon of the first day of February 2016, a girl from Washington fell into the Pacific Ocean near Cape Kiwanda in Lincoln County, Oregon. This tragic fall set in motion an unforgettable rescue that captivated the country.

More than 150 miles north of the fall site an aircrew of a conspicuous yellow helicopter – a Coast Guard MH-60 Jayhawk with a 1940s paint scheme commemorating 100 years of Coast Guard aviation in 2016 – was conducting routine training with a Coast Guard motor lifeboat crew when they were diverted to assist in search and rescue efforts for the girl near Cape Kiwanda. Moments after receiving a notification from watchstanders at Sector Columbia River, the aircrew: Lt. Rob McCabe, pilot; Lt. j.g. Alex Martfeld, co-pilot; Chief Petty Officer Michael Spencer, an aviation survival technician at Air Station Astoria; and Petty Officer 1st Class David Corcino, an aviation maintenance technician and helicopter flight mechanic, diverted to assist the case.

February 2016 - The Coast Guard MH-60 Jayhawk with a 1940s paint scheme commemorating 100 years of Coast Guard aviation. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)
February 2016 - The Coast Guard MH-60 Jayhawk with a 1940s paint scheme commemorating 100 years of Coast Guard aviation. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

Their next several hours would be as unique as the helicopter that carried them.

The search began in tandem with North Lincoln County Fire and Rescue, who launched three rescuers on personal watercraft to examine the search area as closely as possible.

“We were taking a good look at all the nooks, crannies and caves within Cape Kiwanda with cameras that can pickup heat signature and can peer into caves,” said McCabe. “Then right in front of us we noticed someone that appeared motionless in the water next to a man on a personal watercraft.”

Two personal watercraft operators had been overtaken by a 10 to 15-foot wave that tossed them into the air and swept the watercraft into a cave.

Adrenaline rushed as the crew realized their search-and-rescue case was beginning in an unsuspected way. They immediately began completing their rescue checklist.

“There wasn't time to weigh all the risk factors, so this is one of the most difficult decisions I've ever had to make as an aircraft commander,” said McCabe. “But this crew was very experienced, and we were able to switch gears pretty quickly. We are fortunate that we operate routinely in an area of responsibility that is characterized by this rugged coastline and high surf and caves like this.”

Chief Spencer, the crew rescue swimmer, prepared to deploy out of the helicopter, while Corcino prepared the hoist and kept an eye with the men in the water and the dynamic waves. Just as the men began rolling into the channel toward the back of the cave, the aircrew was ready.

As the hoist operator, Corcino's responsibility is to direct the pilots to put the helicopter where it needs to be to conduct the hoist, and to keep the rescue swimmer safe while he is on the hook.

He lowered Spencer toward the frothy water.

Spencer knew going down that one of the responders in the water was in more serious a condition than the other. He was the priority despite both responders being in a dangerous position. As Spencer was being lowered to their position, one rescuer was helping the other by keeping the injured rescuer's airway open and his head above water.

“The pilots and Dave did a phenomenal job,” said Spencer. “They lowered me down right next to the survivors. I was able to focus on the patient and less on what was going on around me.”

Spencer was able to get the first responder in the quick strap with a little struggle and gave the ready for pickup sign. The crew took the survivor to medical personnel who were waiting on the rocks surrounding the punchbowl.

“This was easily one of the most difficult rescues I have been a part of,” said Corcino.

Corcino then vectored the helicopter pilots near the cave to put Spencer in the perfect place for the second rescue.

“It was like threading the needle,” said McCabe. “We all trusted each other to get the job done and done safely.”

Within minutes, both North Lincoln County responders were safe on land, but the Coast Guard's aircrew was just getting started.

The crew shifted its focus back to the missing girl. Over the next 19 hours, Coast Guard helicopter and boat crews traveled 426 miles to scour 72 square miles of shoreline and ocean for the girl, but she was tragically lost to the unforgiving Oregon surf.

A young woman was tragically lost, but two fellow first responders lived to save lives another day because a Coast Guard crew was trained and ready. The unforgiving Oregon coast line once again provided a majestic backdrop for a rescue, but what made this rescue truly special where the lives that were placed on the line for someone else. The Coast Guard aircrew and watercraft operators for the girl, the North Lincoln County responders for each other and the Coast Guard for their fellow first responders.

By U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Levi Read
Provided through DVIDS
Copyright 2016

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