Coast Guardsman Frees Two From Sinking Tugboat
by U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Corinne Zilnicki
December 24, 2023
The sun wasn’t yet up on March 31, 2023 at 5:15 a.m., but Chad Rollins was. He had been awake since 4 a.m. lifting weights in the otherwise empty gym at Coast Guard Station Sabine, a spacious complex nestled on the swampy edge of Sabine Pass, Texas.
After working and sleeping at the station for the past two days, Rollins was ready to head home and see his wife, Parker, and 6-year-old daughter, Ellie ... but not before finishing his workout and meeting with the oncoming crew.
After racking the weights, Rollins relocated to the cardio room on the station’s fourth floor, shaking out his tired arms as he climbed the staircase. He maxed out the elevation on the treadmill and began briskly marching uphill, nudging the speed to 3 mph. The voice of David Draiman, lead singer of heavy metal band Disturbed, thundered through his earbuds, driving him onward through fatigue. Fifteen minutes down, fifteen to go.
The music was loud, but not loud enough to drown out the search and rescue alarm, which blared suddenly to life. Rollins plucked out his earbuds, jabbed the stop button on the treadmill and dismounted with a thud. Even as the treadmill belt slowed and stopped, Rollins’ workout continued. He dashed out of the room, galloped down the stairs and skidded through the door of the communications room, where Petty Officer 2nd Class Elliott Anstine was manning the radio.
“What’s going on?” Rollins asked, panting lightly.
Anstine got right to the point. “Capsized tugboat in the Sabine River.”
March 31, 2023 - The Sea Cypress, a 75-foot tugboat, capsizes while tied off to a barge at the mouth of the Sabine Pass Channel. Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Chad Rollins, a machinery technician at Station Sabine, pried open a hole in the sinking boat and rescued two men who were trapped inside. (Image created by USA Patriotism! from U.S. Service photo by Seaman Katelynn Reyes.)
Rollins was off again, his mind whirling as his feet pounded down the hallway. A machinery technician by trade, Rollins was already reframing this unexpected mission as a series of sequential tasks: light off the boat, get on scene, assess the situation, fix the problem. He threw on his uniform, dashed down the stairs and flew through the doors of Station Sabine as he had countless times in his nine months at the unit.
As one of the station’s engineers, Rollins was responsible for starting the boat and ensuring the engines and auxiliary systems operated smoothly. Deftly, he flicked switches and punched the ignition, bringing the 45-foot Response Boat–Medium’s diesel engines to life with a guttural growl. Petty Officer 2nd Class Ashton Jordan, the coxswain in charge of piloting the boat, and Seaman Katelynn Reyes, a boat crew member, hopped aboard, nodding at Rollins. The trio briefly discussed the few details they knew about the tugboat, slipped off the RB-M’s mooring lines and departed the pier.
“I was feeling anxious, excited and eager all at once,” Reyes said. “This type of case was extraordinary for us.”
Despite the crew’s eagerness, a thick cloak of fog stymied their progress. The boat crawled down the Sabine River, a 360-mile body of water that forms part of the border between Texas and Louisiana. Although the tugboat was only about half a mile away, the three Coast Guardsmen couldn’t see much in the shapeless, shadowy haze. Even so, all three crew members knew that buried in the mist were people who desperately needed their help.
Suddenly, the 75-foot tugboat Sea Cypress materialized in front of the RB-M’s bow, listing dramatically to port. The river lapped hungrily at the slumped-over tugboat, threatening to swallow it whole.
The Coast Guard crew was not alone on scene. A Sabine Pilots boat crew had tied their 53-foot vessel, the Port Arthur, to the starboard side of the tugboat, and three crewmen were moving busily around the deck. According to Peter Kolp, operations manager of the Sabine Pilots, it is not uncommon for pilot boat crews to assist distressed mariners.
“Our pilot boats are fast, big and stable, and the crews that operate the boats are highly experienced,” Kolp explained. “They’re constantly present in the channel, so they arrive at the onset of emergencies and help out a lot.”
Michael Deemy, David Seymour and Dylan Simmons, the three pilot boat captains aboard the Port Arthur, waved down the Coast Guard crew as the RB-M approached.
Four crewmen were aboard the Sea Cypress when it began to sink at 5:30 a.m. Two were now safe on the Port Arthur, but David LaCoste, the captain of the Sea Cypress, was trapped in the galley with one of his deckhands. Armed with a small handheld torch, LaCoste had managed to bore a 6-inch hole around a porthole in the tugboat’s steel hull. But staying upright in chest-deep water and operating an oxy-acetylene torch on a listing, sinking vessel was painstakingly difficult and slow.
Then an unfamiliar face appeared in the small porthole.
“My name is Petty Officer Chad Rollins with the Coast Guard. What’s your name and who’s trapped in there with you?”
LaCoste hurriedly introduced himself, explained the situation and asked Chad if he could help get them out.
Although relief flickered briefly over LaCoste’s face, Rollins detected panic in the captain’s voice and saw terror in his eyes. He realized the most important thing he could do was keep everyone calm and act with purpose.
“I’m going to do everything within my power to get you out of there,” Rollins assured them.
Rollins took the torch and tried extending the 6-inch hole, but sparks and smoke inundated the flooded galley and LaCoste hollered for him to stop. After a beat, LaCoste asked Rollins to fetch a rope and hold him steady while he continued working on the hole from inside the tugboat. Rollins grabbed a line from the pilot boat, snaked it through the porthole and instructed LaCoste to tie it around his waist.
With water sloshing up past his hips and sparks raining down on his head, Chad Rollins tightened his grip on the ends of the rope and bore the weight of the 250-pound tugboat captain. One of the freed tugboat crewmen held a piece of metal over Chad’s face to shield him from the smoke, but he could feel bits of molten metal singing his arms, chest and shoulders. It stung, but the Picayune, Mississippi, native had worked blue collar jobs since he was 18 and was accustomed to scrapes and burns. Squinting against the torch’s blaze and ducking his head, Rollins shouted at LaCoste to keep going.
LaCoste soon encountered a stubborn section of hull around the porthole that the torch’s flame could not penetrate. Rollins stared at the jagged opening in the tugboat’s hull for a moment, then yelled, “Can someone hand me an ax?”
After shouting for the trapped men to move away, Rollins gripped the handle of a fire ax and swung as hard as he could, smashing the blade against 3/8-inch steel. He twisted the head of the ax, widening the gash, then shoved a pinch bar in the gap. The metal screeched in protest before reluctantly giving way. Finally, Rollins used two adjustable wrenches to bend the steel bulkhead 90 degrees from its original position, creating an escape hatch.
Aboard the Coast Guard boat, which had now shifted behind the tugboat, Reyes looked on in amazement. She kept the boat’s spotlight trained on Rollins and intermittently darted out on deck to shout encouragement to her friend and mentor.
“Of all the people at Station Sabine, Rollins was the man for the job,” Reyes said. “He is the kind of person who will do whatever it takes to help someone in trouble.”
While the gap was now large enough for the two men to crawl out, LaCoste hesitated. His deckhand had injured his ankle and couldn’t push himself up and out; the captain did not want to leave his crewman behind. Inching closer to the opening, Rollins told the injured man, “Just wrap your arms around me and don’t let go!” The 25-year-old who had used his body as an anchor and his arms as a battering ram then hoisted both the deckhand and tugboat captain to safety.
By 6:38 a.m. Rollins and all four members of the Sea Cypress were safe aboard the Sabine Pilots boat, shaken but relieved. Dripping with sweat and river water, LaCoste locked eyes with Rollins and enveloped him in a massive hug, thanking him repeatedly for saving their lives.
“If it were not for Mr. Rollins’ sheer strength, bravery and desire to do his duty without hesitation, there is a good chance my eight boys would be without a father today,” LaCoste reflected.
Adrenaline had propelled him through the previous hour’s challenges, but as Rollins sat down on the deck of the Port Arthur, the gravity of the situation began to take hold. He had helped two men escape a sinking vessel. He had wrenched open a hole in the tugboat and pulled them free. Pure happiness washed over Rollins even as exhaustion set in; helping others was the main reason he served in the Coast Guard. He was proud he was strong enough to get the job done.
Chad Rollins’ shipmates, command and loved ones were immensely proud of him, too. On December 13, 2023 ... they gathered at Station Sabine to honor Rollins as he received a Meritorious Service Medal for his rescue of the tugboat captain and deckhand.
December 13, 2023 - Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Chad Rollins, a machinery technician at Station Sabine, at the pier in Sabine Pass, Texas after receiving a Meritorious Service Medal for rescuing two men from a sinking tugboat on March 31, 2023. (Image created by USA Patriotism! from U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Corinne Zilnicki.)
“The Meritorious Service Medal is awarded to those who truly go above and beyond,” said Master Chief Petty Officer Steven Beasley, officer-in-charge of Station Sabine. “Petty Officer Rollins acted selflessly and embodied the motto ‘So others may live.’”
Parker Rollins, who first met Chad while they were both in middle school, said she always knew he would accomplish something special while serving in the Coast Guard.
“He puts forth maximum effort and works incredibly hard no matter what,” she said. “He is one of the kindest and most giving people I’ve ever met in my entire life.”
For Petty Officer 2nd Class Chad Rollins, who said he did not expect recognition for his actions on March 31, the Meritorious Service Medal is something tangible he and his family can hold onto forever. It symbolizes that he was, and continues to be, strong enough.
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