Crewmembers at Coast Guard Air Station Savannah provide search and rescue (SAR) coverage for 450 miles of coastline, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year… and they’ve been doing it since 1963. The aircrews hear their SAR alarm go off, on average, 250 times a year, flying missions from the northern border of South Carolina to Melbourne, Florida.
On July 15, 2010, the SAR alarm reverberated through the Air Station.
On duty… the crew of the MH-65C Dolphin helicopter 6565, which included LT Jeff Jacobs, ENS Chris Tamburello, AMT3 Kevin Lee and AST3 Andrew Sinclair.
The case… watchstanders at Sector Charleston received a call from local law enforcement that a woman had placed a 911 call after having witnessed a person struggling in the waters off the coast of Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. The woman, without giving any further information other than her location, hung up.
With the help of local law enforcement, interviews were conducted on the beaches and in surrounding areas to determine if anyone was missing.
Everyone had been reported accounted for.
The response… with no further information and with what he describes as a gut feeling, LT Jeff Jacobs, the aircraft commander, continued with the SAR mission.
Many SAR responders describe trying to find a person in the water at altitude like trying to find a needle in a haystack. And the conditions that day made the case even tougher – no position certainty and no information on what, or who was in the water if anything or anyone. All the crew knew was they needed to go check it out.
The persistence, dedication and excellent local area knowledge of the aircrew paid off. In only the first pass, flying at 200 feet or about 20 stories up, LT Jacobs inexplicably, spotted a woman in the water.
“She had no PFD, nothing contrasting in color and was wearing only her bathing suit,” said Jacobs.
The crew of the 6565 noticed that the woman was not looking up… Not waving her arms… Not giving any indicators that she was in distress.
The rescue swimmer, AST3 Sinclair, was lowered into the water.
The woman, after being carried out by a rip current and fighting it for hours, was so completely exhausted and in distress that she had not been able to signal for help. The junior crew of the 6565 hoisted the survivor into the helicopter, performed an initial assessment of her medical condition and flew her to safety. All this, with the expertise and finesse of a more experienced crew considering it was the first hoist of a survivor for both Tamburello and Lee.
“This aircrew and Sector Charleston did a great job of following through despite initial indicators suggesting a false alert,” said CDR David Cooper, operations officer at Air Station Savannah.
“It was a strong team effort to assess the situation, including the uncertainty surrounding the case because no one was reported missing and initial surface searches reported negative results, to continue to prosecute the case,” he continued. “Ultimately, the Savannah aircrew and Sector Charleston’s teamwork and devotion to duty resulted in one life saved!”
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