How much information can you gather in three minutes? This past weekend, Coast Guard watchstanders at Sector St. Petersburg found enough information in a mere three minutes – to save three lives.
On Sunday, Sector St. Petersburg received a 911-relay call from local county dispatch reporting a boat taking on water on the north side of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in Tampa, Fla. Taking the call in the command center was Petty Officer First Class Robert Davis, an operations specialist.
Seconds into the phone call, Davis realized the mariner provided him with information that did not correlate with being on the north side of the bridge. Using his familiarity with the area, and buoy numbers the mariner was passing to him, Davis recognized the distressed boat was actually on the east side of the bridge.
With water flooding into the boat, Davis knew there was little time to take action. He instructed the boaters to put on their lifejackets and that he would contact them again in ten minutes.
Davis did not even take the time to hang up the phone before he and the command center watchstanders “hit the SAR alarm.”
Hearing the SAR alarm was the on duty crew of Station St. Petersburg. The coxswain, Boatswains Mate Third Class Matthew Garcia, and his crew, launched their 25-foot small response boat and set out to the position plotted by Davis.
Eight minutes later, after several failed attempts to contact the mariner through cell phone, Davis had lost communication with the sinking vessel. Despite not being able to communicate with the boater, and with no further information coming into the command center, Davis had faith in the Station St. Petersburg crew.
“I trust the station crews,” said Davis. “The stations go out with minimal information and come back with phenomenal results.”
Maneuvering through 17-knot gusts and choppy waters, Garcia and his crew approached the plotted position and found a boat – but it was not the one in distress. To add to the frustration, the mariner aboard this fishing vessel had not seen another vessel, especially not one that was sinking.
More determined than ever, Garcia, a qualified coxswain for only a month and a half, used his knowledge of the tides and currents, and headed east of the buoy.
One and a half miles east of the original position, two crewmen aboard the 25-foot response boat saw something in the water.
Not knowing what it was, Garcia slowly approached the object and encountered a debris field. There, amongst the debris, were three people in the water, with their life jackets on, and only four feet of their boat’s bow visible above the water.
Garcia worked swiftly to position the 25-foot response boat between the submerged vessel and the survivors. As Garcia maneuvered the vessel, the two other crewmembers aboard threw heaving lines into the water and pulled the boaters to safety.
“This was my first rescue as a coxswain,” said Garcia. “Pulling those people out of the water felt really good.”
The Coast Guard men and women involved in this case worked so seamlessly that despite very little information gathered, the three people were rescued within 30 minutes after their initial call for help was made.
Congratulations to the watchstanders of Sector St. Petersburg and crews of Station St. Petersburg for your exemplary teamwork that led to a successful search and rescue mission!