Stranded 350 miles from land, the Element Quest spent days being tossed about in ten-foot seas – rudderless and out of radio range. Without an EPIRB, the only hope for the three sailors aboard was that their satellite phone call was heard and passed on to the Coast Guard. It is hard to imagine the thoughts going through their minds when they first knew their call had been heard as they saw a Coast Guard rescue helicopter hovering above, but their rescue will be forever remembered thanks to the Coast Guard Foundation.
Earlier this week, the Coast Guard Foundation honored the crew of CG-6034, the rescue helicopter that hoisted the Element Quest’s sailors to safety, at its annual awards banquet. The aircrew of LT Anthony DeWinter (aircraft commander), LT Thomas Huntley (co-pilot), Petty Officer 1st Class Edwin Hannah (rescue swimmer), and Petty Officer 2nd Class Brandon Critchfield (flight mechanic) pushed their Jayhawk helicopter beyond its limits and had to rely on their training, and the skills of both the Navy and other Coast Guard units to save the sailors aboard Element Quest.
The search to find the proverbial “needle in a haystack” started when just days into a journey from Nova Scotia to Bermuda, the Element Quest encountered harsh conditions and suffered significant damage that left her without steerage hundreds of miles offshore.
Her crew radioed for help, but she was too far offshore for anyone to hear the call. In desperation, a sailor aboard the Element Quest made a satellite phone call to a friend and left a voice mail. The message was broken and barely readable but the end of the message was clear – “call the Coast Guard.”
Watchstanders at the District 5 Command Center launched an HC-130 Hercules long-range search and rescue plane, but the aircrew had a massive search area from Nova Scotia to Bermuda. As the aircrew flew over the enormous search area, they heard a faint mayday call over VHF Channel 16. Using their direction finding capabilities, the aircrew flew directly over the Element Quest, 350 miles east of Cape Hatteras, N.C.
Finding the vessel proved to be only half the battle though, as the Hercules aircrew learned a sailor on board had a potential spinal injury. A medevac was needed, but due to the Element Quest’s distance offshore, it was outside the range a Coast Guard rescue helicopter can fly.
As the Hercules stayed on scene, the Coast Guard coordinated with Naval 3rd Fleet Command to stop flight operations on board the USS Eisenhower, situated 175 miles offshore, so an MH-60 Jayhawk rescue helicopter could land and refuel on the missile carrier’s deck.
“A deck landing qualification is essential training for pilots, and most of the time it is on a Coast Guard platform,” said Huntley. “That training played dividends on this rescue.”
With the Eisenhower in position, Air Station Elizabeth City launched CG-6034 to conduct the medevac and rescue the sailors. After refueling, the 6034 aircrew launched from the decks of the Eisenhower with a Navy flight surgeon aboard and arrived overhead the foundering sailing vessel. On scene, the aircrew was faced with ten-foot seas, 30-knot winds, heavy rain and minimal visibility.
The damaged boat’s inability to steer added to the dangers, and the aircrew constantly reassessed the mission’s risks. Hannah, the rescue swimmer, was lowered and found his footing aboard the sailing vessel’s deck as he began to cut through rigging to create a recovery area for a rescue basket.
Each time the basket was lowered, the trail line that assists in lowering the basket would catch in the stinging winds, pulling the basket and forcing the helicopter to back off. After several attempts to lower the rescue basket, it became clear that a rescue directly from the deck would be too risky.
“After I did an assessment of the injured crewmember I found that they still had feeling in their arms and legs,” said Hannah. “Instead of providing more risk to the crew, and because the survivor was able to move, we knew the best call was to hoist the survivors from the water.”
Hannah entered the water and one by one the three sailors were hoisted and brought safely into the 6034’s cabin where the Eisenhower’s flight surgeon provided medical aid.
Heading westward the 6034 had one last stop to make before they could be back on land, as they refueled once again aboard Eisenhower.
As spectacular a mission the rescue of the Element Quest turned out to be, it is a glimpse of just one of hundreds of search and rescue cases every year that begins with a call for help and ends in the safety of a rescue helicopter’s cabin.
“I just happened to be on duty on the night the case happened,” said Huntley. “I was just doing my job and I am proud of the crew. All those hours of training pay off when you can go out and save lives.”