With contributions from PA3 Kelly Parker.
The Coast Guard trains its people to be Always Ready and that training is never more important than on your first search and rescue case. On Petty Officer 3rd Class Christopher Austin’s first duty day as a Coast Guard rescue swimmer there was no time for uncertainty – a vessel had capsized in the Pacific northwest’s icy waters and he was being called upon to save lives.
With only two miles of visibility, the aircrew diverted to the opening of Willapa Bay, Wash. and spotted a debris field. The aircraft commander, Lt. Benjamin Schluckebier, turned the helicopter around to follow the debris field. That’s when despite the fact neither fisherman was wearing a life jacket, the aircraft flight mechanic, Petty Officer 2nd Class Andre Altavilla, noticed a person in the water.
“The boater rapidly deteriorated from swimming, to barely keeping his head out of the water, to being under for 10 seconds at a time when getting hit by waves, to face down in the water and not moving,” recalls Schluckebier.
Austin was lowered into the 45-degree water, and although he was on his first case on his first day of duty, the agitated waters showed no mercy as he attempted to reach the now unresponsive fisherman.
“Everything that was going through my head was all the training that I’ve had in the past two years and especially throughout A-school,” recalls Austin. “As soon as I grabbed him, I put my arms up underneath him, and a wave hit me with so much force my goggles came up off my face. I kept working, kept trying to get this guy’s head above the water.”
Austin was pummeled by waves, but with support from Altavilla who was paying out his cable, he was able to shelter the fisherman. After the ready signal was given, Austin and the unconscious fisherman were hoisted into the helicopter.
Once safely inside the cabin, Altavilla and Austin administered CPR and the man began to breathe once again.
Although Austin was the one deployed in the water, he credits the rescue to the teamwork of his aircrew.
“I didn’t see this guy – the flight mechanic found him. I didn’t jump out of the plane – I got hoisted down by the decision of the pilot. I didn’t do CPR by myself – I was gassed after getting hit by all those waves,” said Austin. “My biggest thing is that you’re not the hero, you’re not the one saving people. It’s the guys that you’re with who have your back and you have to have their back just as much to get the job done.”
Despite saving a life his first day on the job, Austin learned a hard lesson; after an extensive six-hour search for the second fisherman, by both air and surface rescue crews, the search was suspended.
“We couldn’t get the other guy and I was kind of beating myself up about that. We did everything we could to get there,” said Austin.
Thinking about the lost fisherman, it was Austin’s family who put things in perspective for the young rescue swimmer.
“When I got off the phone with my dad on Christmas my fiancé said to me, ‘You know that he [the fisherman] gets to be at home with his family for Christmas.’”