At approximately 7 a.m. April 3, 2014, the command center in Alameda, Calif., was notified of a 1-year-old child aboard the sailing vessel Rebel Heart who was ill and required assistance. On watch receiving the call was the command duty officer, Lt. David Herndon. Herndon and his team asked the Rebel Heart a series of questions. While the conversation was simple, it was vital to the mission’s success; this conversation was the only time anyone spoke to the family before rescue assets arrived on scene.
The Rebel Heart, a 36-foot sailboat, was approximately 900 miles southwest of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. After being briefed on the situation, a Coast Guard flight surgeon recommended medical personnel see the child within two days. Herndon heard the surgeon’s recommendation and knew this was going to be a challenge given the location of the vessel.
“It was a deteriorating situation,” recalled Herndon. “Not only was the 1-year-old seriously ill, the vessel had no communications, was disabled in 12-foot seas and had activated their EPIRB.”
While 900 miles southwest of Cabo San Lucas may seem a far way off for a rescue, it was the responsibility of Herndon’s team to take action. The 11th Coast Guard District command center is an internationally recognized Rescue Coordination Center with the responsibility to promote efficient organization of search and rescue services and to conduct operations within a region. In this particular case, they were the SAR mission coordinator – a role designated for every search and rescue case to successfully manage each mission and to coordinate resources.
The distance rescue assets would have to travel was daunting so Herndon and his team discussed which assets would be able to respond. In the end, it was decided the California Air National Guard’s 129th Rescue Wing and the U.S. Navy’s USS Vandegrift would respond.
“We knew almost immediately that given the location of this case and the fact that there was a medical issue aboard that the 129th Rescue Wing was going to be the fastest and most capable unit to render immediate assistance,” said Herndon. “Their parajumpers are highly trained medical professionals and are very experienced when it comes to search and rescue.”
The California Air National Guard launched an Air Force MC-130P Combat Shadow aircraft and arrived on scene later that evening. They provided medical as the Vandegrift steamed toward the sailing vessel. Once on scene, sailors aboard Vandegrift brought the infant, three family members and four pararescuemen aboard.
“At no point in time during the prosecution of this case did our watch floor not know who to contact or what assets to use,” said Herndon. “It was truly a team effort, with lots of moving pieces and contingencies being put into action.”
By the time Vandegrift reached the family, Herndon was off watch. While it was an odd feeling to leave amid the rescue, his work early on laid the foundation for the rest of the team to execute the mission.
“This case was very complex and lasted several days from start to finish,” said Herndon. “Not only were we in constant communications with California Air National Guard, U.S. Navy, Vandegrift and their respective chain of commands, but we also worked closely with Air Force and Coast Guard liaison officers in Mexico coordinating airspace entry for the 129th.”
As with all rescues, success is the result of a team effort. Herndon credits his fellow watchstanders for their skills and abilities, which truly shined during the Rebel Heart rescue. Stephanie Wefel, Drew Molla, Lt. Kawika Amersbach and Lt. Michelle Comeaux all stood watch throughout the case to achieve mission success.
“Stephanie, Drew, Kawika and Michelle are subject matter experts, and I am continually amazed by the knowledge, proficiency and professionalism of the watchstanders I work with every day,” said Herndon. “It’s great to be a part of this team.”