A Coast Guard member sporting a green flight suit walked through pouring rain toward Petty Officer 3rd Class James Chandler, who was organizing rescue gear into a Coast Guard helicopter.
“Hey, James,” he said. “You’re up.”
Chandler, a Coast Guard rescue swimmer, felt his heart race with excitement as he anticipated the mission ahead.
Tropical Storm Imelda brought historic rainfall to southeastern Texas and, even though the storm had hit a few days before, the effects were still mounting. Floodwaters caused by the storm posed serious hazards, requiring emergency rescues.
Chandler was one of many Coast Guard personnel who were staged out of Air Station Houston to assist people affected by the storm.
Even in the hectic atmosphere of a large rescue response, Chandler stood out. Aside from his muscular build and his colorful tattoo sleeves – which includes X-Men’s Wolverine – his English accent sets him apart. He was born in London, England, and moved to the United States in 2002. A desire to challenge himself propelled him into college football, and he had aspirations to play professionally.
While he was in San Jose, California, for a football tryout he saw a documentary about the most dangerous jobs in America, which highlighted Coast Guard rescue swimmers.
“Seeing the danger that was involved with the job really sparked my interest,” he said.
Chandler was eventually picked up by a football team out of Wichita, Kansas, but the images from the documentary stayed with him.
“As soon as the season was over, I knew exactly what I wanted to do,” he said. “Join the Coast Guard and be a swimmer.”
Chandler set aside his dreams of playing professional football and enlisted into the Coast Guard in 2013.
“It was a complete shift in what I wanted to do in life,” he said. “In a corny way, I felt like I was meant for something more.”
The rain continued to pummel the air station as Chandler quickly gathered his swimming gear.
He met with his aircrew to discuss the mission: A woman was found unconscious in a vehicle and needed an emergency helicopter evacuation.
Chandler and his aircrew deployed to rescue the woman; their bright orange helicopter disappearing into the rain and fog.
“You can’t help but feel eager to help these people and save lives,” he said.
When they arrived on scene, paramedics were already providing the woman medical attention. The scene was chaotic but Chandler felt well prepared. He helped transfer the woman aboard the helicopter and soon they were in the air again, headed back to the air station.
Soaring above the flooded city below, Chandler reached down to the woman’s neck, but couldn’t feel her pulse. He applied an automated external defibrillator to her to assess her condition.
“I’ll be honest, I was a little surprised to see the AED say, Start CPR,” he said.
Chandler, like all rescue swimmers, undergoes rigorous medical training but, up until that moment, he had never administered CPR to a live person.
“It kind of took me aback a little bit,” he said. “At that point you’re just in the zone.”
Chandler began CPR. To focus on chest compressions, he employed the help of the aircrew’s flight mechanic, Petty Officer 1stClass Andre Ramos, to provide the woman oxygen. As the helicopter’s engine roared overhead, drowning out all other sounds aboard the aircraft, Chandler was able to quickly teach Ramos the proper way to help using only hand signals.
After about 25 minutes, the aircrew arrived back at the air station.
When the helicopter door opened, Chandler was met by the faces of his fellow rescue swimmers and hanger deck members who helped transport the woman to an awaiting ambulance.
“We have a pulse!” shouted one of the paramedics.
Due to a lack of personnel, the paramedics asked Chandler if he could ride with them to the hospital and assist with the woman’s care. He accepted, and for another 20 minutes he provided the woman oxygen until they arrived.
“I walked out of the emergency room and I was able to take a sigh of relief,” he said.
Chandler made his way back to the air station to prepare for more rescue operations. On his way back, he thought about how far he had come since seeing the documentary that had shifted his goals in life.
“Whenever you get opportunities like this, it just reconfirms everything,” he said. “This is the reason why I signed up to be a rescue swimmer.”