Got questions? These rescue swimmers have answers.

We asked our Facebook fans if they could ask a rescue swimmer anything, what would it be? And with more than 200 questions asked, it was clear you were all eager to hear more about the men and women who make up the aviation survival technician rate – more often called rescue swimmers. We picked the top five most “liked” questions and asked two swimmers from the 13th Coast Guard District to help answer them. Below are your questions answered by Petty Officer 3rd Class Christopher Austin with help from Petty Officer 1st Class Obrien Starr-Hollow.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Christopher Austin saved the life of a fisherman on his first rescue as a qualified Coast Guard rescue swimmer. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Kelly Parker.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Christopher Austin saved the life of a fisherman on his first rescue as a qualified Coast Guard rescue swimmer. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Kelly Parker.

I know that in the moment, you’re focused and calm for the sake of the person you’re rescuing, but do you ever look back at a successful rescue and realize that you were just as scared as the person you helped, you’d just swallowed that fear to get the job done? – Jennifer LaRowe

Good question, Jennifer. First off, it is hard to speak for over 800 Coast Guard rescue swimmers on this one, but I will tell you how I believe most of us feel.

We are just like everyone else, especially those who live in service of their fellow woman and man. Yes, flying through really inclement weather or gazing into the eyes of a person who has passed is not always the easiest part, but when we look back and think of even the smallest possibility that we bettered someone else’s life, fear is the most miniscule part of that memory.

Ever wonder about sharks? – Scott Hess

Petty Officer 1st Class Obrien Starr-Hollow is lowered to an injured man and a cliff rescue worker 50 feet above the water near North Head Lighthouse. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Shawn Eggert.

Petty Officer 1st Class Obrien Starr-Hollow is lowered to an injured man and a cliff rescue worker 50 feet above the water near North Head Lighthouse. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Shawn Eggert.

Yes, but only wonder. I am more afraid of being hit on my bicycle than one of the men in gray suits paying me a visit.

What is the most challenging rescue you have performed – Brent Minor

It was my first duty, right out of the gate. It was Dec. 18, 2010. This day is a blur, but at the same time I remember odd things like my pilot saying at our oncoming duty brief “SAR [search and rescue] Case of the Century today, I can feel it,” or the fact that we were flying with a man dressed in a Santa Claus outfit who was to be dropped off for some children in our community.

I had been at my air station in Astoria, Ore., for a few months fresh out of rescue swimmer “A” school. I was hungry for my first duty day, to be able to fly in my actual position by myself like I was trained to do. So our scheduled flight was, as I said before, to drop off Santa Claus for the kids, then for the pilots to get some practice flying in the local area for proficiencies. After the Santa drop, we received a call from the station that a fishing boat had over turned in Willapa Bay, Wash. We diverted immediately and began searching for the two individuals in the water.

The fog on the water was very thick and only about 100 to 200 feet above the water, which made our area of visibility extremely limited for searching. After about 40 minutes of searching, our flight mechanic spotted some debris in the water. It was a trail of breadcrumbs that brought us to a boat-less man holding onto some crab pot buoys fighting for his life.

This is where it becomes fuzzy. I put on my mask and fins, moved to the door for a free fall. Then he took a wave from behind, disappeared for another wave and then came bobbing up just above the surface. So we opted to do a deployment in which the swimmer stays connected to the helicopter rescue hook.

When I was lowered, he was literally going under the water’s surface, so I grabbed him with a big ‘ol bear hug, and took one of the worst beatings of my life in the surf. The waves were relentless, and I soon became the center of the rope in a tug of war between the helicopter and the ocean. That part wasn’t fun.

Petty Officer 1st Class Obrien Starr-Hollow and an injured man are brought into a Coast Guard MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter by Petty Officer 2nd Class Daniel Hord. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Shawn Eggert.

Petty Officer 1st Class Obrien Starr-Hollow and an injured man are brought into a Coast Guard MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter by Petty Officer 2nd Class Daniel Hord. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Shawn Eggert.

Then after a few minutes of me hooking the survivor to myself, I saw his face. That image will never escape my memory. His mouth was foaming, his eyes were glassed over and even his nose and his eyes were foaming out sea water. I thought he had already expired and my heart suddenly sank to the bottom of that bay faster than his ship had. But as fast as that feeling came into my head, training and (my wife claims) stubbornness beat it right back out.

We pulled him all the way up and immediately began CPR. Our pilots looked briefly for the other soul in the water, but we knew we had one survivor and he needed advanced care ASAP. The survivor had no vitals but I had hope. I don’t go to church often, but as my flight mechanic was doing chest compressions, I asked for a miracle. Please don’t let this happen, please don’t allow this stranger underneath me to never see his family again. Then after about ten hard minutes, he showed signs of breathing. We suctioned out foamy salt water and made sure his vitals were increasing and as we landed at the hospital I recall almost feeling good with what we as a crew had done.

Unfortunately the other man drowned almost right after the boat first flipped and was never recovered. The man we did save had a full recovery, and I met with him and his beautiful family a couple times months later. I was quite disheartened about losing someone on my first day but as I looked at a home-made card from the survivor’s youngest daughter, I read the words “Thank You for saving my Daddy,” and my wife exclaimed “See, he gets to spend Christmas with his family because of what you guys did.”

My father was all about helping others when possible. It comes from the heart and it’s not just a job. My question would be is this “job” a job to you? – Brittany Howlett

No, this is not about having a job. “So others may live” is our mentality not “So others can give me their tax money.” Just kidding, Brittany, but seriously I’m just happy to serve my country and get paid to do it.

What were your thoughts right before your very first jump? – Courtney Cunat

“Don’t look down, don’t look down.” *Jump* “I’m looking down, I’m looking down.” *Face plant*

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  • tara

    great answers thanks coasties!

  • Drnogo

    Great writing give us more more more!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1059901857 Danielle Beaty

    As a Coastie wife, I’m always proud of all our Coast Guardsmen & women…but thank you most sincerely for humanizing your harrowing story so eloquently.   Often times, people forget that you’re dealing not just only with victims, but their families and loved ones.  May the ocean watch over and protect you in all your future rescues…  Fair Winds!  <3

  • Scalia

    20 years and you pension out in your early 40s. Sweet deal.

  • http://www.facebook.com/luke.souza.35 Luke Souza

    I’m only 14 and I’m planning to become a US coast guard helicopter rescue swimmer what should I do to prepare myself to become a rescue swimmer?