Aircrew receives prestigious award for hurricane rescue
Posted by LT Katie Braynard, Tuesday, March 1, 2016
UPDATE: The below post has been updated to reflect a correction made to referencing a location in the Bahamas. The second paragraph has been updated to reflect the correct name of the location, Great Inagua.
Written by Chief Petty Officer David Schuhlein
With Hurricane Joaquin bearing down, the 212-foot cargo ship Minouche and its crew of 12 was forced to abandon ship in the waters between Haiti and Cuba.
In the dark and battling hurricane conditions, their only hope of rescue that evening was the Coast Guard Air Station Clearwater on-duty air crew forward-deployed to Great Inagua, Bahamas.
When the rescue helicopter aircrew got word their assistance was needed some 40 nautical miles away, time and weather were not on their side.
Nonetheless, the rescue helicopter crew was soon airborne and headed to the last known location of the Minouche.
After abandoning ship, the Minouche 12-man crew made it safely into a life raft, but was continually battered 15-foot seas and 50-knot winds. At that moment in time, the Minouche and her crew were just 90 miles from the eye of Hurricane Joaquin, now a Category 4 hurricane.
Lt. David McCarthy, the MH-60 Jayhawk aircraft commander, Lt. John “Rick” Post, the co-pilot, Petty Officer 1st Class Ben Cournia, aviation survival technician, and Petty Officer 2nd Class Joshua Andrews, aviation maintenance technician, made up the flight crew.
After fighting thick clouds and heavy rains, they arrived on scene and began to access the situation. With their night-vision goggles and radar systems nearly useless, the crew located the raft and formulated a plan to affect the rescue.
Cournia, the rescue swimmer, was soon lowered into 15-foot seas. He quickly swam to the battered life-raft and found all 12 crew members wet and scared, but thankful to see him. Fighting the on-scene conditions over the next several hours, Andrews painstakingly lowered the rescue basket to Cournia and one by one he raised each of the first 8 crewmembers to the helicopter.
For Cournia, he realized the severity of the situation he was placed in.
“I was telling myself this was for real this time – 12 lives were on the line,” said Cournia. “All our training came down to that moment.”
Low on fuel, the pilots needed to return to Great Iguana to drop off the first eight rescued crewmembers. During the approach, the crew was faced with yet another challenge: storm debris flew into the rotor system, temporarily grounding the crew.
After an inspection and clearance the crew was airborne again, flying back toward the remaining four Minouche crewmembers waiting in the life raft. After returning to the scene and hoisting just one of the remaining crewmembers, Andrews noticed a major problem. The high winds and turbulent seas had been causing excessive swinging action, causing the steel hoist cable to begin to fray. Worried about the safety of the remaining crewmembers, the crew was required to return to base and swap out their helicopter for a ready back-up.
With the third trip back to the life raft, the aircrew was able to rescue the remaining three members and return to the Bahamas – just as the sub began to rise.
For their efforts and heroics that night, all four Air Station Clearwater crewmembers were presented with the U.S. Coast Guard’s second highest award for aerial valor, the Air Medal, in a recent ceremony at the air station.
“Today we get to celebrate real live American heroes, said Capt. Richard Lorenzen, commanding officer of the Air Station at the ceremony.” A fairly junior crew that had never seen conditions like this rose to the challenge, put their training to the test, and saved 12 lives under extreme conditions.”