A moonlit search, a remarkable rescue

As a family of seven cast their lines 25 miles off the coast of Charleston, S.C., for a day of fishing over Labor Day weekend, their 38-foot Fountain boat began to flood with water. They called “mayday” on their VHF radio and gave details of their location, but their call for help was distorted.

With no choice but to abandon ship, they quickly put on their life jackets and tied everyone together using the boat’s anchor line hoping that their call for help was heard.

Having only received a single “mayday” without a position, the Coast Guard searched the coast of South Carolina for four hours but without any signs of distress or further details, the tough call was made to suspend the active search. The case was reopened later that evening, when the Sector Charleston Command Center received a call with information about an overdue boat that was fishing off the coast of Charleston.

Using the caller’s details, the search recommenced with helicopters from Air Station Savannah and Air Facility Charleston as well as a C-130 search plane from Elizabeth City, N.C. and an 87-foot patrol boat, CGC Yellowfin.

Three people arrive via ambulance

Three people involved in an overnight rescue arrive via ambulance outside the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston after being rescued by two Coast Guard helicopter crews from Air Station Savannah. Coast Guard photo by Lt. Cmdr. Ryan Rhodes.

On board the 6565, an MH-65C Dolphin helicopter from Air Facility Charleston, was the crew of LCDR Jeffrey Graham, LTJG Joe Forgeng, AET2 Benjamin Rosen and AST2 Jason Booher.

The 6565 flew through the night without finding any signs of the missing family. As hope was diminishing, a low ambient light began to show just before the sun’s rising as the crew approached the last stretch, of their last search pattern.

Aided by the ambient light, Rosen glimpsed an object with his night vision goggles. As a junior member of the aircrew, this was Rosen’s first time aboard an aircraft for a search and rescue mission, and in disbelief, he began to scan behind the aircraft. He again saw an object in the water.

The aircrew marked the position, turned around and confirmed the object was a debris field – with survivors. Booher was lowered into the water and found the entire family clinging to a cooler. Remarkably, after 20 hours in the water, all seven were alive and accounted for.

“The largest amount of people in the water I had dealt with in my training was six people at the most,” said Booher. “I looked to my left and looked to my right and there were kids. An adult was holding one of the kids so I just put them in the basket first.”

As the first hoist went up, with an adult and a child that was just five, Booher knew he was going to need assistance from other assets. He asked the adult to relay to the aircrew that all people in the water were accounted for and to divert assets to their position.

The enveloping darkness of night made the already difficult challenge of hoisting seven survivors more complicated.

AET2 Rosen interview

Click the above image to watch a video and interview with AET2 Rosen, a crewmember aboard the 6565.

“As I was trying to hover during one of the hoists, I flipped up the night vision goggles to see what I could see, and it was pitch black,” said Graham.

One by one, as the moon retreated and the sun rose, the dehydrated and hypothermic survivors were hoisted into the helicopter, but one last challenge was presented to the aircrew – as the fifth survivor was hoisted into the 6565 the aircraft reached its hoisting weight limitation leaving two survivors in the water.

Coordinating with the crew aboard the 6604 from Air Station Savannah, the 6565 remained on scene as the last two survivors were hoisted into the 6604. Both helicopters safely landed in Charleston, where ambulances awaited and cared for the survivors.

Together the 6565 and 6604 crews flew for 15 hours, but the realities of the rescue did not hit the crews until they landed with both aircrafts on scarce fuel levels and maximum hours in flight.

The aircrews, flying through the darkness of night and with limited information, turned what some may deem the impossible into a reality.

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