Honor, Respect, Devotion to Duty: Coast Guard Cutter Joseph Tezanos crew

Written by Coast Guard Foundation and Petty Officer 3rd Class Eric Woodall

The Coast Guard Cutter Joseph Tezanos conducts sea trials off the coast of Key West Florida on July 19, 2016. The Joseph Tezanos is a Fast Response Cutter that was commissioned August 2016. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Eric D. Woodall.

The Coast Guard Cutter Joseph Tezanos conducts sea trials off the coast of Key West Florida on July 19, 2016. The Joseph Tezanos is a Fast Response Cutter that was commissioned August 2016. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Eric D. Woodall.

The morning of August 17, 2016, started as a picturesque tropical day in the sunny Port of San Juan, Puerto Rico. Not a drop of rain obstructed views of El Morro Castle, and warm Caribbean breezes beckoned tourists arriving on several cruise ships that day to explore the historic city of Old San Juan.

At 7:15 a.m. however, the comfort and tranquility of that scene was shattered by a sobering 911 call into the Coast Guard Sector San Juan Command Center.

The operators relayed reports of a cruise ship on fire just outside the harbor with thick black smoke emanating from it. Subsequent radio calls to the Caribbean Fantasy, a 614-foot passenger and cargo ferry inbound from Dominican Republic, confirmed that a fire in their engine room was out of control with toxic smoke filling the passageways and the vessel’s 511 passengers and crew were abandoning ship.

The events that quickly unfolded mark the largest mass rescue operation in U.S. waters in 60 years, and highlighted the awe inspiring unity of effort which has come to be expected of the U.S. Coast Guard.

Immediately recognizing the gravity of the situation, Sector San Juan mobilized all available assets: two HH-65 Dolphin helicopters from Air Station Borinquen; U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Joseph Tezanos; U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Richard Dixon; Station San Juan’s two 33-foot and 45-foot response boats; Aids to Navigation Team Puerto Rico’s 55-foot boat; and U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Donald Horsley’s 26-foot cutter boat.

Additionally, port and interagency partners were asked to assist and quickly answered the call with a U.S. Customs and Border Protection 39-foot interceptor boat; three Puerto Rico ferries, three tugs, one pilot boat; two police helicopters; and numerous good Samaritan vessels. Meanwhile the rest of the Sector rallied to supplement the Command Center watch while standing up the Incident Management Team to coordinate a rapidly growing and complex response operation.

The crew of U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Joseph Tezanos quickly assumed on-scene commander, directing and coordinating numerous assets to safely evacuate the passengers and crew of the Caribbean Fantasy.

Passengers aboard the 561-foot Caribbean Fantasy ferry vessel use the marine escape system to awaiting lift rafts as they abandon the vessel a mile from San Juan Harbor, San Juan, Puerto Rico, Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2016. The Caribbean Fantasy had a fire start in the engine room that spread to other compartments forcing passengers and crew to abandon the vessel. U.S. Coast Guard photo courtesy of Station San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Passengers aboard the 561-foot Caribbean Fantasy ferry vessel use the marine escape system to awaiting lift rafts as they abandon the vessel a mile from San Juan Harbor, San Juan, Puerto Rico, Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2016. The Caribbean Fantasy had a fire start in the engine room that spread to other compartments forcing passengers and crew to abandon the vessel. U.S. Coast Guard photo courtesy of Station San Juan, Puerto Rico.

For the next several hours men, women and children embarked life rafts or made a harrowing descent down the vessel’s steep Marine Evacuation Slide system from 50 feet above the waterline—past the hull of the ship which was so hot its paint was blistering and sloughing off—to be met by Coast Guard men and women who pulled them to safety.

The crew of the 55-foot Aids to Navigation boat rescued a pregnant woman and children from a lifeboat stranded 15 feet above the water’s edge, and resuscitated another passenger with CPR who had gone into shock. The Tezanos crew ensured Station San Juan, Aids to Navigation Team Puerto Rico, Donald Horsley’s cutter boat, and a host of other interagency and port partner surface response assets were cued and waiting to transport victims to the landing site. Similarly, the Dolphin crews from Air Station Borinquen coordinated an orderly evacuation by air, hoisting numerous individuals off the burning vessel and directing police helicopters in the response.

Simultaneously, advance teams from Sector San Juan and the station rapidly deployed to the pre-designated landing site adjacent to the cruise ship piers downtown San Juan. Upon arriving at the landing site, Coast Guard personnel organized the shore side response and received inbound response boats to ensure proper accountability, security, and interagency coordination.

The robust Coast Guard presence supporting the interagency shore side response facilitated the expeditious triage of victims and their humane treatment before being transported to medical facilities for further care or to the passenger reception center to be reunited with their families and to clear customs.

Meanwhile, personnel from across all Sector San Juan departments including planning, logistics, prevention, and response as well as the Electronics Support Detachment swiftly established a fully staffed Incident Command Post successfully mobilizing over 20 federal, commonwealth, local, and industry partners for a unified response. Close interagency coordination was critical to ensuring safety and minimizing environmental impacts as the vessel continued to burn and became grounded off the beaches of Punta Salinas – a pristine, environmentally sensitive area.

Over the course of the next few days, Sector San Juan personnel coordinated salvage efforts to ensure the stability of, refloat, and safely conduct a dead ship tow of the 614-foot, 28,000 ton vessel, followed by the extinguishing and overhaul of the engine room fire. The proactive partnering and teamwork demonstrated by the units involved averted certain tragedy and exemplified the hallmarks of the Service, which has earned the motto “Always Ready.”

Ensign Joseph Tezanos. Coast Guard photo.

Ensign Joseph Tezanos. Coast Guard photo.

“The brave men and women of the Coast Guard are called upon to be ready to act in a moment’s notice, in the case of the crew of the Tezanos, their rapid deployment to the scene of the accident made a world of difference for those aboard the ferry,” said Anne Brengle, president, Coast Guard Foundation. “Rescues at sea are always challenging and these individuals exemplify the professionalism and resolve that make the Coast Guard vital to the safety of our nation. It was our distinct honor to recognize the crew, represented by Tezanos’s Commanding Officer Lt. Nicholas Herndon at our annual awards event in Florida.”

The Coast Guard Foundation is proud to honor the crew for living up to their cutter’s namesake: Joseph Tezanos. Tezanos is a brand new fast response cutter that was not commissioned at the time but was underway conducting ready-for-operations trials. The cutter was named after Coast Guard hero Joseph Tezanos who was both a hero and survivor during World War II in the Alaska theatre and later became one of the first Hispanic American commissioned officers in the Coast Guard.

“The spirit of Joseph Tezanos is alive and well in that cutter,” said Rear Adm. Scott A. Buschman, commander of the Coast Guard 7th District. “The cutter Tezanos will undoubtedly be a vital instrument in supporting critical Coast Guard missions.”

Coast Guard Cutter Joseph Tezanos crew mans the rail during the cutter's commissioning ceremony at Coast Guard Sector San Juan, Puerto Rico on Aug. 26, 2016. The cutter is the Coast Guards 18th Fast Response Cutter. Coast Guard photo by Eric D. Woodall.

Coast Guard Cutter Joseph Tezanos crew mans the rail during the cutter’s commissioning ceremony at Coast Guard Sector San Juan, Puerto Rico on Aug. 26, 2016. The cutter is the Coast Guards 18th Fast Response Cutter. Coast Guard photo by Eric D. Woodall.

The Cutter Joseph Tezanos is the sixth fast response cutter to be homeported in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the 18th to be commissioned in the Coast Guard fleet. The 154-foot cutter has a max speed of more than 28 knots and a beam of 25 feet. It is armed with a stabilized 25mm machine-gun mount and four crew-served .50-caliber machine guns. Fast response cutters are designed to conduct maritime drug interdiction, alien migrant interdiction, search and rescue, national defense, homeland security, living marine resource protection and other Coast Guard missions.

Do you know someone who embodies the Coast Guard Core Values of Honor, Respect, Devotion to Duty? Please submit your nominations using the “Submit Ideas” link on the right.

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