Atlantic Ocean West of the Azores--Wind rushed into the cabin as the ramp of the HC-130 King aircraft opened to darkness. The plane, loaded with Airmen from the New York Air National Guard’s 106th Rescue Wing, was 1,500 miles away from Long Island over the Atlantic Ocean on April 24th.
Instead of jumping from 3,000 feet as they do in training, the pararescuemen (PJ’s) and combat rescue officers (CRO’s) onboard would jump into the waves below from 1,400 feet because of low cloud ceilings.
Two badly burned crewmen – one from Slovenia and one from the Philippines- were clinging to life on board the Tamar, a 623-foot long, Slovenian-owned bulk cargo carrier. Two men had already died and the remaining two needed immediate medical treatment.
So seven members of the wing’s 103rd Rescue Squadron jumped.
“This was definitely one of our most difficult missions, recalled Major Edward “Sean” Boughal, a combat rescue officer. “There were definitely periods where things could have gone south really fast.”
On May 21st, Boughal and 17 other members of the wing who participated in the rescue mission were recognized for their heroism by Slovenian President Borut Pahor. President Pahor presented the men with his country’s Medal for Merit in the Military Field during a visit to the United Nations in New York City.
The explosion and fire on the Tamar had been a major news story in Slovenian, Pahor said.
His mother, the president recalled, asked him if there was any hope for the injured crewmen. Pahor replied, “Listen, if anybody, our American friends will do the job.”
April 24th started as another routine day for the 106th Rescue Wing.
103rd Rescue Squadron members Senior Airman Michael Hartman, Staff Sgt. Bryan Dalere, and Master Sgt. Jed Smith were training on confined space rescues at the Fire Department New York Training Academy. Tech. Sgt. Jordan St. Clair, another member of the 103rd, was on the range getting some “trigger time.”
Onboard the Tamar, heading from Baltimore to Gibraltar with a cargo of coal, an explosion occurred in a forward storeroom where four sailors were working. One sailor died almost immediately and three were badly burned.
Shortly before 7 a.m. the captain of the Marshall Islands-flagged vessel sent a distress call that was eventually routed to the U.S. Coast Guard’s Boston Rescue Coordination Center for action.
Coast Guard officials looked at the available emergency assets; a team from the 106th Rescue Wing, or a Canadian Coast Guard Cutter several hours away from the Tamar with limited medical capability. Lt. Col. Stephen “Doc” Rush, assigned to the 103rd Rescue Squadron and medical director for the entire career field determining best medical practices for all Air Force pararescuemen, argued a 1066th team could get to the vessel faster. The team could also provide more medical capabilities for the burn patients.
Preparing for the likelihood their squadron would officially be tasked with the rescue, Boughal and St. Clair put together the team that would jump into the Atlantic and board the Tamar. Hartman, Dalere and Smith got a police escort from the Fire Training Academy on Randall’s Island back to Westhampton Beach. Senior Master Sgt. Erik Blom, Major Martin Viera, and Tech Sgt. Joseph Piccoli rounded out the team from the 103rd Rescue Squadron.
Major Jeffrey Cannet had been preparing to take his HC-130 search and rescue aircraft crew out for training that day. The entire crew along with aircraft maintainers, crew chiefs Staff Sgt. Michael Cruz and Senior Airman Hopeton Gordon changed gears quickly and got ready for a long-range rescue mission out to a dot in the Atlantic Ocean and back, recalled Cannet.
For Cannet and co-pilot Capt William Hall, they were trying to get on scene as fast they could while having enough fuel to conduct the mission and recover the aircraft back to dry land. For the men on his crew, there was a sense of purpose knowing they were the only hope. That mindset had everyone on board ready to contend with any aircraft, weather or other issues to make it all happen on time, safely and in the right sequence, said Cannet.
Rush coordinated with Peconic Bay Medical Center, Riverhead, NY, a local hospital, to get additional medical supplies needed to treat multiple men with burns over 50 to 60 percent of their bodies to the aircraft just in time for launch.
Five hours after take-off, the navigators, Lt Col Christopher Adam and Maj Kevin Lawhon’s calculations proved correct as the HC-130 broke through the clouds to find the Tamar right where they estimated it to be and it was time for the pararescuemen and combat rescue officers to save lives. A second sailor had since died onboard the Tamar, and the remaining two seamen had hours left to live if nothing was done, Boughal remembered.
The HC-130 crew dropped two Zodiac boats into the water. Flight engineer, Master Sgt. Keith Weckerle closely monitored fuel consumption and their time on station. The pararescuemen and combat rescue officers, wearing dry suits, followed their boats out the back of the HC-130. Each man was wearing a flashing beacon along with red and green chem lights to mark their direction and location to avoid canopy collisions in the night sky.
"I definitely found a moment to pray. I (wondered), did I kiss my wife and son goodbye enough? I was like, God, if this is my time to go, I guess this is it. But please, I would really like to make an impact on these people's lives," said Viera.
The first team of four jumped about three seconds apart and then the second team of three the same.
“Collisions can be potentially fatal at that altitude,” Boughal said. “There were a couple of moments where I was thinking, ‘Where are my guys?’ because it was so dark.”
There was no time to be scared, St. Clair recalled. There was not a lot of time to get ready for hitting the water so he focused on the task at hand.
As the PJ’s inflated the Zodiacs boats in the water, radio operator, Senior Airman William McCauley worked together with loadmasters, Tech Sergeants. Gregory Fieberg and Jamie Bustamante to drop four bundles of medical supplies from 300 feet to the men below as the HC-130 thundered overhead.
They were so accurate with the drops that the PJ’s had to move their boats to keep from being hit by the bundles, said Viera.
Dalere took charge of boarding the Tamar and St. Clair organized the crew to use a crane on the stern of the ship to hoist supplies aboard. Each man leaped from the Zodiac boat to a rope ladder thrown over the side of the Tamar and then climbed up to get onto the ship.
Hartman and Smith, the primary medic for the mission, a traditional Guard Airman and physician assistant in civilian life, headed for the patients.
The injured crewmen were in different cabins and Smith had them moved together and created a makeshift ICU to treat them more efficiently. The team needed to balance the available resources to treat the patients as it would be two days before they could get close enough to the Azores for an airlift from the Portuguese Search and Rescue Force, Smith said.
“When we got there we found the crewmen badly burned on their face, arms, legs and hands. The initial report was that they were conscious, talking and were mobile,’ St. Clair said. “But we knew the end state. Their lives were absolutely at risk.”
Once a full medical assessment was completed, pain management was a priority to keep the patients from needlessly suffering, said St. Clair.
The Slovenian sailor could talk a little bit and he let the Airmen know it was getting harder for him to breathe, Dalere said. The team decided it was time to secure his airway. A tube was inserted through the sailor’s airway and he was placed on a ventilator to help keep him alive, according to Dalere.
The Airmen then took turns watching over their patients in shifts, 90 minutes on and three hours off. They performed wound debridement, a procedure in which dead tissue is removed that may
inhibit the healing process. They performed escharotomies, a procedure in which incisions are made on badly burned tissue to establish blood circulation and reduce pressure on the wounds.
Several hours later, the Filipino sailor’s airway became compromised but was too swollen to allow a tube to pass. The pararescuemen had to cut a slit in the man’s throat, a procedure known as a cricothyrotomy, to pass a tube allowing him to breathe, according to St. Clair.
The medical mission extended into a third day when the vessel was close enough to the Azores for a helicopter to reach the Tamar.
The patients were prepared to be airlifted onboard the Merlin helicopter from the Portuguese Air Force’s search and rescue organization, Esquadra 751. They needed to be lowered three stories to the ship’s deck to where they could be retrieved. A few weeks prior to the mission, Dalere learned to rig a belay system using ropes that the team used to safely and quickly lower the patients to meet the helicopter for extract said Hartman.
Viera, Smith and Hartman were hoisted up to the Portuguese helicopter along with the two patients so they could ensure continuity of care. The Portuguese flight doctor saw the best option was to allow the team to continue treatment based on the level of care they provided after spending 36 hours with these two men, Viera said.
“Beyond just being proud of them, they deserve to be recognized for their professionalism… it was the years of training and attention to detail, that went into the medical care they were able to provide and the level of sophistication that you see in an American burn center on a daily basis that these guys were able to pull off,” said Rush.
Nearly three hours later, the Merlin helicopter touched down in the Azores. At that point, Viera recalled, the realization dawned on him that after three days he was no longer responsible for the two injured sailors.
Ironically, according to Dalere one of the most dangerous parts of the mission involved the four Airmen left back on the Tamar after the burned crewmen were airlifted. The ship was met by a tug to exfiltrate the remaining pararescuemen and their gear. The sea state was high and the four men would need to climb down a rope ladder and then jump to the deck of the tug.
They lowered their gear down to the tugboat and at one point the waves crushed the tug against the Tamar so hard that it completely severed the rope ladder in half. That was a reminder of the grave danger at stake, Dalere said.
Dalere jumped first, followed by Blom and then St. Clair. Last, with his team all safely across, the mission commander, Boughal, made the jump.
The ability to execute this complex mission-the first long-range over ocean mission conducted by the wing in the last 10 years-was a testament to the training the 106th Rescue Wing does, said Col. Michael Bank, the wing commander.
“We are able to employ highly skilled, trained and diverse Airmen to accomplish a very complex rescue operation because we train to those high standards every day. I’m proud of the job they did," Bank said.