KODIAK -- More than two decades after a daring rescue, the Coast Guard awarded medals to the helicopter crew that saved two people from the sinking fishing vessel Wayward Wind.
"It was a serendipitous surprise," said Cmdr. Joe Mattina, the helicopter's commander. "I had kind of moved on. The most important thing was that lives were saved."
The Coast Guard held the awards ceremony earlier this month at Air Station Kodiak, and Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo traveled from Juneau to present the awards.
Although the rescue took place 24 years ago, the crew remembers it vividly.
On Jan. 18, 1988, the crew of the HH-3F Pelican helicopter was called to aid the sinking vessel. The Coast Guard crew battled 15-foot waves, blowing snow and 40 mph winds to reach the boat.
"It was a nasty night and the boat was going down," said Marty Heckerman, who was an air crewman aboard the helicopter and still lives in Kodiak.
The helicopter crew searched the area for about an hour and a half, and was getting ready to depart to refuel when a C-130 overhead picked up a strong emergency locator transmitter signal.
The crewmen made the decision to stay out and continue the search despite running low on fuel.
The C-130 guided the helicopter to the survivors by dropping flares, and then the hard part began.
"By the time we got there, the boat had gone down and people were in the water," Heckerman said.
The crew had a hard time spotting the people in the water, and had to drop down fliers to see. Heckerman scooped the two survivors out of the water. The helicopter then headed for Sitkinak Island, about 20 miles from the site, in order to refuel before going back to look for the four other people who didn't survive.
"It took time to scoop them out of the water," Heckerman said. "It was like scooping a goldfish out of the tank. We hit bingo after we got Jay in, and had to go get fuel. We landed on fumes."
The two survivors, Debra Nielsen and Jay Rasmussen, struggled against 15-foot waves for four and half hours before they were rescued.
Nielsen, who became pregnant not long after the rescue, thanked the crew during the July 19 ceremony, and gave them all a picture of her 23-year-old daughter.
The idea to honor the crew's efforts came up when Heckerman mentioned the rescue to command support staff and Cmdr. Joseph Deer, who is now in Detroit.
"I just thought it needed to be relooked at," Heckerman said. "A lot came out of that search and rescue case like laws, better EPIRBs (emergency position-indicating radio beacons) and survival suit inspections."
In addition to Mattina and Heckerman, co-pilot Lt. Chris Broxterman and avionicsman AT2 Claude Brown were honored at the ceremony.
"It was so surreal," Heckerman said. "Seeing them all together brought back a lot of memories. I was really nervous during the ceremony. It's Coast Guard history for this to happen."
By NICOLE KLAUSS
Kodiak Daily Mirror