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Despite complicated chain of communication between rescuers, man plucked from Cook Inlet

Ben Anderson
An HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter from the 210th Rescue Squadron flies past mountains near Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson during a training mission. A similar helicopter responded to a stranded boater on Cook Inlet Tuesday evening. Lt. Bernie Kale / U.S. Air National Guard

A reportedly suicidal man was rescued Tuesday evening from a raft sinking in the waters of Cook Inlet just outside Anchorage. Initial reports that an Air National Guard helicopter used its rotor wash -- the force of air pushed downward from the helicopter blades, which can kick up waves when poised over water -- to push the raft toward shore turned out to be false, and the rescue occurred despite a convoluted chain of communication between rescue agencies.

According to Alaska State Troopers, the initial call came in shortly after 6 p.m. Tuesday, when a man called 911 “reporting he was adrift in a raft and wanted to die,” in Cook Inlet between Anchorage and Fire Island, a 6-mile-long uninhabited island located 3 miles from the city. The Alaska State Troopers’ on-call search and rescue coordinator was contacted and then contacted the troopers’ helicopter pilot to see if they would be able to conduct a rescue.

According to trooper spokesperson Beth Ipsen, the helicopter was unable to conduct the rescue because it isn’t able to hoist someone out of water.

The Anchorage Fire Department also has a small rescue boat but was unable to deploy it due to lingering ice in the inlet, according to department spokesperson Al Tamagni.

“Because there was a water rescue, (the SAR coordinator) called the Coast Guard,” for additional assistance, Ipsen said, but the Coast Guard’s nearest assets were a helicopter on the island of Kodiak and a vessel in Homer -- both of which were hours away from the man in need of rescue.

Coast Guard spokesperson Sara Mooers said there are about 170 Coast Guard personnel based in Anchorage, handling a variety of missions. But there’s a dearth of physical assets. The Coast Guard used to have a “marine safety and security team” based in the city that included small boats, but that was decommissioned several years ago, she said. In the summer, a helicopter is stationed in Cordova to patrol the northern Gulf of Alaska region and Prince William Sound, but it’s still a good distance from Anchorage.

The Coast Guard launched that MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter from Kodiak anyway around 7 p.m. Tuesday -- with an estimated two-hour flight time to Anchorage -- and at the same time issued an “urgent marine information broadcast” requesting further assistance from nearby mariners or other agencies, the Coast Guard reported.

The Rescue Coordination Center at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage heard that broadcast and contacted the Alaska Air National Guard’s 210th Rescue Squadron, which had an HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter and an HC-130 aircraft already in the air on a training mission.

According to Maj. Glenn Ott, a helicopter pilot on the Pave Hawk that responded to the sinking raft, the initial report from the Coast Guard that the chopper used its rotor wash to push the boat toward shore was based on a brief radio transmission during the rescue.

“There was a radio transmission as we were offsetting while we were looking at the survivor. We said on the radio, ‘our rotor wash is blowing him into Fire Island,’” Ott said. That message was apparently conveyed to the Coast Guard Command Center and made its way into a news release that was widely disseminated by local media (including Alaska Dispatch).

Ott said that he did the math and figured it would have taken at least 10 minutes to move the man to shore that way, which would have been too long, considering his raft was deflating.

“It was never our initial plan,” he said. “Our initial plan is always to get PJs in the water.”

That’s what happened just moments later. Positioning the helicopter about 15 feet offset from the raft, an elite pararescue jumper entered the water and was able to swim to the raft in the choppy water using his “super-athlete skills,” Ott said. The man was reportedly very cold, so the PJ loaded him into the hoist and he was plucked from the raft.

The man was treated for hypothermia at Providence Alaska Medical Center, where troopers contacted him for the first time. Ipsen said charges are unlikely in the case.

“Our thought is basically we hope he gets the help that he needs,” Ipsen said.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com.