Lt. Jonathan Orthman, a pilot with the Coast Guard Air Station Sitka’s MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crew and three of his fellow crewmembers – Lt. Justin Neal, AST2 Grant Roberts, and AET2 James Schwader – received the DHS Secretary’s award for Valor for their heroic actions while rescuing a 70-year-old fishing vessel owner and operator from stormy seas. Watch the video of the rescue.
At 5:30 p.m. on November 1, 2020, an alarm sounded at Coast Guard Air Station Sitka, Alaska. An Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) registered to fishing vessel Irony had been activated in Earnest Sound, 150 miles southeast of Sitka.
“We had just finished dinner when the alarm went off,” said Orthman, a native of Chesterton, Indiana. “The thing that I remember the most is how bad the weather was initially when we departed. It was raining sideways. I thought, ‘okay, we’re doing this.’”
The crew departed the air station as a low-pressure storm system battered Southeast Alaska. Read the full story by the U.S. Coast Guard.
This wasn’t a typical rescue scenario. It was dark. 70 mph headwinds offshore reduced the speed at which they could reach the survivor. Zero visibility forced the team to navigate 265-miles around rugged terrain. There was no straight path to the man who was stranded in the water clinging to a piece of debris from his sunken boat.
“Southeast Alaska is a dynamic area to navigate in during the best weather,” Orthman explained. “The terrain is very mountainous, and it is difficult to get to some places efficiently. Bad weather just compounds the difficulty.”
After more than two hours of travel, the crew kept an eye on their fuel levels as they reached the general vicinity of the downed ship. Orthman, who served in the Army as a pilot for eight years before transitioning to the Coast Guard about five years ago, said the crew didn’t know if they would have enough fuel to get there and do an extensive search. And as can be expected, the low visibility of the night made it difficult to locate the survivor in the water.
“We rounded the corner and immediately saw the strobe light from the EPIRB and no boat” he said. “Our first concern was locating any survivors.”
Using the helicopter’s infrared camera, the crew was able to locate the survivor in the water. Rescue swimmer AST2 Grant Roberts was deployed into the water upwind of the debris. Swimming through the 10-12 foot seas and the debris from the ship, he was able to reach the gentleman.
“When we located the survivor we couldn’t quite figure out what he was floating on,” said Orthman. “It looked like a hatch or a square piece of debris. We thought maybe it was filled with foam. He was using another piece of debris as a paddle to keep himself upright.”
The crew put a spotlight on the survivor. The 70-year-old and Roberts were hoisted into the helicopter together and the gentleman was able to warm up on the 10-15 minute transit to Ketchikan.
An added layer of complexity to this rescue was the city-wide power outage. This absence of cultural lighting mixed with the low visibility and extreme darkness due to the rain and thick cloud cover made it difficult to see the helipad. Approaching the dark shoreline, the crew relied on the lights of the ambulance that was waiting to transport the survivor to the hospital to safely land the helicopter on the small, dark helipad.
“The whole situation is a bit miraculous,” Orthman explained. “The Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) self-deployed when it hit the water. The survivor didn’t even know it had been activated.”
The gentleman, who apparently lived full-time on the now sunken boat, didn’t think anyone would be looking for him and had planned on drifting in one direction until he hopefully hit land.
“He was floating on the piece of boat and noticed a red light in the sky,” Orthman continued. “[The survivor] said he thought, ‘what are these people doing in this bad weather?’ and then he realized we were there to rescue him.”
According to Orthman, this rescue was very much a crew effort. Communication, keeping “cool heads,” and thinking on the fly are some of the reasons this rescue was successful. He explained they are a small, close-knit unit that works well together and while they try to train for every possible scenario they may encounter, they never know what each rescue will entail.
“This was for sure the most noteworthy rescue in my two years stationed in Alaska,” he said.
Visit the Recognizing DHS Excellence page for more stories about this year’s awardees.