Four Coast Guard crew members honored for saving fisherman

Four Coast Guard crew members have been honored for putting their lives at risk to rescue a fisherman from the F/V Irony, which sank near Meyers Chuck in Southeast Alaska in total darkness and near zero visibility on Nov 1, 2020.

Rear Adm. Nathan A. Moore, commander for the Coast Guard 17th District, presented Air Medals on Friday, May 7, in Sitka, to Lt. Justin Neal, pilot; Lt. Jonathan Orthman, copilot; Petty Officer 2nd Class James Schwader, flight mechanic; and Petty Officer 2nd Class Grant Roberts, rescue swimmer.

Severe weather conditions, including 70-mph headwinds, required the crew from Air Station Sitka to almost double their transit distance to a 265-mile transit around rugged terrain rising to 5,000 feet above the water. Twelve miles from Ernest Sound, the emergency position-indicating radiobeacon was heard by the flight crew and the copilot spotted a strobe light left of the aircraft.

As they overflew the light to mark its position and set up an approach to the water, the rescue swimmer spotted through the helicopter’s infrared camera a single survivor clinging to debris.

Due to heavy winds and to make sure the survivor was not subjected to the helicopter’s rotor wash, the rescue swimmer was deployed into the water upwind of the debris. Using vectors from the pilots through a handheld radio, the rescue swimmer swam through the darkness and 12-foot waves for over 10 minutes to reach the survivor, who was safely hoisted into the helicopter. The Coast Guard personnel confirmed there were no additional crew aboard the sunken fishing vessel, provided care to the hypothermic survivor and transported him to Ketchikan, which was experiencing a citywide power outage.

Due to the outage and continued low ceilings and poor visibility, the pilots requested that the ambulance durn on their lights to assist them in locating the small helipad along the dark shoreline of town. Once on deck, the survivor was quickly transported to emergency medical services.