Lt. Justin Neal, Lt. Jonathan Orthman, Petty Officer 2nd Class Jimmy Schwader and Petty Officer 2nd Class Grant Roberts have received the Department of Homeland Security’s Secretary’s Award for Valor.
The award honors the crew’s heroic actions while rescuing a 70-year-old fishing vessel owner and operator from stormy seas. Watch the video of the rescue.
“The wind was shaking the house before I left for duty that evening,” Neal said. “When we came on duty that night… it was one of those nights when you go on duty where you’re like, ‘If I have to go out tonight it’s going to be challenging.’ Within about an hour of coming on duty we got the call.”
An alarm sounded at 5:30 in the evening Nov. 1, 2020, at Coast Guard Air Station Sitka, Alaska. An emergency position-indicating radio beacon (EPIRB) registered to fishing vessel Irony was activated in Earnest Sound, 150 miles southeast of Sitka. Sitka’s MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crew departed the air station as a low-pressure storm system battered Southeast Alaska.
“The thing that I remember the most is how bad the weather was initially when we departed. It was raining sideways,” said Orthman, a native of Chesterton, Ind. “I thought, ‘okay, we’re doing this.’”
That night wasn’t a typical rescue scenario. It was dark. Seventy miles per hour 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.
“This was by far the most challenging weather conditions I have flown in during my 16 years, [with more than] 4,000 flight hour[s] career,” said Neal, who spent eight years in the Army before joining the Coast Guard. “It was a two plus hour transient in 60 plus knot winds, with zero visibility and severe turbulence as we navigated through the narrow water ways of Southeast Alaska. I am very thankful for having the opportunity to be there to help that gentleman out, but I would much prefer to not have to fly in those conditions again.”
After more than two hours of flight, the crew kept an eye on their fuel levels as they reached the general vicinity of the downed ship. They knew they only had about 25 to 30 minutes on the scene to look for any survivors before they would need to leave to refuel. And as can be expected, the low visibility of the night made it difficult to locate the survivor in the water.
“We knew the general location of where survivors may be,” Neal said. “We approached the beacon but no one was near it. We were actually 300 or 400 yards ahead of him. We used the helicopter’s infrared camera to locate him in the water.”
The crew put a spotlight on the survivor. “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.”
Rescue swimmer Petty Officer Second Class Grant Roberts deployed into the water upwind of the ship debris. “What was more challenging than the sea state was the night conditions and water current,” said Roberts, a Utah native who has served in the Coast Guard for eight years. “I had completely lost sight of him when I got in the water.” His team was able to put a spotlight on the survivor.
“I swam over to him, got on the door with him – or what looked like a door or some sort of debris from the boat – and talked to him,” Roberts continued. “He said, ‘I can’t believe you guys showed up. I thought I was going to die out here.’” Roberts attributes the immersion suit the gentleman was wearing as the reason he had not become hypothermic yet. “He was good but very cold,” said Roberts. “He was shivering uncontrollably, which was a good sign that he was not hypothermic yet.”
The flight mechanic, Schwader hoisted the survivor and Roberts into the helicopter together. “The weather made for an extremely challenging hoist,” Schwader explained. “The high winds and 10–12-foot seas made for a challenge to safely deploy the swimmer in the water and deliver the rescue device to the swimmer and survivor. Conducting this hoist at night made it especially challenging due to the reduced visibility and trying to time the waves so we were not having all that water crash onto the swimmer and survivor while they are connected to the hoist hook.”
Schwader, who grew up as a military dependent, attributes the successful rescue to the team’s, “training, crew dynamics, and the fact that the survivor had a working emergency position-indicating radio beacon (EPIRB) and an immersion suit. If he didn’t have either one of those items, he would have been lost at sea for good.”
The survivor didn’t even know the EPIRB had self-activated when it hit the water.” The whole situation is a bit miraculous,” Orthman said.
The crew still had to transfer the survivor to awaiting EMS. Although he was able to warm up during the 10-15-minute transit to Ketchikan, the crew knew they were facing yet one more life-threatening maneuver. A citywide power outage – on top of the storm’s rain and thick cloud cover – had left Ketchikan in extreme darkness. Approaching the difficult shoreline, the crew was relieved to discover the waiting ambulance’s lights were just bright enough to reveal the small, dark helipad.
“It wasn’t until we landed in Ketchikan, three and a half hours later, I was like ‘wow, what did we just do?’” said Neal. “It’s been a while since it happened, but it’s one of those cases that you’ll always remember, and you hope never have to repeat.”
The DHS Secretary’s Award for Valor is the highest recognition for extraordinary acts of valor occurring either on or off duty. The employee will have demonstrated selfless response by performing courageously in a highly dangerous or life-threatening situation to protect another’s life or to save significant assets or infrastructure from harm. Both civilian and military employees of the Department are eligible for this award.