Thursday, February 27, 2014

An Air Evacuation on the High Seas - Thanks U S Coast Guard!

Wednesday morning February 26 2014 was uneventful onboard the Carnival Cruise line ship the Carnival Paradise until a 66 year old male passenger on the Lido Deck (Deck 10) suffered a heart attack.  The ship was about 400 nautical miles southwest of Tampa and was returning from a five-night cruise to Grand Cayman and Cozumel, Mexico.

If the heart attack wasn’t enough, upon being stricken the passenger fell forward clobbering his forehead on the edge of the swimming pool.  Later reports said the heart attack victim also suffered a concussion from colliding with the swimming pool.  Other passengers surrounded the stricken person and soon the ship’s medical staff arrived to care for him.  He was taken downstairs to the Medical Center on the 3rd deck and nobody heard anything else about the passenger or his status until mid- afternoon.  It was then that the ship’s captain informed us over the intercom that the passenger was not doing better, that he could not wait for our arrival 18 hours later in Tampa, and that more sophisticated medical treatment was required to keep the passenger alive.

The captain’s alternative was the United States Coast Guard.  He informed us that we would continue to steam northeast to a point about 180 miles southwest of Marco Island Florida where we would be intercepted by a MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter from Coast Guard Air Station Clearwater.  The Coast Guard would perform a daring air evacuation of the patient (the Carnival Paradise does not have enough of an unobstructed deck to allow a helicopter to land) from the aft of the 11th deck.  

The air evacuation took place on the right hand side of this picture behind the large red smoke stack. Note that there is very little room to manuever on that deck.  This picture was taken about 8:00 a.m. or about 8 hours before the evacuation 

Other than watching the excellent Kevin Costner movie The Guardian about a thousand times and watching shows about the Coast Guard on The Weather Channel, my experience with the Coast Guard had been limited to one incident in the Florida Keys 30 years ago.  Its funny to think back on it now but it wasn't so humerous as it unfolded. 

Using my Federal employee status I talked with the commander of Coast Guard Station Marathon and was invited to accompany their patrol boat going out to the Gulf Stream one Saturday afternoon in July 1984 while I was in the Keys doing research.  The Coast Guard's purpose that day was to look for stranded vessels; I was there to look for seabirds in the Gulf Stream waters just a few miles offshore. When I arrived at Station Marathon I was given a quick briefing on how to keep from being thrown overboard if we encountered rough seas.  Afterward we set sail for the cobalt blue waters of the Gulf Stream.   Not long after leaving the Station, we received a call instructing us to be on the lookout for a stolen boat.  Hearing this, the boat’s captain knew exactly where to look and we changed course for the Cuban Docks on Vaca Key.  

We had a description of the boat but to me they all looked the same.  As we made our approach to the docks the captain asked me to stand in the bow with my binoculars and read the registration numbers on we passed. This was exciting at first but soon it became boring.  That all changed when we came on to a thirty-foot shrimp boat because sitting in its wheel house was a simple, lone, unassuming marijuana plant that was growing in a bucket.  Not thinking much of it I casually mentioned to the captain that there was a marijuana plant in that boat and was he interested in it?  He took my binoculars, looked at the potted pot plant and exclaimed, “I’m going to seize that boat!” 

Our plans changed again when the pot plant was found.  We docked the Coast Guard vessel next to the shrimp boat and kept it under surveillance and then radioed the U.S. Customs Service and the Monroe County Sheriff’s Department to alert them to our find and both groups said they would send backup.  This was followed by the rather dramatic laying on of guns.  Two of the four Coast Guardsmen were designated the boarding party.  It was their responsibility in these situations to board boats and look for contraband.  The boarding party strapped on their .45 caliber revolvers and waited for Customs and the Sheriff to arrive. 

Arrival of the reinforcements meant that the boarding party could jump into action and as they approached the shrimp boat, one of the two Coast Guardsmen still on the boat went below decks and came out carrying three 12 gauge shotguns.  He handed one shotgun to the boat captain and then loaded a shell in the chamber of the second gun and kept it for himself.  He then turned to me.

“You’re a Fed aren’t you,” he asked.

“Yes,” I said, “but I’m not in law enforcement.”

Thrusting the loaded shotgun in my hands he yelled “If they shoot, shoot back!”

With their guns drawn, the boarding party approached the shrimp boat.  As instructed I stood in the bow of the boat with the 12 gauge shotgun aimed at the wheel house.  It was my responsibility to shoot if anyone shot first.  Between them the four-person boarding party had enough armaments to support a small insurgency in Nicaragua and as they made their way to the shrimp boat I maintained my aim at the unseen doper inside.

With guns drawn the boarding party walked up to the main door of the shrimp boat and yelled at the occupants to come out.  Nobody inside moved.  They yelled again and still nobody moved.  At the conclusion of the third yelling session, one of the Coast Guardsmen on the boat kicked in the door.  I flicked off the safety on my shotgun.  

No shots rang out as the four men entered the shrimp boat to confiscate the lone marijuana plant in the wheel house.  After what seemed like an hour inside they returned to the main door leading a rather disheveled individual who was shirtless and shoeless (this was the Florida Keys after all) man with scraggly hair.  His arms were securely behind his back and his wrists were held together by hand cuffs.  The Customs Agent yelled at us and told us they had found some cocaine on the table along with the malevolent marijuana plant.  He also informed us that we could take down our arms and prepare to tie off the boat.

With the boat shrimp boat secured to the Coast Guard cutter we slowly made our way back to Coast Guard Station Marathon where it was tied off and guarded by another Coast Guardsman who proceeded to do about face marches in front of the boat.  It was his responsibility to ensure that nobody came near that shrimp boat unless they were personally known to the Coast Guardsman.  Should some nefarious individual attempt to board the boat before the Customs Service could tear it apart, it was this Coast Guardsman’s responsibility to shoot that person.  Later on tearing apart the inside of the shrimp boat Customs found a large cache of cocaine stuffed between the walls below decks.

Fast forward to February 26 2014 at a point about 180 miles southwest of Marco Island.  Many passengers had assembled on the 12th Deck about 4:30 this afternoon waiting for the arrival of the Coast Guard about 5:00 p.m.  Fifteen minutes early I saw a helicopter on the horizon and followed its approach to the ship.  As it approached the Captain turned the ship into the wind to provide better air flow for the soon-to-be-hovering helicopter.  Making his approach to the ship the pilot made a 360 degree survey of the ship to assess the situation and then approaching the aft deck on the port side began the laborious process of getting safely into position to send a Coast Guardsman from the helicopter, supported by nothing more than a thin cable, to the deck of the ship.  The greatest danger at this point was the combination of wires strung above the upper deck, the humongous smoke stack at the rear of the ship and the small area (later measured at about 60 feet of clear space) into and over which the pilot could safely maneuver.

Finally satisfied with the location of his helicopter relative to any obstructions that could seriously affect his mission, the pilot gave the go-ahead for a Coast Guardsman to slide down a cable that connected the aircraft and the ship.  Soon a lone Coast Guardsman appeared in the door, hooked up his harness to the cable and while he and the helicopter were about 200 feet over the surface of the ocean, the Coast Guardsman slid down the cable to the deck of the ship.  A few seconds later a stretcher was lowered from to the ship and shortly after that the stretcher, loaded with the heart attack victim, was hauled back onto the helicopter.  With the patient safely onboard the Coast Guardsman was pulled off the deck and into the waiting helicopter.  With the hatch on the helicopter safely secured the helicopter moved away from the ship’s path and following a wide arc sped quickly east to a hospital.  Hopefully the patient survived the ordeal and will have stories to tell about his rescue at sea for many years to come. 

Almost all of the passengers on the ship were glued, in one way or another, to the activates of the rescue helicopter.  A loud round of cheers and applause rose from the crowd when the helicopter arrived.  More applause rang out when the patient was loaded aboard the helicopter and even more cheers could be heard as the helicopter raced away. Overcome with pride after seeing Federal employees risk their lives to save the life of another person I turned to the man standing next to me, a Michigander who had come south for a few days to escape the frozen north country, and said emphatically “The next time you hear some son-of-a-bitch complain about government and government employees you tell them what you saw on the deck of this ship this afternoon.”

It is my hope that every one of the 2000 passengers aboard the Carnival Paradise today also will remember that they witnessed an under-paid government employee selflessly throw himself in the face of danger to slide down a cable to the deck of a ship and save the life of another human being. 

The inbound helicopter from Coast Guard Air Station Clearwater circled the ship first to assess the situation and no doubt make their plan for approaching the task

On arrival one Coast Guardsman stood in the door of the helicopter further determining how to approach the task. Click on the pictures to make them larger for better viewing

One of the many challenges facing the pilot as he prepared to rescue the patient was manuevering the aircraft in the tight space between the large smoke stack and various wires strewn from it.  There was perhaps 60 feet of open space in which to manuever.

Safely positioned the Coasties onboard lowered a cable to the deck.  The patient would be evacuated up this cable

Once the cable was secured to the ship's rail the stretcher was lowered to the ship's deck.  A Coast Guardsman soon followed (I didn't get a picture of his descent)

First the patient's wife was loaded onto the helicopter

Next the patient is loaded onto the helicopter

Finally the Coast Guardsman who risked his life dangling from a cable above the ocean's surface to save this person's life was lifted back onto the helicopter

With everyone onboard and the hatch secured the pilot cranked up the helicopter to warp speed and beat a path for Tampa General Hospital.   

With its precious cargo onboard the helicopter began to disappear into the eastern horizon with Tampa General Hospital in its sights.  It was at about this time that the pod of dolphins and the magnificent frigatebird disappeared as well

The US Coast Guard Public Affairs office provided me with a URL for video they took of the rescue.  It can be viewed at this link.

When the ship needed help the Captain didn’t radio a for-profit corporation in Tampa to come rescue the passenger, the Captain called the Federal government.  When there was a need to rescue someone from the deck of a rocking ship the Captain didn’t call a company owned by the Koch Brothers to come perform a rescue, he called the Federal government.  Pseudo intellectuals like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck can wax poetic about how horrible government is and what a waste of money it is to pay government employees.  People like Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), or Senator Ted Cruz (R-Canada) or Sarah Palin (R-Outer Space) can tell you with a straight face that government isn’t the solution, but that government is the problem and therefore government needs to be cut off at the knees.  But I can bet with nearly 1,000 percent certainty that if any one of those people ever suffered a heart attack on a cruise ship they would tearfully embrace the federal employee who selflessly risked his life to save theirs.

There was an interesting sidelight to this story that unfolded as the real drama was occurring onboard.  Not many minutes before the helicopter arrived, a pod of bottle-nosed dolphins appeared along the starboard side of the ship.  I had not seen a single marine mammal or a single seabird all day long but now with the helicopter on the horizon these dolphins appeared and they remained swimming alongside the ship.  At about the moment the helicopter took its position aft of the ship on the port side a magnificent frigatebird appeared out of the blue and flew behind the ship.  Both the dolphins and the frigatebird remained in place the entire time the Coast Guard evacuation operation was underway.  Less than a minute after the helicopter sped away the dolphins sped away from amidships on the starboard side and the frigatebird disappeared from port. 

There are many known instances where people have become in trouble in the ocean and a dolphin has shown up out of nowhere to stay with the person until help arrived.  It was almost that way with the pod of dolphins.  It was as if they sensed someone was in trouble on board and it was their job to protect them until help could arrive.  Seems farfetched I know but I have no other explanation for the arrival of the animals and their departure both coinciding with the arrival and departure of the Coast Guard.

I don’t believe in god and I don’t believe in any other cosmic deity.   What I do believe in is karma and karma is the only way I can logically explain the arrival and departure of those animals in the ocean that stayed long enough to make sure everything was ok and then they disappeared.