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Joint Rescue On The High Seas

From Navy Region Hawaii Public Affairs

June 26, 2002, PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii (NNS) - Two Pearl Harbor-based Navy ships, two Kaneohe-based Navy SH-60B helicopters, two Army doctors from Tripler Army Medical Center, and a C-130 from Coast Guard Air Station Barber's Point Hawaii joined forces to rescue an injured merchant mariner aboard the Motor Vessel Pequen nearly 700 miles west of Oahu, Hawaii.

Recently, the MV Pequen, an ocean-going tug, contacted its parent company offices in the Netherlands requesting emergency medical support for a crew member suffering from a serious head injury.

Dutch officials contacted the Joint Rescue Command Center in Honolulu, which in turn contacted the Pacific Fleet Headquarters to provide support.

Two Pearl Harbor-based ships, USS Lake Erie (CG 70) and USS O'Kane (DDG 77), were already underway off the coast of the island of Kauai, and began transiting toward the tug.

For Lake Erie, the emergency call came within hours of the ship's historic launch of an SM-3 missile that intercepted a ballistic missile with a kinetic warhead above the Earth's atmosphere.

Lake Erie's executive officer, Lt. Cmdr. Mike Fulkerson, summed it up best when reflecting on quick change in mission for the cruiser. "In all honesty, it was pretty amazing watching these guys jump from one of the Navy's newest mission areas to one of the oldest missions Sailors have . . . without skipping a beat."

Due to the extreme distances involved, logistics played a critical role in the rescue operations. No helicopter could make the entire transit without refueling, so Lake Erie continued making best speed toward the tug while O'Kane took station between Kauai and the Lake Erie to serve as a refueling location for the helicopters.

While the ships were getting into station, the two Seahawk helicopters assigned to Helicopter Anti Submarine Squadron-Light (HSL) 37 at Marine Corps Base Hawaii, Kaneohe Bay, were launched with Army medical personnel -- a neurosurgeon and an anesthesiologist from Tripler Army Medical Center on board.

The helicopters first flew to the Pacific Missile Range Facility (PMRF) on the island of Kauai for fuel. Then they flew to O'Kane, and then continued out to Lake Erie. A Coast Guard C-130 flew overhead throughout the mission, providing critical communications and coordination support. Additionally, neither of the ships could accommodate more than one helicopter at once, so the helicopters never shut down during the entire mission. One helicopter would land on deck, refuel and then take off to allow the second helicopter to do the same.

In the mean time, despite 6- to 8-foot seas and significant swells, Lake Erie crew members successfully transferred the injured man from Pequen to Lake Erie. Lt. Russ Corpron, Lake Erie's weapons officer, led the rescue team that braved the seas state in one of the ship's Rigid Hull Inflatable Boats (RHIBs). Hours before, Corpron served as the tactical action officer (TAO) during the SM-3 missile shoot.

Chief Hospital Corpsman (SW) James Brown -- Lake Erie's independent duty corpsman, skillfully guided his medical team throughout the rescue. The team immediately began stabilizing the 43-year-old patient when they got to the tug, and they carefully monitored his transfer to the Lake Erie. The tug crew member who had fallen and was initially rendered unconscious, was diagnosed with a serious head injury.

The helicopters from the "Easy Riders" of HSL-37 arrived at Lake Erie more than five hours after taking off from Kaneohe. Army neurologist Maj. Dan Donovan, and anesthesiologist Maj. Darren Gray, made the determination to transport the patient back to Tripler Army Medical Center's Trauma Center on Oahu for further medical tests.

After taking off from Lake Erie, the helicopters retraced their track to Oahu. However, the helicopter with the patient on board was able to skip the stop at PMRF and flew directly from O'Kane to Tripler.

Just after the sun settled below the horizon, the two helicopters made their approach to the helipad at Tripler. With Easy Rider 61 still turning on the helipad in the background, and local television cameras filming every action, the doctors and crew members transported the injured mariner to an awaiting ambulance.

More than 11 hours after taking off from Kaneohe, Lt. Cmdr. Andy Quett, one of the pilots of Easy Rider 61, had reporters from local television stations asking him about his role in the rescue. Quett said with a proud smile "although search and rescue is normally a small part of our mission, it is definitely the most rewarding."

Some of the remarkable statistics of the joint rescue mission include:

- The plan for this mission required middle of the night coordination between two ships at sea, the Coast Guard Rescue Center, the Pacific Missile Range Facility, and HSL-37, in addition to the consultations between Lake Erie's medical corpsman and doctors at Tripler Army Medical Center.
- Lake Erie steamed more than 700 nautical miles at maximum speed during this mission.
- O'Kane steamed approximately 400 nautical miles during the rescue.
- O'Kane pumped more than 1,200 gallons of JP-5 aviation fuel to the SH-60Bs.

- Army neurologist Maj. Dan Donovan's brother is Lt. Cmdr. John Donovan -- the maintenance officer at HSL-37. It was the Army doctor's first trip on "one of his brother's aircraft."
- Each helicopter from HSL-37 flew more than nine hours straight during this mission, and covered nearly 1,000 nautical miles by day's end.

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