The Coast Guard: Always Ready, Part 2 - WTOC-TV: Savannah, Beaufort, SC, News, Weather & Sports

02/22/06

The Coast Guard: Always Ready, Part 2

When we have trouble out on the water the U.S. Coast Guard is usually the first to respond.

It's is an important arm of the military family here in the Coastal Empire and Low Country, but you may not hear as much about it as some of the others.

WTOC's Chris Cowperthwaite got a first hand look at of some of their training when he rode along, and served as a victim floating in the Atlantic Ocean.

The Coast Guard simply cannot train enough. They do it all the time: climbing aboard their HH-65B Dolphin helicopter and practicing search and rescue operations.

This time, though, they were rescuing Chris.

A mile off Tybee Island he found himself floating in 53 degree water looking up at a Coast Guard helicopter, waiting to see a precision rescue.

Minutes later, Aviation Survival Technician 3rd Class Matthew Laub swam up, "We're going to get you into the helicopter, ok?"

It's one of dozens of training missions Coast Guard Air Station Savannah goes on every year.

"Just knocking the dust off. We're trying to stay proficient on everything," says Laub.

He jumps into the water all the time, in all kinds of situations. "It gets your adrenaline going. It's really loud. It can be intimidating for the person who doesn't know, the survivor.it's very disorienting."

These training exercises are designed to prepare them for any situation.

It's something they had to put it all to the test last fall, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Savannah sent some of the first crews to help rescue hurricane victims along the Gulf Coast.

Commander Todd Sokalzuk, The commanding officer at Coast Guard Air Station Savannah, says, "We were prepared for it because that's what we do every day, is train to do search and rescue missions."

"Katrina, we improvised a lot. But you've always got the mind set that anything can happen on a case, and Katrina everything did happen down there," says Laub.

Just a day after the hurricane blew through New Orleans, Laub, along with dozens of other Coast Guardsmen from around the country, were plucking people off rooftops.

Sokalzuk says, "They were mixed with other coast guard crews, flying aircraft that weren't from this unit, but because we emphasize standardization in the training, we were very successful out there."

They were flying into New Orleans from Mobile, Alabama. After one of their flights, WTOC met with Laub and his pilot, Lt. Steve Foran.

"Today my crew alone picked up 34 people," said Foran at the time. "We saved 34 lives.We're flying about 75 to 100 feet and we're trying to make as much noise as we can to make our presence known. And people are actually coming out and waving and we'll be hoisting somebody off the roof and we'll look ahead about four houses and someone else will be standing on their roof, so we'll move over there and pick them up."

Foran and Laub say a lot of their normal training regimen came into play, but some of it they had to toss out.

Laub laughs, "There was no jumping out of the helicopter down there. You never know what you could land on."

One of the hardest things to deal with was the sheer number of people who needed help: but they could only fit a few at a time in the helicopter.

And with those limitations, came desperation.

Foran laments, "We would land and people would literally come up to our rescue diver and say 'me and my friends are getting out of here. We're getting evacuated.'"

"We get swarmed by people and can't help it," says Laub. "There's nothing you can do. These people are getting desperate, they want to get out of there, they're getting irritated."

Through it all, though, the preparation paid off; and not just for Savannah's crews, but everyone in the Coast Guard involved in the rescue effort.

Laub maintains, "Training gets monotonous after a while, but as you can tell during Hurricane Katrina, all that training paid off pretty good. We ended up saving 34,000 people."

And even after going through the worst, the Coast Guard continues to train with people like Chris dangling from their winches, so they can better help the next stranded boater, or worse, the next hurricane victim.

Reported by: Chris Cowperthwaite, ccowperthwaite@wtoc.com

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