The 2012 Guardian of the Heartland Award goes to the helicopter crew of CG-6553 in recognition of their heroic efforts on the night of November 13, 2011. The helicopter crew consisted of LT Phil DeLisle, LT Brian Schidmt, AMT2 Mark Espinoza and AST2 Michael O'Leary. The Corpus Christi-based crew rescued Mr. and Mrs. Raven Cumberland, whose sailboat was rapidly sinking in rough seas.
The sinking sailboat was first come upon by a Coast Guard small boat, but the crew couldn't reach the distressed vessel, because it was located in waters too shallow for the 45-foot-long cutter to travel in, and too rough for a commercial boat to assist with the rescue. Due to these limitations, the helicopter crew of CG-6553 was dispatched to conduct the rescue.
Members of the awardee crew of CG-6553 in New Orleans, Friday, March 2 with Vice Commandant Sally Brice-O'Hara and Commandant Robert Papp. From left to right: VADM Brice-O'Hare, AST2 O'Leary and his date, Adm. Papp, AMT2 Espinoza with his date, and LT DeLisle. LT Schmidt is not pictured here.
By the time of the rescue, night had fallen and weather conditions were bad. The helicopter crew fought haze, poor visibility, 25-knot winds and extremely strong currents when they arrived on scene.
After assessing the situation, the crew decided to deploy O'Leary to the sinking boat with a pump to try to rid the boat of water, hopefully stabilizing the situation. Once on scene, the crew found the sailboat roughly 200 yards offshore dead in the water. Anchored and taking a beating from 6- to 8-foot waves on its broadside, the boat was pitching 40 degrees with every wave that hit it.
O'Leary deployed to the water to get a better assessment of the sailboat and quickly learned that there were dangerously strong rip currents in the water, making approaching the vessel with the pump impossible. O'Leary, after several vigorous attempts to reach the boat, had to be plucked from the water by the helicopter so the crew could come up with a new plan.
"That night it was basically impossible to swim into shore," O'Leary said.
LT DeLisle came up with the unconventional idea of doing the hoist from the left side of the aircraft, so that he could keep the sailboat in sight, as well as be able to deploy O'Leary upwind and up current of the vessel. The new plan would allow O'Leary to use the strong current to swim to the boat, have one of the passengers jump into the water so that O'Leary could retrieve him, and repeat the plan for the second passenger.
On his first attempt, the female passenger refused to jump in the water, requiring the helicopter to pick up an exhausted O'Leary and repeat the rescue. Eventually, the air crew was able to convince the couple to abandon ship via radio communication, and in roughly 15 minutes, O'Leary had rescued both the husband and wife from the sinking sailboat.
Between each iteration of O'Leary being dropped in the water, the helicopter pilots landed the aircraft on the beach nearby in order to conserve fuel. Doing so extended the time that O'Leary had to execute his portion of the rescue. O'Leary credits his crewmates' smart thinking with making the rescue possible.
Shortly after the rescue the sailboat began to break up in the rough surf. Had the couple on board not been saved by O'Leary and the helicopter crew, they almost certainly would have perished. The crew's perseverance and positive attitude, along with their training, was absolutely critical to successfully executing the rescue mission, and for that the crew of CG-6553 is awarded the Coast Guard Foundation's Guardian of the Heartland Award for 2012.