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Sunday, November 1, 2009

‘I Knew You Would Come’

By Joy Finnegan, Editor [jfinnegan@accessintel.com]

In this issue you will find the winners of the 2009 Rotor & Wing Helicopter Heroism Awards. Being new to the rotor world, I have to say that reading these submissions and learning about the events for which our winners were chosen, left me awestruck. The skills to complete the rescues we chose are at a level few will ever experience. Two groups and one individual were chosen among many entries.

First, our top award this year goes to the United States Coast Guard CGNR 6007 crew for their remarkable eight-and-a-half-hour rescue of the crew of the sunken fishing vessel Alaska Ranger. This crew battled snow squalls, -5F wind chills, 36F water, 25-foot breaking seas and darkness to save 15 lives and help coordinate the rescue of many others. You can read the full account of the rescue in our feature story.

Next, we honored both the Maryland State Police and the U.S. Park Police for their swift water rescue of numerous motorists and one rescuer trapped and in danger of being swept into a flooded nearby waterway. The cause of the swift water? A catastrophic break in a 66-inch water main that turned River Road in Maryland into a fast-moving danger zone.

As James MacKay said during the Rotor & Wing Search & Rescue Summit in September, “When we heard we were being dispatched to a water main break, we laughed and said, ‘That’s something you can jump over!’”

But for those of us in the local area watching the drama unfold live on the news, it was clear this was a water main break the likes of which have rarely been seen. The motorists were trapped and at risk of being swept away in their vehicles. Positioning helicopters between power lines and trees made these especially difficult rescues.

Lastly we honored James Ramage. Ramage was holder of the California Department of Forestry’s badge number one and dedicated his life’s work to sharing his vast knowledge. He was nominated posthumously, more as a lifetime achievement, rather than for a single event. Please read his story.

We weighed many factors in selecting our winners, including adherence to regulations and safety precautions. To our winners we say congratulations and thank you for your dedication and commitment to saving lives.

In addition, we want to acknowledge one other group and their incredible rescue. Although not among our winners, the Brazilian Air Force accomplished a rescue of herculean size over several days during the floods of November 2008 in Santa Catarina State in Brazil and their efforts must be recognized.

The majority of the port city of Itajaí was flooded and the port destroyed; the region was totally isolated from the rest of the country by land and sea. The highways were littered with vehicles stopped at the highest points, surrounded by water.

The region was without fresh water and electricity, and the only available aid came by air, by means of an aerial supply line provided by the Air Force in the first week after the flood. About 80,000 people had to leave their homes, most needing air support.

Facing such a disaster, the Santa Catarina operation was organized utilizing the services of the three armed forces and firefighters and police. During the apex of the operation, more than 30 aircraft of diverse models (H-50, H-34, H-1H, C-130, C-295) used Navegantes city airport, located on the opposite side of the Itajaí-açú River, as an operations base.

The first three days were crucial, because only two helicopters of the Air Force (one H-34 and one H-1H) and a few H-50s of the Santa Catarina government were operating in the area.

In that time, the Huey FAB 8692 flew about 27 hours, evacuated 200 people from the risk areas and transported about two to three tons of food and medicine to the isolated areas. As the writer stated in his submission form, “Not bad for a 40-year-old aircraft.”

The following day, the risk of the nearby dam rupture, reported the day before, was very real. All inhabitants were evacuated from the region and many firefighter teams were taken there to evaluate the situation and search for survivors. This mission was risky due to small avalanches still occurring all over the area. The firemen would spend all day in the area, infiltrated in the morning and rescued in the afternoon.

According to the submission, there was an elderly man in one group of survivors who agreed to wait for the last sortie. He confessed that he doubted the helicopter would come back. But he must have held out hope. Upon hearing the sound of the Huey approaching, he declared, “I knew you would come.”

The crew members on that Huey were Capt. Luis Celles; Lt. Gabriel Moraes; Lt. Kleison Reolo; Sgt. Altemir Zambarda; Sgt. Paulo Gladimir; Sgt. Fábio Antunes; and Sgt. Edvan Luna. To read the full account of the daring rescues made by this crew during this flood please go to our website at http://www.rotorandwing.com. The motto of the Search and Rescue section of the Brazilian Air Force, representing the spirit of rotor wing aviation is: “So others can live.” Fitting for the crew of Huey FAB 8692 and all our honored heroes.

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