Extraordinary circumstances make extraordinary people

Original Ambrose Light Station, a Texas Tower ...

August 31st, 1993 is the date of the kind of event that leaves an indelible mark on your life. While serving in the US Coast Guard I was assigned as the team leader on Ambrose Light Tower. This was one of a handful of  uniquely constructed lighthouses known as a Texas Tower. My responsibilities included all aspects managing the maintenance of this light station and all personnel on board as well as a detailed journal of the site visits.

What is particularly unsettling about that day is that the helicopter (a USCG HH65) ferrying the second crew to the tower missed the platform by what was later determined to be inches. All of the subsequent events were just a series of miraculous coincidences that added up the avoidance of a total disaster. The light tower was recently refueled and contained approximately 12,000 gallons of diesel fuel for running the generators. These gensets  provided the AC power to support the high lumen light signal as well as all of the tower’s computer systems, radio beacon and sound signals.

It was a sheer accident that the crashing helicopter struck the tower in just the right way as not to cause an incendiary catastrophe. Another factor was that this helicopter has recently returned from a yard overhaul and all of the lower compartments were still sealed with a fresh coat of paint. This seemingly inconsequential fact was what allowed the inverted helicopter to remain afloat as a result of the air trapped in these compartments. Were it not for this then it is much less likely that the crewman and two VIPs would have survived.

English: U. S. Coast Guard 2nd Class Petty Off...

I remember hearing the approach of the second helo and got up from the admin desk in the computer hut to assist with unloading of the special the NOAA VIPs were delivering. Suddenly something did not sound right the pitch of the approach was too high and something in my gut felt very wrong about the situation. I honestly do not know to this day almost 20 years later what made me drop to the deck flat on my stomach but as the sound increased it was suddenly followed by a muffled crunch  and rumble as the tower shook from the impact. I heard sound of flapping like when your were a kid and clipped a baseball card to your bicycle spokes only much louder and deeper passing behind me and the tower heaved one more time then all went eerily silent for a moment. Time seemed to stand still during this evolution and I believe I heard the engine sputter.

In my mind I believed that the pilot had experienced some sort of turbulence bouncing the helicopter on the deck a few times and pulled back up away from the platform. It felt like I lay there for a few minute but I know only seconds passed when I began to analyze things. It was too silent I didn’t them circling around for another attempt. I quickly jumped to my feet and rushed out onto the deck. My engineer came running out of the generator hut asking what had happened. I told him I think that the helo crashed and walked swiftly to the edge where I last heard the helicopter.

I looked down to see the helo floating belly up with the flight crewman laying on top and the two NOAA VIPs swimming int he water near the wreckage. Rushing back into the computer room I grabbed my radio and called Group Sandy Hook on official Coast Guard channel whom I checked in with less than 15 minutes prior when my crewman and I were dropped off by the same helicopter during the first run. To my surprise no one answered. I tried the group one more time and after not receiving a response almost panicked. Here I was the leader in charge of the station it was my responsibility to get help but no one answered. I felt alone and helpless for a moment but remembered that Group Sandy Hook was the primary and that Station Rockaway was the secondary overlapping coverage for the light tower.

I called Rockaway and immediately received a response. They took all of the information I could provide dispatching the 41 foot search and rescue boats to the scene. Unfortunately the vessels were 20-30 minutes away so they also contacted the NY-NJ pilot vessels who were able to reach our position in minutes. I felt relieved and even relaxed a bit as I new that help was at least on the way. At this time my engineer Ken Gardner drop life rings and deployed the first inflatable life raft. Unfortunately, the latter was on the opposite side of the tower and got stuck in the legs and lower cat walk of the tower. Together we carried the second raft to the other side of the tower and deployed it. The activation canister went off but the raft did not inflate hitting the water below with a loud splashing thud.

By this time the Group has finally answered and assume command of the rescue operations. Therefore, I began relaying the events to them as their eyes on the scene. They pilot was safely extracted by the NYPD divers and brought aboard one of their vessels for triage. Some how the co-pilot was placed aboard one of the pilot vessels and they were approaching the lower catwalk of the tower. I radioed Group Sandy Hook again asking for direction and all they were able to do was tell me not to allow the vessel to tie off to the station. Unfortunately, I had no way of reaching the vessel on radio and even if I could they had already done exactly that. Thus I raced down from the mid deck to the sea floor to meet them and assist.

I met the pilot boat crew at the sea floor catwalk and asked what their plan was. They explained that another helo was going to land on the flight deck to take the victim to the nearest hospital and that we needed to carry him up there ASAP. I looped my arms under his and locked my hands across his chest while the two pilot crewmen lifted his legs and we began the ascent up the spiral staircase. All the while in the back of my mind I was calculating the time he lay inverted under water. I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was already far too late because it too nearly 20 minutes from time of the crash to the time of extraction. In any case I fought back the thoughts of despair and continued on with the rest of the team carrying him up to the mid deck.

The flight crewman of the second helo met just after we reached the mid deck and ask if I knew CPR then declared that he needed me to fly with him to the hospital in the helo waiting for us above. I relinquished my authority of the tower to my engineer, gave him the radio and boarded the helo. Of course I was very apprehensive, I looked down at the the helo I had arrived in now floating a couple hundred feet away completely destroyed from the impact and I steeled my resolve; grabbed my gear and board the second helicopter.

Once in the air we headed to the nearest hospital in Monmouth, NJ performing two person CPR on the victim. I remember looking down on the man whom I met for the first time earlier that morning laying on the floor of the helo his helmet removed and flight suit completely ripped open so that we could work on him. I was trying to focus on counting my chest compressions but during one of the breathing cycles I looked down at him in his undershirt & “tighty whities” and thought to myself this is why mom always said make sure you wear clean under wear. Then snap back to counting compressions when the crewman tapped me on the arm and gave me the stop signal. He told me to check the femoral pulse, to with I thought serves me right for cracking that joke in the back of my head a moment ago. I shouted back that I did not feel a pulse and we began again.

I don’t know how fast we were going but we arrived at the hospital and the flight crewman went with the hospital staff to act as military representative. The pilot whom I did know LCDR Temple (a Birtish exchange pilot) whom I had flown with numerous times informed me that I was promoted to flight crewman and we were going home…

I am recounting all of this to help put the following award and citation in perspective. Never in my career did I expect to be confronted with something like what happened this day. For me this was a routine flight one I have made at least once per month every month for nearly two years. Fortunately for all involved, it transpired at a point when I was fully capable to act without thought of the consequences to myself in order to save lives.USCG Commandant's Letter of Commendation

It was not until after the investigation was completed a month later that I learned how close I had come to going over the side of the tower with the helicopter. Yet another one of those unique coincidences occurring that ill fated day. One wheel of the helicopter had missed the platform and the torque caused it to flip and roll to the left heading directly for the computer system room on the flight deck. Were it not for the fact the the rotors were still turning the helicopter would have rolled through the structure taking out all of the computer systems and myself along with them. The blades continued to turn just long enough to help push the helicopter off the side of the tower before the engines stalled.

Although I present a copy of the citation, with key personal information blacked out, awarding the US Coast Guard Commandant’s Letter of Commendation. I also took the liberty of transcribing the text for easier viewing. This was a particularly difficult thing to do as it forced me to relive the events of that day. I hope that the above text helps you better understand the meaning of this document.

  1. I note with pride and am pleased to commend you for your performance of duty on August 31, 1993 during the emergency response and rescue operations following a Coast Guard helicopter crash in the Ambrose Channel. As a member of a work detail from Aids to Navigation Team New York, you were deployed on Ambrose Light Tower to conduct maintenance when Coast Guard Helicopter 6594 crashed. You demonstrated outstanding judgement, fortitude and leadership while quickly assessing and responding  to the severe situation. You observed the helicopter floating in an upside down postion and the three people freed from the wreckage and clinging to the underside of the submerged helicopter. Both pilots were still submerged inside the cockpit. Realizing the seriousness of the situation, you took decisive action to attempt to save lives, assist and calm the persons in the water, and facilitate coordination of responding air and afloat rescue units. You radioed for assistance and passed vital on-scene information to Group Sandy Hook and Station Rockaway which provided responding rescue units an accurate on-scene description. Working with your team member, Petty Officer GARDNER, you deployed liferings and the Ambrose Light life raft to the vicinity of the crash. Overcoming the trauma of the situation and displaying great strength and stamina, you combined with Petty Officer GARDNER and crew members from a Sandy Hook pilot boat, to carry one of the critically injured Coast Guard pilots up a 200 foot ladder to the flight deck of Ambrose Light for air evacuation. You then continued to demonstrate tremendous physical endurance by boarding the rescue helicopter and using your emergency medical technician skills to perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation on the injured pilot while enroute to a hospital. This response was an exemplary display of courage, fortitude and operational teamwork, highlighted by your personal efforts and successful coordination with Petty Officer GARDNER, the pilot boat crew, police divers, and other responding Coast Guard assets.
  2. You are commended for your outstanding performance of duty. By your meritorious service, you have upheld the highest traditions of the United States Coast Guard.
  3. You are authorized to wear the Commandant’s Letter of Commendation Ribbon Bar. The Operational Distinguishing Device is authorized.

Highest Personal Ribbon Award in the CG


Thanks you for sharing this moment with me.

Mikel King

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10 Responses to Extraordinary circumstances make extraordinary people

  1. Excellent story to share with others 🙂

  2. admin says:

    Thanks Tommy!

    I can’t believe it has been nearly 20 yrs since that very long day. This was back when I was a a lighthouse keeper in the US Coast Guard. This was the only one I had to fly out to…

    Mikel King

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