The first responders to the Coast Guard helicopter crash were a Southeast Alaska fishing crew who came to the rescue

The first responders to the Coast Guard helicopter crash were a Southeast Alaska fishing crew who came to the rescue

A US Coast Guard Sitka helicopter on a training flight. (Photo by Don Kluting)

The first people at the scene of a Sitka-based U.S. Coast Guard helicopter crash Monday night were the crew of the stricken fishing vessel that was sent to help. The two brothers aboard the Lydia Mary played a crucial role in the rescue of the downed air crew.

Logan Padgett is the captain of the Lydia Mary, a 44-foot wooden wagon based in Wrangell. The Lydia Mary began taking on water around 8 p.m. Monday in rough seas in Frederick Sound. Padgett sent a mayday and headed for the protected north shore of Reed Island in Farragut Bay.

The helicopter lifted off from Sitka Air Force Station and made the 81-mile flight to Reed Island by 10:15 p.m., and Padgett spoke to the air crew over the radio, telling them the flooding was under control.

Then something went wrong.

“Well, it was dark,” Padgett explained. “So we were just looking at the helicopter lights, and there wasn’t much to see. But we could hear the rotors whirring one second, and then a loud crash the next second. Then silence.”

Padgett turned on Lydia Marie’s crab lights. He and his younger brother paddled to shore and met one of the helicopter pilots on the beach, near where the plane had stopped, upside down among some trees. Two helicopter crew members were trapped inside, and the brothers tried to keep them comfortable with sleeping bags and ibuprofen. They used their radios to help the crew call for help.

St. Petersburg Search and Rescue, Emergency Medical Services, police, Alaska Wildlife Troopers and more Coast Guard personnel responded to their call.

Aaron Hankins is Petersburg’s director of emergency services. He says the trip to Reed Island was very treacherous, with waves almost washing over the sides of the boat. All the while, they were exposed to snow and rain.

“We were driving our way there, and it was still pretty lumpy,” Hankins said. “It was very rough. At times, the conditions were bleak on our way there.”

Patrick Fowler leads the Petersburg search and rescue team. He says that when they reached the downed helicopter – a few hours after it crashed – they were in chaos.

“(There was) a strong smell of fuel in the air as expected,” Fowler said. “The helicopter was almost completely on its top side – completely upside down.”

The team was ready to provide assistance. But they did not have the proper tools to immediately extract the crew from the fuselage. What they had was probably suitable for extracting someone from a car accident, not from a helicopter. But with time – and some brute force – they were able to free the injured crew.

“(It was) just a small space that was turned upside down, and people were kind of stuck and injured,” Fowler said. “It’s always a difficult environment to work in. So, yeah, cut some tape, break a couple of pieces of metal, and eventually we got to where we could move it up and out of the helicopter.”

Despite the challenges, Fowler said it was his favorite rescue mission.

“At the end of the day, everyone goes home, and that’s why we do it,” Fowler said. “You see a direct connection to your actions and a positive benefit to people who were in trouble. So this is the most rewarding type of assignment we get.”

Back in Petersburg, Dr. Alice Holback was the doctor on duty that night. She says all hands were on deck. Most of the nurses and providers at the hospital were out to help — even though they were not on call. The employees attending didn’t know what to expect, but they weren’t optimistic, Holback says.

“There were a lot of unknowns,” Holback said. But (we) were planning for the worst, unfortunately. That is why we asked for as much help as possible.”

Once the patients were stabilized, two nurses and a doctor accompanied the Coast Guard medevac flight to Seattle, because the Coast Guard did not have their own medical team available at that time.

Mary Kravitz is a nursing supervisor at Petersburg Medical Center. She was on that flight, caring for the injured helicopter crew. She is also the wife of a Coast Guardsman. Kravitz says this connection made it easy for her to volunteer her time.

“Thinking about my husband, it’s one thing that if I were in their shoes, and I couldn’t reach my husband in that kind of situation, I wish someone would do the same for him,” Kravitz said.

Padgett, the fishing boat captain, says it was not unusual for the Coast Guard to come to the rescue.

“It’s just people helping people at that point,” he said.

Padgett says he knows nothing about the helicopters or the possible cause of the accident. As a sailor, he knew the weather, and it was not a good night.

“I know the vision was terrible,” he said. The wind gusts were terrible. The flying conditions were really bad.

In all, Padgett says he and his brother spent five or six hours ashore at Reed Island helping the aircrew. Shortly after dawn, the cutter Elderbury came to escort the Lydia Mary.

When asked if he would carry with him any particular memory of the events, Padgett said: “It was just kind of a long, cold night.”

Robert Woolsey is news director at KCAW in Sitka.

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