Overnight Wednesday, an MH-60 helicopter crew based at U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Clearwater rescued seven people in four separate incidents from southwest Florida to Gulfport.
The Clearwater station sent over 100 service members, four C-130 aircraft and five MH-60 helicopters to Palm Beach in preparation for the major hurricane. Wednesday night, a local search and rescue crew was first dispatched to Ft. Myers to save a man whose boat ran aground deep in a mangrove forest before receiving several more calls for help.
The U.S. Coast Guard Sector St. Petersburg, which works in close conjunction with Air Station Clearwater, shared a WFTS interview with Aviation Survival Technician (AST2) Jethro Hauser describing the rescues on social media.
“It was a busy night,” said Hauser. “At the moment, this is the busiest and biggest Air Station in the Coast Guard.”
The man who ran aground was about a quarter mile into a mangrove forest, explained Hauser, complicating his rescue. With trees and branches extending six to eight feet above the boat, Hauser said there was no way to hoist the man to safety.
With no visibility, the crew had to rely on voice commands to lower Hauser on a hook. He also had to withstand winds of 45 knots – or about 52 mph – and the helicopter’s rotor wash, which made communication nearly impossible.
Relying on hand signals, Hauser instructed the victim to strap on the rescue device and explain that “as you come out of the trees and the wind hits you, you start moving.”
“We trained for it, so it’s not a big deal for us,” he said. “But as for the people we’re helping, I’m sure it’s quite a fun experience.”
Immediately following that rescue, Hauser received a call for help from a much larger boat that nearly capsized.
The wind “was howling” during that rescue, explained Hauser, and the boat was on its side. This victim was older and not very mobile, he added, and the deck was slippery as half the vessel was underwater.
“So, you just have to kind of think on your feet,” he said. “Grab some rope, create a rope ladder, get down the boat and then get them into the helicopter.
“And before you know it, you’re on to the next case.”
Hauser said another boat sank off the coast of Tampa Bay, near unincorporated Cortez in Manatee County.
He expressed his surprise that the three victims withstood the winds and managed to swim to a small island. Following that rescue, and as the crew made its way to refuel, they received word that two kayakers were reported missing in Gulfport.
“They fell off their kayaks, and we had to locate them,” said Hauser. “So, yeah, busy night.”
Hauser said five of the air station’s helicopters remained in Lee County.
As one of the nation’s largest command centers, Sector St. Petersburg is responsible for an area encompassing over 400 nautical miles along Florida’s Gulf Coast. It has served the region, state and nation from its base in Bayboro Harbor for nearly 100 years.
Over 825 active and reserve duty members, 27 civilians and 1,800 auxiliary personnel call the sector home. The station oversees more than 2,600 annual rescues.
In a Thursday night social media post, the sector wrote that “Hurricane Ian tested our resiliency and found a worthy opponent.”
“These are wonderful communities along the southwestern Gulf Coast that have been hit the hardest by this historical storm,” it read. “But we aren’t giving up or giving in.”