Thirty-foot waves. Fifty-knot winds. Blinding rain. It was without a doubt the most intense mission Coast Guard pilot Lt. Jane Pena had ever faced as she helped lead a harrowing rescue effort in the teeth of Hurricane Sandy Monday off the North Carolina coast.
Pena, a University of Washington graduate, recounted the dramatic mission to rescue the crew members from the HMS Bounty in an interview with KIRO Radio’s Ross and Burbank Show.
“I’d never seen any weather conditions like that before so that was certainly a new thing for me. I was a little nervous on the way out, absolutely,” Pena said.
Pena was the co-pilot of one of two rescue helicopters dispatched from their base in North Carolina as the Coast Guard answered a call for help from the crew of the 180-foot, three-masted ship, a replica of the famous British vessel. It was swamped about 90 miles off North Carolina as the captain and crew tried to outrun the massive storm.
Pena’s rescue helicopter arrived on scene the following morning after a Coast Guard airplane responded to the initial call for help. One crew member was foundering in the water in a survival suit, 13 others were clinging to life rafts. Plucking them from the raging sea wouldn’t be easy.
“We arrived on scene and it was about 30-foot waves, we had rain, 50-knot winds and very low cloud cover. And the ship was submerged but the masts were still sticking out.”
Pena kept a close eye on the altitude as the pilot kept the copter steady. A rescue diver jumped into the water and helped ferry each crew member into a basket lowered from the copter above, 20 to 50 feet above, depending on the height of the waves.
“That’s one of the most important jobs in the left seat where I was sitting was keeping a good eye on that altitude, because the pilot at the controls has so many things that they’re worried about,” she said.
While Pena couldn’t see the rescued crew members as they made their way to safety, she could hear them from the cockpit.
“Something that was kind of fun for me was every time that we would pull up a new survivor, I kept hearing this noise in the background and I wasn’t quite sure because we wear earplugs, of course, and we’re listening to the radios. But I think it was everybody else cheering every time we brought up somebody new. So they seemed to be in obviously very good spirits coming up into the helicopter,” she said.
Not everyone made it. One of the crew members, deckhand Claudene Christian, was found dead. Captain Robin Walbridge is still missing.
Still, thanks to the heroism of Pena and the rest of her crew, 14 people survived the terrifying ordeal. But Pena said the last thing she or any of the others want is special attention.
“I don’t want to sound too cliched, but it’s what we signed up for and it’s what we trained for. And we really just like being able to be these trained professionals that can go out and help people in these conditions. And of course bringing people back alive, that’s the ultimate reward right there,” she said.
She said if anyone deserves an extra pat on the back, it’s the rescue diver who jumped into the 30-foot waves to rescue the crew members.
“Everybody has been saying ‘Gosh, you know we can’t believe you flew into that.’ But I sure didn’t hop out of the helicopter into it, I can tell you that,” she said.