TEAM VICKSBURG BATTLES STORM TO RESCUE SAILORS IN DISTRESS!
NORTH WEST ARABIAN SEA-After 130 days at sea with only 10 days of liberty, the crew of USS VICKSBURG (CG-69) was looking forward to a few days rest in the beautiful Indian Ocean archipelago of the Seychelles. Getting there, however, would prove to be a challenge. Between VICKSBURG and Victoria, Seychelles there lay a perfect storm with gale force winds in excess of 40 knots and a sea state of 8 with seas mounting upward to 25 feet.
Charting a course along the African
coast to avoid the worst of this weather, VICKSBURG made the best possible speed
south toward the equator. Then, on the evening of June 15th, the Combat
Information Center began to buzz with news of a merchant in distress. Somewhere
off the coast of Oman a 70-meter motor vessel, the M/V AL MURTADA, was adrift
without power or electricity. For eleven days her 16-member crew clung to the
pitching deck of the small merchant as the angry ocean sought to claim another
vessel for its own. On the twelfth day, with food and water nearly exhausted,
the crew was in a desperate straight as their ship showed signs of floundering
Fortunately for the AL MURTADA, the M/V
STOLT SPRAY overheard her Mayday and answered her call for help. For two days,
STOLT SPRAY hovered over AL MURTADA doing all in her power to affect a rescue.
But without the presence of a helicopter, and with the wind whipping whitecaps
on the angry ocean, there was little the STOLT SPRAY could do aside from passing
on AL MURTADA'S Mayday. And that's precisely what she did! The Master of
STOLT SPRAY contacted his owner in Houston, Texas. The owner then contacted the
U. S. Coast Guard in Norfolk, Virginia, who relayed the message to the
government of Oman. The Omanis passed the message to the FIFTH FLEET in Bahrain
and FIFTH FLEET passed the message quickly down to VICKSBURG via COMJFKBATGRU
embarked in USS JOHN F KENNEDY (CV-67).
As VICKSBURG turned to face the fury of
the storm, USS JOHN F KENNEDY, steaming many miles to the north, launched an S-3
reconnaissance aircraft with orders to find the floundering vessel. Shortly
after midnight on the morning of June 16th, Long Horn 703, an S-3 from SEA
CONTROL SQUADRON 31 (VS-31), located the AL MURTADA and relayed her position to
Morning dawned on the 16th with VICKSBURG rapidly closing on the vessel in distress. From a range of 35 nautical miles, LCDR Jim Esquivel and LT Brian Binder, the Proud Warriors of HSL 42 DET 7, lifted off the pitching flight deck to begin the rescue at sea. Accompanied by AW2's Heath Moore and Scott Wade, they arrived on the scene and appraised the situation.
The AL MURTADA was bobbing like a cork
and rolling like a barrel. Caught in a beam sea, she occasionally rolled so far
to port that water washed over her freeboard and across her plunging deck. Her
crew, anxious to get off, clung to the railings and waved desperately to the
pilots. But there was a problem. There was no place for the helo to sustain a
hover in order to affect the rescue. A tall mast on the bow, a crane amidships, and the ship's superstructure in the stern all conspired to hinder a safe helo hoist. Nonetheless, sensing the crew's desperation, LCDR Esquivel demonstrated consummate skill as he brought his SH60B in over the deck, lifted two crewmembers to safety, and transported them to the STOLT SPRAY faithfully standing station nearby. But once was enough! He knew something else had to be done if the 14 remaining mariners were to be rescued. The ship's configuration would not allow a safe repetition of the
Back on VICKSBURG, Captain David F.
Britt, was watching the rescue unfold in Combat via FLIR video with the SH60B.
As it became apparent that further attempts at helo hoist were too dangerous to
pursue, he began to consider other options-none of which appeared to be
practical due to the violent nature of the storm. Finally someone suggested that
the AL MURTADA attempt to remove the forward mast, thus clearing this dangerous
obstruction from the vessel's bow. Instructions were relayed to the Master of AL
MURTADA and her weary seamen went to work cutting down the mast.
In the meantime, Proud Warrior returned to VICKSBURG to swap crews, refuel, and lay plans for the second attempted rescue. Once the mast was cleared, LT Jamie Brooks and LT Curt Webster lifted from the plunging flight deck and flew what was now a short distance to AL MURTADA. After making several practice runs hovering over the leaping bow of the MURTADA, LT Brooks gave the go-ahead and the hoist was lowered to the first of the 14 Sailors waiting for extraction.
Thus began a race against time with sunset rapidly approaching. Two by two the weary crew were lifted to Proud Warrior and carried to STOLT SPRAY. As VICKSBURG Sailors clung to the railings, a shout went out and a cheer went up as the last crewmember, the Master of AL MURTADA, was lifted safety to the helo. Once onboard Proud Warrior, in a moving scene, the old Master saluted his battered vessel then buried his head in his hands to grieve the loss of his ship.
"Doing the extraordinary as a matter of routine is what makes ours the greatest Navy in the world!" commented Lieutenant Commander Brad Cooper, VICKSBURG Executive Officer, at the conclusion of the rescue. With all 16 members of the AL MURTADA safely aboard STOLT SPRAY and in route to a port in India, VICKSBURG altered course in search of safer seas.
And as the sun slipped low to the horizon, every member aboard VICKSBURG paused for a few moments to reflect on the day's rescue. There is a certain sense of kinship among those who go to sea. Every Sailor knows that the ocean is vast, that no vessel is absolutely safe against a storm, and that every effort must be made to rescue any Sailor in distress, for some time in the future, on some storm tossed and angry ocean, the rescuer may himself need rescue and the Mayday may be his own!
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