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Rescue swimmer battles darkness, high waves to save 2 pilots

ABOARD THE USS HARRY S. TRUMAN IN THE EASTERN MEDITERRANEAN—The first thing Petty Officer 1st Class Jeremy Burkart noticed as he descended the thin line from his helicopter, hovering 60 feet above the surface of the dark ocean, was the overwhelming stench of fuel.

Below him, in the middle of the night, somewhere in that pool of petroleum, was a downed pilot. He knew the water was cold enough to cause hypothermia. He knew the man might be hurt. He knew he had to find him fast.

But the churning air from the helicopter blades turned him in a slow swivel as he descended. He saw the pilot, then lost him.

So Burkart, 28, from Marion, Ill., called on a small radio affixed to his shoulder to the pilot now far overhead: "Can you give me a better vector?"

If the answer came, he couldn't hear it.

The rescue operation had begun with a call to the ready room of the Dusty Dogs, a helicopter squadron aboard the Truman, at 11:35 p.m. Monday night: "Possible aircraft down."

Based in Jacksonville, Fla., the squadron specializes in search-and-rescue operations.

Whenever planes are launched from the flight deck of the Truman or landing after missions, a helicopter and its crew stand by. They're not always in the air, and one of their drills is to see how fast they can get airborne after an emergency call comes in.

Thirty minutes is considered respectable; this time, they made it in 19.

Lt. Dom Pastorin, 28, of Jacksonville was in the pilot seat. His co-pilot was Lt. Ivo Prikarsky, 34, a native of the Czech Republic who lives in Jacksonville, Fla. Petty Officer 2nd Class Tracey Hoff, 22, of Windthorst, Texas, was the safety officer, in charge of sorting all the radio chatter and watching everything as it unfolded.

They swooped toward coordinates about six miles astern, the last known location of the helicopter. They were straining to see something. Anything.

It had been just another routine night as the USNS Spica, a Merchant Marine supply ship, closed in on the Truman, matching speed and course. The normal drill is that lines are shot from one deck to the other. The two ships are more or less secured, and supplies are hauled across a cable from the Spica to the Truman.

During Monday night's resupply, a Puma helicopter from the Spica, with two civilian pilots, lifted off to ferry more pallets of food, parts and other supplies from the afterdeck of the Spica to the flight deck of the Truman.

But this time, something went wrong. The accident is still being investigated, and the cause of the crash is unknown. But suddenly, the helicopter disappeared from radar screens.

The two pilots, Richard A. Good, 54, of Peoria, Ariz., and Richard R. Budd, 58, of Keizer, Ore., both employees of Geo-Seis Helicopters Inc. in Fort Collins, Colo., were out of contact.

The water temperature in the eastern Mediterranean at this time of year is generally between 55 and 60 degrees, which means that a person can lose consciousness in as little as 90 minutes.

Rescue helicopters from the Truman, another nearby carrier, the USS Theodore Roosevelt, and a destroyer, the USS Winston Churchill, were sent.

The Roosevelt's helicopter was first in the area. Then came the Dusty Dogs. A few lit strobes were floating in the water amid what Pastorin called the "chunks" of helicopter debris. The pilots had also opened tubes of chemicals that, when released in the water, glowed a fluorescent green.

And there, far below, they could just pick out the two pilots.

The Roosevelt's crew picked up Good, and then the Dusty Dogs moved into position.

Burkart, dressed in a wetsuit, mask and fins, began his descent from the chopper's hover position 60 feet above the water. He saw the Puma's pilot at first, but by the time he hit the water the man was gone. The waves were 3 to 4 feet, he estimated, plenty high to hide a person just yards away.

He thought he knew which way to go and started swimming. But there was no pilot.

He called to the chopper but couldn't hear anything. Finally, Burkart said, he "kicked up," to get his body farther out of the water and see better, and "got a good look, got a bead on the survivor."

When he swam this time, he reached Budd.

"I'm a rescue swimmer," he shouted above the noise. "I'm here to help."

Burkart asked Budd "if anything was wrong, if anything hurt." If the pilot had a back injury, for example, that would have complicated matters.

"He (Budd) was pretty banged up," Burkart said, but he was OK to be lifted out.

The flight back to the Truman, where both pilots were brought, lasted only minutes. The rescue crew wrapped the shivering pilot in blankets and started questioning him about his condition, so medical workers could be prepared.

About 45 minutes after the first call had gone out, they landed. A wobbly Budd walked on his own out from under the rotors, but then medics strapped him into a stretcher and carried him to the 51-bed hospital on board.

Burkart followed. He was drenched in fuel, and his eyes had swollen nearly shut from the irritation.

Good was already there; surgeons would later stitch up a deep laceration on his right forearm.

By dawn, the two downed pilots were rested in the hospital, and by afternoon they had been taken back to the Spica. They declined to comment.

Burkart and the rest of the rescue crew assembled in the hangar bay of the Truman to tell their story.

"It's what we trained for," Prikarsky said. "It worked perfectly."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.