Go Inside This Daring ‘Outside the Box’ Gulf of Mexico Rescue
When you’re being hoisted off the deck of a bobbing oil tanker in the Gulf of Mexico, riding the line with a mariner struggling to survive, sometimes you’ve got to get a little creative to save a life.
“You fall back on your training, but in some scenarios, you have to think outside the box,” Aviation Survival Technician 2nd Class Luke Mathews told Coffee or Die Magazine.
It was Wednesday, Aug. 24, roughly 90 nautical miles off the Texas shore, and the elite rescue swimmer from US Coast Guard Air Station Corpus Christi knew there wasn’t much space left for them in the MH-65D Dolphin helicopter hovering three stories over the Singapore-flagged Beatrice.
Chugging toward shore, the tanker had tried to trim the time needed to hand over the 60-year-old mariner, who’d complained about abdominal pain and trouble breathing, triggering the medevac at sea. His crewmates had even swaddled the man in a blanket and strapped him to a litter.
But 15 minutes before the US Coast Guard helicopter arrived, the man’s condition began to deteriorate. And moments after Avionics Electrical Technician 2nd Class Abraham “Abe” Kamerman lowered Mathews to the tanker, the elite rescue swimmer took the mariner’s pulse, and it wasn’t good.
Normally, air crews hoist the patient up first, followed by the rescue swimmer. But Mathews figured every second counted, so he decided to go up with the mariner.
“There’s been a few cases where it’s been necessary to do,” said Mathews, a 10-year veteran of the US Coast Guard out of New Port Richey, Florida.
But with two people on the line at the same time, there was a chance they’d get jammed at the top trying to squeeze into the Dolphin. Mathews hoped that a lot of muscle could get the basket into the helicopter first.
“[Kamerman] is pulling the basket, and I’m pushing it in with him, too,” he said. “The 65, with the hoist, it’ll help you boom in, so it will help you get into the cabin better.”
They got the mariner in, but inside the helicopter piloted by Lt. Cmdr. Tom Mulder and Lt. Jamel Chokr, there still wasn’t much room.
A Dolphin seats four but can carry only six people.
Mathews told Kamerman that, if the unconscious mariner’s vitals kept dropping, they’d have to take him out of the basket so the rescue swimmer could begin CPR.
And then the mariner’s vitals dropped.
Mathews and Kamerman yanked the mariner out of the 41-inch stainless-steel basket, a maneuver Mathews conceded was very difficult to manage in a tight space.
While Kamerman stowed the basket in the rear compartment, Mathews went to work. The rescue swimmer placed automated external defibrillator pads on the man’s chest, but the machine indicated no shock was needed.
So Mathews began CPR and checked the mariner’s condition again with the paddles.
This time he needed a shock. After the jolt, Mathews returned to performing CPR. He figures he pumped the man’s heart for 15 minutes before they finally landed at Spohn Hospital Corpus Christi-Shoreline and an emergency crew there took over the CPR.
The patient’s condition was marked critical, but the Coasties gave him every chance to live. Mathews told Coffee or Die all credit for that went to the aircrew, which worked as a team to save the mariner.
For two of the crew members, however, it was an especially sweet moment. A decade ago, Mathews began his US Coast Guard career as non-rate on the cutter Confidence, serving alongside Chokr.
“He was the pilot in the right seat, and I was the swimmer,” Mathews said. “It’s kind of cool that, 10 years later, our careers kind of came back around.”