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Oak Harbor grad in forefront of tsunami relief

An Oak Harbor High School graduate was among the first Americans to witness the aftermath of the tsunami and earthquake disaster in the Indian Ocean and aid the survivors.

Lt. j.g. Scott Cohick is a Navy helicopter pilot with HS-2 Golden Falcons aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, which is currently off the coast of Indonesia. Anyone who has watched TV news coverage of the disaster relief has likely seen footage of either his helicopter or others from the aircraft carrier ferrying supplies to people in the devastated area.

Cohick, a 1997 graduate of Oak Harbor High School, has been photographed and interviewed by reporters from all over the planet. Most recently, he was quoted in a Reuter’s article while flying U.N. Sec. General Kofi Annan.

Cohick has also been sending e-mail messages to his parents, David and Patty Cohick. His eye-witness accounts, written from a ship on the other side of the world, describe both a massive relief effort and vivid details that illuminate the extent of the catastrophe.

He writes that he sees debris in the water, including bodies, along the coast, as far as 10 miles out. He saw an oil tanker washed ashore upside down. He visited villages that suffered 70 to 80 percent loss of life.

“It was horrible to see as far as you can see foundations of houses/buildings and palm trees uprooted and fallen laying in the same direction (pointing away from the water),” he wrote. “Each village had one remaining building...their mosque.  Obviously the only building built of concrete. Cars, boats, trucks, and other vehicles could be seen all over but no roads or anything.”

In a message sent Jan. 2, Cohick writes about a “very busy day for the helicopter squadrons.” He spent the day flying supplies from Banda Aceh to villages around the area. His first stop was “a town that barely existed,” where his team dropped off 1,500 pounds of dehydrated milk and rice. A crowd of a few hundred people and Indonesian marines met the helicopter.

In a Jan. 5 message, Cohick described “a typical day” of flying over seven hours. At sunrise, the helicopters head to the hub at Banda Aceh, where the helos are loaded with up to 2,500 pounds of supplies.

On that day, Cohick’s team dropped 5,000 pounds of supplies, in two trips, to the small town of Lamno. A crowd of mostly children was held back by fully armed Indonesian troops. During the unloading process, Cohick took the time to snap photos of the children.

“It really brightens your day to see so many kids and the smiles on their faces but then you wonder where mom and dad are...probably no longer around,” he wrote. “If you wave the kids all wave back...if you salute they all salute back.”

While Lamno lost up to 80 percent of its population, Cohick said other villages on the coast are completely gone.

“I never thought it possible for a village to be ‘extinct’ but that’s about the only way to describe it,” he wrote. “The next similar visual image comparable with Sumatra’s western coast is the scenes of ‘seas’ of trees from the Mt. St. Helens disaster. But instead of being just trees aligned from the ‘flow’ it is trees, cars, and debris. Some places are just bare, empty valleys.”

On Jan. 5, he picked up a family with two injured children. One of the two little boys had a broken arm and leg; the other had a broken arm. They took the family to Banda Aceh for assistance, and on the way crew members splinted the boys’ bones.

Cohick writes that the relief effort is massive — and includes work by Whidbey Island sailors — but he still worries about the survivors.

“Other countries operating helicopters and/or fixed wing assets out of Sultan Air Force base (really just a small single-runway community sized airport) are Singapore, New Zealand, Germany, and Britain,” he wrote. “The multi-national force is quite impressive but it still doesn’t seem like enough. VAQ-131 is actively participating in the effort at Banda Aceh. During the first few days of relief operations CDR Ted R. ‘Bench’ Williams acted as the main Naval Liaison Officer and ground coordinator before more structure could be established.”

Beyond the relief effort, Cohick describes the beautiful landscape and seascape of Indonesia he sees while flying low, hugging the coastline. Also, there’s the thrill of seeing famous people. The helicopters have flown Dan Rather, Diane Sawyer, Colin Powell, Jeb Bush and Bill Clinton.

It’s a world away from his family in Oak Harbor, but his Whidbey Island family and friends are keeping close tabs on him.

“His father and I are both really proud that he can participate,” Patty Cohick said. “It’s one of the worst national disasters we have experienced in this generation.”

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