SAR team shares stories

ASW2 Brian Casey, far right, smiles as children show varying amounts of enthusiasm while standing at attention during a presentation last week at the Oak Harbor Library. From the left are Caydence Graham, Isabel Carr, Colton Keene and Korbin Graham. Dennis Connolly/Whidbey Crosswind

Last August, a 15-year-old girl lost her footing while hiking in Hoodsport, Wash., fell off a cliff and into the river in Skokomish River Canyon.

The canyon was narrow and steep with rock faces leading down to the river. The only thing close was a 450-foot bridge spanning the canyon. The girl lay at the bottom with a ground rescue crew.

A MH-60S Knigthawk helicopter, with a six-member search and rescue team from Naval Air Station Whidbey Island arrived and analyzed the situation. It wasn’t the best.

But that’s what Navy search and rescue teams are trained to do. No matter what the situation, SAR teams pluck people out of waves bigger than houses, lift them from sinking ships, tracts of snowy forest or even deserts.

Last Thursday, Lt. Brandon Sheets, the pilot and commander of that bridge mission, along with Naval Air Command First Class Andrew Worth, Naval Air Command second class Brian Casey and Lt. Leah Tunnell were at the Oak Harbor Library to talk about their job to an audience of men, women and children.

They went through the make up a SAR crew: Two pilots and two rescue swimmers, although it could be more, and the organization on the MH-60S.

“The crew, all the guys keep the aircraft perfectly clean,” noted Sheets. “We always keep a bag ready to go, we are always ready.”

Worth, who started his Naval career in Jacksonville, Fla., has been on the carriers USS Nimitz and USS Enterprise and has been an aviation rescue school instructor, among other things.

“It’s a cool thing to be able to  help out people,” Worth said. “I have a very cool job and I’m able to help people.”

He also mentioned that he participated in approximately 40 rescues last year.

Petty officer Brian Casey joined the Navy in 2003, and was aboard the aircraft carrier John C. Stennis (CVN-74). As a rescue swimmer, he said he had a lot of jobs. He also went to combat search and rescue school. It’s an intense training situation that takes place near Fallon, Nev. Casey said they train day and night for a month, building their search and rescue skills.

“I still have my Elvis patch,” Casey said. “It reads, ‘If he’s out there, we’ll find him.’”

The group talked a little about the rescue in the Skokomish River Canyon. Sheets said they flew over it and saw the girl.

“We are trained to a high level, so we took a deep breath, surveyed everything and formulated a plan to do it safely,” Sheets said. “We knew we could do it safely.”

Once their plan was laid out, the helicopter flew under the bridge. Hospital Corpsman second class, Richmond Roy, got on the rescue line and was lowered down to the girl, who was already strapped to the litter by the rescue crew on the ground. Roy and the girl were hoisted up to the helicopter, which held rock steady. They got the girl out, and she was taken to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.

The SAR crewmen showed the library audience some of the safety equipment they carry, like their masks and flippers and drysuit, which is smaller than one expects.

Then Lt. Sheets and Lt. Tunnell and petty officers Casey and Worth took questions from the audience.

Near the end of their presentation, Sheets lined up some of the children in the audience and helped them stand at attention.

Tough and very young, these potential search and rescue sailors were very attentive and respectful.