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Stranded Del Norte County rescue team airlifted to safety by Henry 1

Henry 1 tactical fight officer Chris Mahoney stows the rescue rope after rescuing nine first responders on May 24, 2013 in Del Norte County.

FRIENDS OF HENRY 1
Published: Sunday, May 26, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, May 27, 2013 at 10:00 a.m.

The Coast Guard decision to leave nine rescue personnel stranded overnight by high tide on a coastal rocky outcropping in Del Norte County, leading dispatchers to request Sonoma County's assistance, drew criticism Sunday by some on the Northern California coast.

A helicopter from Air Station Humboldt Bay Friday rescued an injured woman who fell from a cliff just south of Crescent City and her near-hypothermic companion. But Coast Guard officials decided it was too dangerous in the dark to return for the nine rescue personnel who had come to the pair's aid.

But Crescent City Volunteer Fire Chief Steve Wakefield said he was concerned about the rescuers, who were wet and cold, a dangerous combination as temperatures dipped into the 40s.

“My volunteers give their time to save people every day, then when they're in need of help, the paid agencies from the federal government cannot help them? It makes no sense,” Wakefield said.

Emergency personnel instead called for the Sonoma County sheriff's helicopter to make the two-and-a-half hour flight north to the Del Norte County coastline near the Oregon border for the nighttime mission.

Coast Guard officials said they had lowered emergency gear, including a stove, food, blankets and other supplies, down to the stranded rescuers, who would be able to walk out on foot by low tide in the morning, said Coast Guard Lt. Bernie Garrigan, spokesman for Group/Air Station Humboldt Bay.

Garrigan said his crew had been told the situation was not dire, albeit uncomfortable and cold. They determined the risk of crashing into a cliff in the dark was too great to attempt to fly them to shore, a process that would take several trips, Garrigan said.

“The risk did not outweigh the gain,” Garrigan said.

Friday's rescue was perhaps the farthest the Sonoma County Sheriff's Henry 1 team had traveled for a mutual aid call, which guzzled more than 200 gallons of jet fuel, pilot Paul Bradley said.

The incident began just before 7:45 p.m. when a 27-year-old woman, who has not been identified, fell about 20 feet off a coastal trail that runs along a 100-foot cliff.

The area where she fell just south of Enderts Beach is accessible by walking on the beach and through a cave that surfaces during low tide, a spot familiar for local rescuers, said Reserve Sgt. Terry McNamara, who runs the Del Norte County sheriff's search and rescue team.

When rescue personnel first found the woman and her companion, it was daylight, still fairly warm and the tide had not yet come in, Wakefield said.

“But the tide started coming in fast,” Wakefield said. “There was a bit of a storm off the coast, the seas got pretty energetic and that trapped them.”

McNamara, stationed at the incident command post on Enderts Beach Overlook, put in calls to the Coast Guard to ask for help, which was initially denied, he said.

He spoke to an operations officer and explained that the woman was in and out of consciousness and her breath was shallow.

“I said, 'We're going to lose her if we can't get her out tonight,” McNamara said.

That's when Coast Guard aircraft commander Lt. George Suchanek was called. Based at the Air Station Humboldt Bay in McKinleyville, Suchanek said it took about 20 minutes to fly to Enderts Beach, arriving at about 9:30 p.m.

By then it was dark and the helicopter had to hover in a nook between cliffs, he said.

“It's nighttime, it's dark, we don't even train for these (maneuvers) at night because they're so risky,” Suchanek said.

The air team hoisted a rescue swimmer down on a rope to the group and raised the woman into the copter. They then brought the man up as well and flew the pair to the Crescent City Airport.

After discussing the conditions, Suchanek said, his operations officer decided it was too risky to attempt to airlift all nine rescuers.

After that decision was made, local emergency officials contacted the state Emergency Services Office, which arranged for help from Henry 1, the Sonoma County sheriff's helicopter.

Throughout the flight north, Henry 1 crew kept calling to see if they'd found an alternative way to rescue the rescuers, Bradley said.

“It's hard to say no when there are people stuck on a rock and the temperature is dropping,” Bradley said.

Plus, the team trains for nighttime conditions and felt well prepared, Bradley said.

Henry 1 landed at 11:43 p.m. and in about 20 minutes, Deputy Chris Mahoney and paramedic Don Ricci plucked the nine rescuers from the cliff in four trips between the rocky outcropping and the shore.

They landed at the hangar at the Sonoma County Charles M. Schultz Airport at about 2:30 a.m. Saturday.

McNamara said the Del Norte County Sheriff's Office is meeting Tuesday to review the rescue and discuss how things could have gone better.

Garrigan said his crew was not told that the rescuers were wet and thought to be dangerously cold, and they were under the impression that they were well outfitted and prepared.

“We thought we were doing the right thing, and definitely some people are disagreeing with that,” Garrigan said. “In the end, the outcome was all that we hoped for.”

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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