Coast Guard pilot Lieutenant Jeremy Loeb’s involvement in the rescue of seven people from the frigid waters of Lake Michigan more than validated his career change from Army to Coast Guard.
After graduating from Bucknell University’s ROTC program Loeb earned his wings at Fort Rucker, Alabama in 1999. He advanced to the rank of captain. After completing a seven-year Army tour, he transferred to the Coast Guard; a move that bumped him down a grade in rank and in pay.
Was it worth it? That question is probably more suited for the survivors his aircrew plucked from the frigid waters of Lake Michigan. I’m sure they would more than agree that Lieutenant’s Loeb’s career move was more than worth it.
Now the story.
May 30, 2008, Coast Guard Sector Lake Michigan, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. At 11:24 a.m, Coast Guard Sector Lake Michigan received an urgent Mayday, from the captain of a 37-foot powerboat, reporting he was taking on water with seven people aboard. He passed his GPS position, which placed him two miles off Waukegan, Illinois. The coastal town, located on the western shore of Lake Michigan, is located approximately 42 miles north of downtown Chicago.
Moments later the captain fired off a second Mayday with a position update. “I could hear his frantic Mayday blaring from our communication center located near my office,” said Commander Tracy Wannamaker, Sector Lake Michigan.
The oncoming flight crew at Coast Guard Air Facility Waukegan had moments earlier completed a watch relief. The oncoming aircraft commander, Lieutenant John McWilliams, heard over their marine radio Coast Guard Station Kenosha and its parent command at Sector Lake Michigan exchanging radio traffic regarding the Mayday.
Lieutenant McWilliams and his flight crew quickly executed a preflight checklist, including donning Aircrew Dry Coveralls. Within 12 minutes of hearing the call, the aircrew were airborne aboard a Coast Guard HH65 Dolphin helicopter with co-pilot Lieutenant Jeremy Loeb, flight mechanic Mark Petre and rescue swimmer, Christopher Bemis.
Within five minutes of lift off the aircrew reached the last reported position of the Mayday. Co-pilot Loeb, reported on scene winds at 25 gusting to 35 knots, wave height 6-8 feet with an occasional 10-12 feet, with water temperature of 48 degrees Fahrenheit.
Lieutenant McWilliams first spotted the survivors. “It was surrealistic,” said co-pilot Loeb. “They were floating together in groups of three about fifty to seventy yards apart, except for one lone person. All were wearing bright orange-colored life jackets, which really stood out in the white capped seas.”
Lieutenant McWilliams called for a free fall deployment of the rescue swimmer.
“When I reached the first group one of the males told me he could not hold on much longer. I separated him from the group and flight mechanic Petre hoisted him aboard. A woman in the group was to cold to talk, “said rescue swimmer Bemis.
While Lieutenant McWilliams flew the aircraft, Lieutenant Loeb maintained radio communications with sector Lake Michigan and the 41-foot rescue boat beating south from Kenosha. Believe me, maintaining radio communications with the command center during a rescue can, at times, be more stressful than flying an aircraft or operating a boat.
After a series of hoists, five of the survivors were aboard the helicopter. During one hoist of a female, a large rogue wave rolled over the basket causing the cable to jerk. The abrupt motion caused the hoisting cable to sway, but did not hinder the hoist.
“I estimate they were in the water thirty to forty-five minutes. I had to manipulate their arms and legs to get them into the basket. They were that frigid from the cold water,” said Bemis.
The Coast Guard 41-foot rescue boat from Kenosha arrived on scene and pulled the remaining two survivors from the water along with the rescue swimmer.
All seven were transported to area hospitals and were later released.
Boat Smart Brief
Although the Coast Guard executed a successful rescue, it would not have been possible if not for the captain of the ill-fated craft. He fired off an urgent Mayday over VHF-FM Channel 16 with a precise GPS position, provided the number of people aboard, and directed his crew to don life jackets. This all occurred within moments as Lake Michigan quickly devoured the 37-foot boat.
“The captain told me that a large wave rolled over the bow and blew out the cabin window, lacerating his face with glass. He was under the surface when he exited the boat. He told me he was terrified,” said rescue swimmer, Bemis.
The captain told Bemis, that he believes the deck hatch for the forward anchor locker at the bow was not properly secured and that seas pouring over the bow found their way down the hatch and flowed through the hull. The bilge pumps could not keep up with the water intake. Once the boat lost its stability or “righting arm” Lake Michigan quickly devoured its wounded.
After 23 year of writing these stories, after my own share of Coast Guard rescues, and after hearing the stories of so many boaters, I can’t stress enough how quickly boats can sink. Being prepared to take life-saving action in a short window of opportunity begs the question- are you prepared, and do you have the means to save you or your crew during an emergency?
Had not the captain fired off an urgent Mayday with a precise position while directing his crew to don life jackets, a successful rescue may well have quickly turned into a body recover mission.
Boat Smart—follow his lead, take command.
Tom Rau is a retired Coast Guard Senior chief and author of Boat Smart Chronicles, Lake Michigan Devours Its Wounded. The book is a journal of Coast Guard rescues he has written about over his 27-year career.
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