Fishermen say Newport helo base may have saved their lives
Fishermen rescued off the Oregon coast by a helicopter dispatched out of a Coast Guard base that's slated to close say the $6 million that would be saved is not worth the lives of fishermen.
Kelly Madden is the skipper of the fishing vessel Blazer, which sank Saturday about 30 miles off the coast. He said Monday from Newport that despite donning survival suits and getting into a life raft, he and his crew were feeling the cold when the helicopter arrived within 20 minutes of their mayday call. He says the crew members might have been going into hypothermia by the time a helicopter from another base farther away could arrive.
"You spend $10 million a day on a war and you can't come up with $6 million a year to run a helicopter facility that saves lives," said Madden, who lives in Sarasota, Florida. "It doesn't make sense to me."
Deckhand Justin Haggart of Huntington Beach, California, said he started feeling the cold about the same time the helicopter arrived.
"All the adrenalin, all the sweat started getting cold on me," he said. "They say (the survival suits) are good for five hours. To be honest, I don't know. In another hour we could have all been passed out from hypothermia. It took the (Coast Guard rescue) boat (out of Depoe Bay) an extra hour-plus to get out there. The helicopter was right on site immediately," and served as a reference point for the boat to find the life raft.
The helicopter hoisted three crewmen to safety, and Haggart and Madden waited for the rescue boat.
The Coast Guard had planned to close air stations in Newport and Charleston, South Carolina on Nov. 30, but postponed the decision after members of Congress complained.
Coast Guard spokesman Chief Warrant Officer Chad Saylor says it's good news the crew members were rescued quickly; however, the Coast Guard still plans to close its Newport air station Dec. 15.
"We are going to respond to calls for distress," Saylor said from Washington, D.C. "In terms of what this changes, I don't think it changes anything for now, at least. There is still a window for discussion, which I am sure is still ongoing. As of today there is no significant change to the decision to close on the 15th."
Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., issued statements saying the air station at Newport was a matter of life or death, and they were working to find a way to permanently keep it open.
Madden said they were heading north out of Newport before dawn Saturday to set 500 pots for the start of Dungeness crab season when they started taking on water and listing severely. Madden called the four crewmen out of their bunks, and before donning rain gear or boots, the men started cutting loose the crab pots stacked nine high on the main deck. Madden put the boat into a circle course to try to shift the weight of the water, but to no avail.
Madden said he has no idea where the leak was. It was not in the engine room or the compartment containing steering gear, which had bilge pumps. It may have been in an empty fuel tank, water tank, or fish hold.
When the 10-foot swells started coming over the main deck and about to come in the wheelhouse, Madden said he radioed the Coast Guard they were sinking, described the boat and gave its position. He sounded the general alarm and told the men to don their survival suits. When he stepped outside the wheelhouse, he was hit by a swell that washed him over the side. The next one washed him onto the rail, where Haggart pulled him back on board.
Madden said he and Haggart climbed on top of the wheelhouse and got the lift raft, but did not get the locator beacon that could guide rescuers to them.
While they all rested for the job of getting in the raft, the generator went out, leaving them all in dark silence. Then with the boat listing heavily, they dropped lines over the side and slid down the hull on their backsides to the raft and clambered inside.
Within minutes they could hear the rotors of the helicopter, "which is the most amazing sound in the world," Madden said. "I personally inside breathed a sigh of relief because I knew I had help coming to get me."