Kadena squadrons carry out tricky rescue at sea
August 6, 2004
KADENA AIR BASE, Okinawa — Members of the 31st and 33rd Rescue Squadrons here put some of their training to use Monday as they responded to an emergency at sea: evacuating civilian contractor Keith A. Grooms for treatment of a heart problem.
Grooms, helicoptered from the USNS Victorious to U.S. Naval Hospital Okinawa, had high blood pressure, a weak pulse and shallow breathing, said Master Sgt. Jeremy Hardy, one of the pararescue journeymen who hoisted the civilian from the ship.
Grooms said he’d had the conditions for a short time but “wanted to stay on ship and do my job.” When his condition worsened Monday, however, ship officials requested a helicopter evacuation.
The Kadena Command Post, receiving the call just after noon Monday, quickly notified the units that performed the mission. The 33rd RQS already was airborne, conducting training.
“We maintain a 30-minute alert and when we checked in, we were alerted that there was a real-world mission, so we headed back,” said Capt. Jenn Reed, flight lead on the mission.
Reed said that while returning to Kadena to pick up the pararescuers they arranged to be refueled by a plane that was conducting training for in-flight refueling, saving the helicopters from having to shut down.
Once at Kadena, the helicopters picked up the rescue crew and as much information on the vessel and situation as possible. They left quickly, followed by the MC-130P refueler from the 17th Special Operations Squadron.
The plane also provided them a communications platform, said Lt. Col. Eli Caison, instructor pilot. Once at the ship, which was traveling at about 11.5 miles per hour, the plane circled high above and transmitted messages to Kadena and the hospital. The helicopter’s communication systems couldn’t reach as far as the plane’s, Caison said.
As the MC-130P circled above, Reed and her crew also circled to be the “eyes and ears” for the helicopter conducting the evacuation.
Making the rescue tricky: The ship is an ocean surveillance vessel, bristling with antennas and radar towers, said helicopter pilot Capt. Shawn Cochran.
“We were about 100 feet above the deck,” Cochran said. “It was challenging, but we had an experienced crew on board.” He said the flight engineer and gunner helped him keep track of the distance separating the helicopter from the ship and its antennas — which at times was just 2 feet.
Cochran dropped two pararescue journeymen, Master Sgt. Jeremy Hardy and Tech Sgt. Troy Naquin, on board the Victorious. Hardy said although Grooms’ condition was worsening, he was able to talk and walk to the litter. However, Hardy said, getting Grooms off the ship entailed surmounting a few obstacles.
First, they had to reconfigure some straps on the litter to fit Grooms, who weighs more than 300 pounds and was severely swollen from fluids his body was retaining. Then, while hoisting Grooms, they had to negotiate the litter around the ship’s antennas. Hardy said they attached a “tag line” to the litter to physically move Grooms around the equipment.
Hardy, who broke his leg once in a similar scenario, said four antennas and a 25-foot high radar were in the immediate area where they completed the lift.
“Any time you do shipboard operations, it adds another level of hazards,” Hardy said. “The boat pitches and yaws, so you have to compensate.”
Grooms, from a hospital bed in the intensive care unit, said, “I wasn’t worried during the hoist. I have big faith in our military. … If they need to pull someone out, they’re going to get it done.”
Once aboard the helicopter, Grooms was stabilized. He was attached to monitors during the flight to the Naval Hospital, Hardy said.
One of Grooms’ doctors, Navy Lt. Uday Paul, said the condition leading to the evacuation crept up gradually. “His condition had been getting worse slowly over a month,” Paul said. “He said he was eating a lot of salty foods and when you do, you retain more water.”
Paul said Grooms’ heart just was functioning inefficiently; that, coupled with the retained fluid, contributed to congestive heart failure. Paul said a diuretic was used to help decrease the fluid.
Grooms was due to be released from the hospital Wednesday afternoon. Paul said a two- to three-day stay is typical for someone in Grooms’ condition.
Grooms is to fly back to the States on Friday. He said he will spend some time at his sister’s home in Florida, where he’ll continue treatment with cardiologists. But once he’s given a clean bill of health, he said, he’s looking forward to returning to work with the Navy.
As for the rescue, Grooms said he wasn’t expecting that much attention and was looking for a way to show his appreciation to the men and women who got him off the ship and cared for him at the hospital.
“I really appreciate everything they did,” he said. “Everyone has been really good here … I just want to say thank you to everyone.”