SITKA — Four volunteer rescuers were honored this month by the U.S. Coast Guard in a ceremony at Air Station Sitka.
The Coast Guard Meritorious Public Service Award was presented to Don Kluting, Tyler Orbison, Gerald Gangle and Howard Merkel of Sitka for their part in the Jan. 21, 2012, rescue of four members of family, including two small children, who were stranded on a Nakwasina Sound beach in freezing weather.
Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo, commander of the 17th Coast Guard District, presented the awards March 15. The Meritorious Public Service Award is the second-highest award to members of the public who demonstrate unusual courage, said Cmdr. Gene Rush, executive officer at the air station.
“It was quite a shock,” Kluting said today. “It’s very humbling to hear the Coast Guard talk about you ... It was certainly appreciated, but it’s not why we do it. We do it because we want to help (people).”
“I wasn’t expecting it,” agreed Merkel. “I would’ve gone out for anybody.”
On the day of the rescue, Merkel, a retired Coast Guardsman, heard from a friend that a local family needed help because their boat was high and dry on the beach, leaving them stranded in Nakwasina Sound.
Merkel and his friend Matt Magie set out immediately in Merkel’s 27-foot boat Carpe Diem.
“Displaying superior seamanship, Mr. Merkel drove the Carpe Diem through intense rain, snow and sustained winds in excess of 40 knots,” the citation said. With visibility reduced to a quarter-mile at times, Merkel used GPS and radar navigation to get to Nakwasina Sound.
The Coast Guard said Merkel located the family after they shot off a flare, and he relayed their position to the air station. In the 60-knot winds and snow squalls, the Carpe Diem was unable to get any closer than 100 yards to the shore, but Merkel stayed on scene and relayed information to the air station. A helicopter was launched, but the turbulence and limited visibility forced the crew to return to base, the Coast Guard said.
The Coast Guard called Sitka Mountain Rescue to help out, said Kluting, SMR director. Kluting was joined by other members Orbison and Gangle to head to Nakwasina in a 19-foot open skiff.
“While (Merkel was) standing by, the engine onboard Carpe Diem failed, placing the vessel in danger of foundering on the rocky shore,” the Coast Guard said. After troubleshooting and restarting the engine, Merkel and Magie were able to guide the SMR team to the stranded boaters, who were in danger of hypothermia.
After the SMR team picked up the family from the beach, Merkel and his crewman assisted in getting the family, including two children ages 4 and 6, transferred from the skiff into the warm cabin of the Carpe Diem.
“Mr. Merkel’s courage and seamanship were instrumental to the rescue of four people despite extraordinary conditions,” the Coast Guard citation said. “His valuable contributions to the heroic rescue effort and his dedication to public service are most heartily commended by the United States Coast Guard.”
The citation for the SMR members acknowledges the team’s response in their 19-foot open skiff in up to 60-knot winds to pick up the family from the beach.
“Completely exposed to the elements during their transit, the SMR team was pelted with frigid rain and snow while being buffeted by winds gusting to over 60 knots,” the Coast Guard said in the citation. “Displaying superior boat handling skills the SMR team made a downswell approach to the shoreline. With quartering seas breaking over the transom threatening to swamp and capsize their skiff the SMR team flawlessly handled the challenging weather conditions and safely landed their skiff on the beach to deploy two SMR team members.”
Kluting piloted the boat to keep it off the beach while the family was recovered by the SMR team. Kluting found a more sheltered location to pick up the group after being challenged by a squall line that reduced visibility to 50 feet.
The citation notes the SMR team’s medical assessment of the family and the team’s role in the vessel-to-vessel transfer of the family from the open skiff and into the cabin of the Carpe Diem.
“The courage and seamanship of Mr. Kluting, Mr. Gangle and Mr. Orbison were instrumental to the rescue of four people despite extraordinary conditions,” the citation said. “Their valuable contributions to the heroic rescue effort and their dedication to public service are most heartily commended by the U.S. Coast Guard.”
Information from: Daily Sitka (Alaska) Sentinel, http://www.sitkasentinel.com/