Coast Guardsman Gassan risks life to save another

Posted: Sunday, October 31, 2010

On Aug. 4, 2009, subsistence spear fisherman Trevor Richards' foot was caught in a rope strung from a raft to a rock set 20 feet below the surface of the cascading waterfall at Sweetheart Creek, 40 miles south of Juneau.

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

Swift currents of 35-degree water pushed him down as he stretched his body toward the surface light. His lungs ached for oxygen. His lips sucked water mixed with air as his body, conditioned for the rigors of being a Capital City Fire and Rescue paramedic, began to fatigue.

"I remember stretching my lips out to get just enough air and going under," Richards said. "I didn't think I could get another. I was thinking of my family. I was thinking that I didn't want them to grow up without a father and a husband. I was thinking my wife is going to be so mad at me for drowning."

On Friday, United States Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Mack A. Gassan was awarded the Coast Guard Commendation Medal for preventing Richards' family from that horrific outcome, just days before he retires from the service.

"It feels wonderful," Gassan said. "Not just the award, that is the least important, the biggest thing is that Trevor is alive to enjoy his family."

In a ceremony at the CCFR station with members of the Coast Guard, CCFR and public looking on, Capt. Melissa Bert, commander of Coast Guard Station Juneau, pinned a gold star on Gassan's dress uniform, symbolic of his second Commendation Medal.

"I would just like to say how humbled I am to come to work every day with people of such courage as Chief Gassan," Bert said.

It was Gassan's hands that reached under the water and held Richards tightly, keeping the two of them above water.

A recounting of the incident read at the ceremony by Brian Tesson, commanding officer of the Coast Guard cutter Liberty, along with subsequent interviews, revealed that Gassan was in a jet boat with crewmates Sarah Morin, Joseph Baxter, Robert Boyer, and Scott Lerum on a fishing trip in Sweetheart Creek.

Richards and friends Chad Cameron, John Adams, and Danny Babcock were already fishing there.

Richards' group had tied a rope to a large rock, dropped it in deep water 20 feet from the falls, and tied it to a raft. Richards would snorkel dive down the rope attempting to spear a fish, float down stream to where he could stand and repeat.

Close to fatiguing and a fish limit, Richards went for one more dive. This time, however, as he let go of the rope it half-hitched around his ankle and he couldn't reach the surface.

"I need to get control of this situation," Richards remembers thinking. "I am in trouble. I am the rescuer usually, not the one that needs rescuing."

Losing breath, Richards reached down and pulled slack in the rope to clear his foot. As he let go again the line hitched around the small of his foot. His struggles moved the rock but not enough to break surface in the roughly eight-knot current.

"This is it," Richards recalled thinking. "There is nothing more that I could do. It is funny how time slows down. I thought of my wife, my friends. I didn't want my kids growing up without a father."

Richards said he believed his friends net fishing and bear watching nearby were used to his bobbing up and down and wouldn't notice.

Richards briefly caught a glimpse of the raft. His hand clutched at the side; fingers cold, grip weakening, he lost hold.

Moments earlier, Gassan spotted a man in the shallows yelling for help. Gassan looked to where the man was pointing and observed Richards in the swift current near the base of a waterfall struggling to keep his head above water, only to quickly disappear under the surface.

Gassan jumped out of the skiff and ran through shallow water to assist. Nearing Richards, the water depth increased, forcing Gassan to swim upstream against strong currents until he reached the drowning Richards.

As Richards lost his grip on the raft, Gassan reached him. Repeatedly pulled under the water in the currents, Gassan inched Richards toward the raft that Morin and Cameron had pushed close to them.

"My primary concern was seeing that no more people were in danger," Morin said. "But he was part of my crew. I am impressed by his selflessness and willingness to put himself on the line."

Clutching Richards and the raft, Gassan discovered that Richards' leg was entangled in the line attached to the rock.

Gassan struggled to untie the line but it was too deep and the line too tight. Gassan obtained a knife from Morin and positioned Richards' leg on his knee to cut the line. The raft floated free with both men hanging onto the stern.

Gassan next positioned himself so that he could secure the victim between himself and the raft until they floated to a safe depth.

"My next reaction was 'Holy Cow!,'" Gassan said. "Then I realized how lucky he was. I was just in the right place and time."

Gassan's wife Amy said, "I consider it an honor to be his wife and I am happy Trevor is here now for his family. It reminds you how short and precious life is. I cannot imagine our children Amanda (12) and Chloe (7) not having a father."

Said Richards' wife Dana, "I think I have adequately suppressed it. It makes me appreciate my marriage and our children Sage (5) and Evelyn (3). He chose not to go fishing again right away and I wasn't upset with that decision. I wasn't encouraging it but I didn't prohibit it either."

Richards' mother Linda said, "I am in awe of the whole situation. I didn't know what all went on until a few days after."

Gassan and Richards hugged numerous times during the ceremony. They shook hands. They patted each other's backs. They looked lovingly at their families.

"This would not happen today without Sarah and the crew of the Liberty and Trevor's friends," Gassan said of the award ceremony. "I thank you all."

Added Richards, "I am a rescuer, an adventure person... but I don't think I have been into anything so terrifying. To my partners that were there, to my Coast Guard brothers and sisters, I would not be here without you. Thank you for letting me see my family again."

Gassan officially retires Monday to a position as a relief engineer on the Alaska Marine Highway System. He will remain living in Juneau with his family.

• Contact reporter Klas Stolpe at 523-2263 or at klas.stolpe@juneauempire.com.



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