Rough-water rescue reveals holes in Kenai's capabilities as firemen pluck 2 from stormy Kenai River mouth

'Lucky to be alive'

It’s lucky that they are alive at all; Wednesday was a bad day for a problem on the water.


After F/V Fix capsized in the tall, narrow-troughed waves at the Kenai River mouth, pushed up by a fast-exiting extreme tide dragging against a heavy south wind, the U.S. Coast Guard passed over the opportunity to help, the Kenai Fire Department rescue boat would not start and the local Alaska State Trooper helicopters were already busy working two ongoing shootouts.

“We were on our own,” said Kenai Fire Marshal Eric Wilcox. “Those people are lucky to be alive.”

By the time the commercial fisherman were safe onshore 45 minutes later, five small skiffs with local first responders, including Nikiski’s fire chief, ended up launching from the river, the North and South beaches. All were triangulated on where they thought the Fix was — all faced the rough task of entering the dangerous river mouth.

About 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jerry Dunn, owner of Beluga Lookout Lodge and RV Park on the bluff above the mouth, watched the Fix, a 40-foot commercial fishing boat with a two-story stern cabin, make its way home and enter the river through the gauntlet at the mouth. Thinking the dramatic scene would make a good picture, Dunn continued to watch as the Fix rode down the face of one wave and the bow buried itself in the trough. The boat rolled over bottom-up and headed back out to sea in the current, he said.

Dunn called 911 at 7:08 and sent the Kenai Fire Department into action; the rescue began three minutes before the distress beacon (EPIRB) aboard Fix activated and was picked up by a satellite signal transmitted to the Coast Guard in Juneau.

Kenai’s operation ended successfully 40 minutes later, and before federal authorities took any action beyond communications.

In the end, Kenai Firefighter Zachary Pettit and Kenai Engineer John Wichmen rode shotgun as Kenai Battalion Chief Tony Prior navigated a city-owned skiff, which they commandeered, through breaking waves and high seas to reach the fisherman.

Found hypothermic, the pair wore nothing but deck gear. The Fix rolled so suddenly that they were unable to get into mustang suits or life jackets.

“We never saw them get out,” Dunn said. “It’s great that they were saved.”

After pulling the pair from the water, Prior set course for the South Beach as an ambulance rerouted from the North Beach staging location. Kenai Fire Marshall Eric Wilcox said his men didn’t think they could make it back through the turbulent river mouth.

“The mouth is where it stacks up,” Wilcox said.

The pair was conscious, talking and able to walk when they hit the beach. Wilcox said they were sent to the hospital for observation.

As of Friday, the Coast Guard said the Fix remained in the water. Another report had it near mile 13 of Kalifornski Beach Road, just offshore. Lt. Matthew Mitchell, U.S. Coast Guard said they did not know how much fuel or oil was aboard the Fix.

A bad day to be rescued

Though three of his men conducted the rescue this time, Wilcox said he drove a skiff through the mouth during a nearly identical rescue some 15 years ago, pulling five from the water during a similar big tide and southerly wind event.

Back then, Wilcox dreamed of a proper rescue boat to serve the needs of a fishing community, one properly outfitted for the job. The job Wednesday night was a dangerous “go or no-go” rescue situation. Wilcox said that either decision would have been the right one.

At the moment, Kenai’s rescue boat, the one that did not start, is nearly 20 years old. It’s one they bought used from Nikiski. After the rescue Prior’s team returned to the department’s rescue at the Kenai City Dock to troubleshoot the engine problem and understand what failed. Only then did Prior go home.

“I had a stiff drink,” he said.

The need to rescue the Fix’s two-man crew came a few weeks before Prior and 10 other area firefighters are to take a course on the exact scenario of a rough-water rescue in heavy tides, high winds and understanding the decision making process to make “go or no-go decisions” on the fly, mid rescue.

“It was go-no-go,” Wilcox said. “We don’t ask for volunteers. We just do our jobs.”

“To be in that water was dangerous (Wednesday) night,” Nikiski Fire Chief James Baisden said. He was in one of the five skiffs heading for the Fix before the call went out they were safe.

Though he’s not yet trained, Prior said he knows the river mouth and the problems it presents for rescue operations in stormy conditions.

As Prior drove the contingency boat holding the tiller in one hand he held himself steady on the tow davit with the other as Pettit and Wichmen rode standing braced with rope in hand.

Prior’s mind raced through the details — does his team have good enough gear to stay alive if they wind up in the water, is the weather going to get worse and can they turn around? Mustang suits are good, but not quit right for rescue work.

“I want my guys in dry suits,” Prior said.

The plan, made up on the fly, was to stay close to the North Beach incase they needed to abandon the rescue while passing through mouth, his men monitored the radio while he focused on the 8-foot waves.

Looking left, south, Prior saw the Fix, but was concerned that it might have been an exposed rock. The overwatch up on the bluff confirmed it was the Fix and Prior turned into the seas, bow quartered to the waves.

Prior’s tiller arm began to cramp from fighting 8-foot seas with a 50-horsepower engine and adrenaline coursing through his blood caused his stomach to cramp. Always assessing and making decisions to keep going or to stop, the boat felt smaller than 21 feet he said.

“You can’t help the highs,” Prior said. “It’s a controlled use of adrenalin.”

When they found the Fix capsized only the bow and a bit of the cabin were above the water. Thinking there was only one man onboard, his first attempt failed and then the motor died.

“Oh God,” Prior thought. “We don’t need to become part of the incident.”

Before success came the rescue team was blow off the rescue by the wind and their small boat was beat around by the waves. At that time, it became a two-man rescue when they realized that a 49-year-old man and 71-year-old man were aboard.

Names of those rescued have not been released by authorities.

Restarted, Prior used the 50 horse engine to pin the pointed bow against the Fix’s cabin, the situation was less than perfect for the older man to make the boat. A 49-year-old jumped. The team grabbed the 71-year old by his legs, belt and torso then yanked him up and over the bow. Both were hypothermic, but the senior man was unable to move much at all.

Back on the beach

Back on the beach, Wilcox was working with federal authorites trying to raise more help. Many first responders were expecting air support from federal authorities.

“They thought it was on land,” Wilcox said, while explaining that he had the Coast Guard on one phone and the 176 Air Wing Rescue Command Center (AKRCC) on another.

Standard operations call for the Air Force to manage land searches and the Coast Guard to manage sea searches. Once command is assumed, it takes time to pass it back over.

Mitchell called the concern over the lack of Coast Guard response a “drastic miscommunication,” and said, at one point, the team in Kodiak on Wednesday was warming up the HH60 rescue chopper. He said that Kodiak rescue team did respond only later to retract the claim and say they were never given the go order.

At one point the Coast Guard did put out a call on channel 16 for assistance from any available boats in the area, Wilcox said.

While the folks on the bluff were talking to 911-dispatch at 7:08 p.m., the EPIRB started pinging in Juneau at 7:11 p.m.

The crew was lucky that a satellite was directly above to receive the signal. It can sometimes take an hour for a satellite to be above and receive the signal, Mitchell said.

The initial map from the RCC had it on the beach, Mitchell said, and by default the search and rescue mission command fell to the air wing.

“It was more prudent to let RCC (continue with command)” Mitchell said.

As of Friday, the Fix was showing on the RCC screens to be offshore at about Mile 13 on Kalifornski Beach Road.

The federal role in the accident has ended, except for the mandatory Marine Casualty Investigation into what happened and why it might have happened. Mitchell could not say how long that the investigation could take, but that five days were needed for all the paperwork to be collected.

After action review

As far as Prior is concerned, those involved in the entire operation did outstanding work. His team’s role was untenable without the over-watch on Kenai bluff directing his and other teams to the Fix. Involved were Kenai fire and police, Nikiski fire, at least two local businesses that offered skiffs and operators to navigate them and Central Emergency Services.

It’s getting busy in the river with dipnetters and up to 400 commercial boats working the Cook Inlet. On the busy days during the dipnet season, there are 1,000 boats in the lower 2.5 miles of river above the mouth, Prior pointed out.

“The 911 calls are going to come in regardless of training and equipment,” Prior said.

“We will respond in the best fashion we can,” Wilcox said.

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