SITKA (AP) -- A Coast Guard helicopter crew from Air Station Sitka has been given the nation's highest peacetime aviation award for rescuing three fishermen from the Gulf of Alaska last year.
Lt. Cmdr. Robert Yerex, Lt. James O'Keefe, Petty Officer 1st Class Christian Blanco and Petty Officer 3rd Class Noel Hutton were presented Tuesday with the Distinguished Flying Cross.
The men earned the award for rescuing three people from the fishing vessel Becca Dawn which sank during a storm in November.
The 52-foot boat went down so fast that the crew did not have enough time to radio a mayday. They only had time to trigger their Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon as they abandoned ship in their survival suits. The EPIRB signal alerted the Coast Guard to the emergency.
A fourth crewmember, Olin Nash, is presumed to have gone down with the boat.
The helicopter crew battled high winds and seas running to 45 feet in making the rescue. Blowing snow and sea spray also hampered the effort.
After hoisting the three fishermen aboard the helicopter during a grueling, 30-minute operation, the aircrew continued looking for the missing fourth man.
The pilot finally was forced to end the search when the helicopter's fuel gauge indicated they had just enough fuel to reach Yakutat.
''The case obviously required extraordinary airmanship and tenacity,'' Coast Guard Adm. Tom Barrett told the Chilkat Valley News in a recent interview.
''It would have been easy to turn around. The crew was nauseous, the wind was gusting to 60 knots and it was pitch black,'' Barrett said. ''They got there quick and they stayed.''
It was the second time in five years that a Coast Guard helicopter crew from Sitka has been given the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Flyers involved in the l998 Gulf of Alaska rescue of the crew of the longliner LaConte in even worse weather also won the award.
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