For more than two-and-half hours, the Naval Air Station Oceana Search and Rescue (SAR) team fought 25-knot winds, 20-foot swells and an outside wind chill factor of minus 15 degrees F, in an effort to rescue survivors of the 605-foot collier, Marine Electric, after the merchantman capsized about 4 a.m., February 12, in heavy seas east of Chincoteague, Virginia.
Through the combined efforts of the NAS Oceana SAR team, Coast Guard 5th District air and sea units and other ships in the area, three survivors and the bodies of 24 dead crewman were recovered. Nine others are still missing.
The Coast Guard called the NAS Oceana Air Operations Duty Office at 4 a.m., requesting assistance to aid in the search. Air Traffic Controller Third Class (AC3) Mike Berry, on duty, put out calls for volunteers, since the station is not required to maintain weekend SAR watches.
Lieutenant Commander Bill Sontag, pilot and Flight Support Officer, organized a team of volunteers and lifted off in an H-3 helicopter at 5:15 a.m. His crew was on scene at 6:05 a.m. “We usually don’t participate in weekend search and rescues but in this instance, since there were so many people’s lives at stake aboard that ship and the Coast Guard desperately needed help, so we responded gladly,” said LCDR Sontag.
With LCDR Sontag on the mission were volunteers LTJG Kevin Lynch, co-pilot, AMS2 Stephen Scarborough, first crewman, AMS2 James McCann, swimmer and HM1 Welby Jackson, SAR corpsman.
After the SAR team left NAS Oceana, radio frequency became distorted. “Thanks to AMS2 Scarborough, a former Coast Guardsman, we were able to tune into the Coast Guard high frequency transmissions and listen to progress reports about the ship and its crew,” said LCDR Sontag.
Hopes of finding the two life rafts with crewman waiting rescue and warmth dimmed after the helicopter reached the scene. The two life rafts were empty and bodies floated helplessly in the turbulent, oil-slicked seas. From 1,000 feet up, the helicopter crewmen could see white caps and debris from the ship. In the darkness, however, all that could be seen of the victims were salt-water activated lights on life vests. “That’s when I knew all efforts to abandon ship in orderly fashion must have failed,” Sontag said.
Protected by a wet suit, SAR swimmer, AMS2 James McCann was lowered into the 37” water to aid victims. The only swimmer in the water, McCann began working with the Coast Guard Rescue Helicopter. “My main concern was to get as many crewman out of that cold water and into the helicopter,” said McCann. “Everybody I came to was immobile. It was hard to put each one in the basket because of the 20- to 25-foot swells going over my head,” he added.
While the Oceana helo searchlighted for survivors, McCann, working with a strange crew, succeeded in getting five victims into the basket and hoisted into the Coast Guard helicopter. He was hoisted into the helicopter when he began to struggle to stay afloat. Suffering from mild hypothermia, he was flown to Salisbury, Maryland Municipal Airport where he changed into dry clothes and warmed up. McCann later returned to NAS Oceana with his SAR team.
Editor’s note — The story above is the original story as it appeared in the Feb. 24, 1983 Jet Observer issue. The information below is condensed from a second story about SAR Swimmer AMS2 James McCann, which appeared in the same issue.
SAR Swimmer AMS2 James McCann was recognized Feb. 18 with the presentation of the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for Heroism during a ceremony in Hangar 23, where the Oceana SAR was headquartered. Presenting the medal was Atlantic Fleet Commander, Vice Adm. Thomas J. Kilcline. Other crew members received Letters of Commendation for “their voluntary participation in the rescue operations.”
Rear Adm. John D. Costello, commander of the Coast Guard’s 5th District praised the commitment of the SAR team “in one of the largest and most sudden search and rescue cases with which he’s been involved.”