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Aircrew, pararescueman reflect on life-saving mission

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. James Hodgman
  • 60th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs

TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – After a long day of fishing in international waters approximately 1,300 miles southwest of San Diego, disaster struck.

Three fishermen aboard the Mazatun, a fishing boat, were injured when a 25-ton crane fell on them. Two of the men suffered life-threatening injuries.

The men, all Mexican citizens, were trying to retrieve fishing nets when the crane collapsed. The nets became entangled around the Mazatun’s propellers, making it impossible for the ship to travel on its own.

While the men were moved to the Mazatun’s sister ship, the Tamara, at approximately 8 p.m. July 9, the U.S. Coast Guard’s Rescue Coordination Center in Alameda, California, received a distress call. 

Due to the seriousness of the injuries, the lack of professional medical care aboard the Tamara and the potential delay before reaching treatment, the Coast Guard contacted the U.S. Air Force Rescue Coordination Center to request pararescue medical assistance.

At 10:15 a.m. July 10, seven pararescuemen, a combat rescue officer and a flight doctor from the 79th and 48th Rescue Squadrons deployed from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona. The rescue team completed an aerial refueling with a Travis AFB KC-10 Extender over the Pacific Ocean and at 4:31 p.m. July 10, they were on the Tamara treating patients.

“When the 25-ton crane collapsed, it struck one of the men in the head and landed on another man’s foot,” said Master Sgt. Robert Watkins, 48th RQS pararescue team leader. “We prepped ourselves before arriving at the Tamara to treat potential head trauma, as well as a possible traumatic brain injury for the first patient. We were also concerned about the second patient’s foot as it was likely crushed.”

Watkins said his team developed an initial patient assessment and treatment plan while they flew to the Tamara and coordinated with multiple agencies to get more information. Once the rescue team was on the Tamara, they assessed each patient and began treating them making adjustments along the way.

“Once we got on scene, we found the man who was struck in the head had a serous laceration to his head and was in a lot of pain,” Watkins said. “He also was experiencing a tingling sensation in his hands so we feared a possible spinal injury. He also had hydraulic burns all over his body.”

“The man who was hit in the foot, his foot was crushed and he had multiple broken bones,” Watkins continued. “We were also concerned about internal injuries he could have.”

The rescue team worked to stabilize the men and prepared to provide extended medical care while the Tamara made a 700-mile journey to the nearest land: Socorro Island, a Mexican possession 370 miles off Mexico’s western coast.

“We had to swap out dressings, ensure we had enough medication on hand and give that medication in the proper doses, so we developed a patient care plan for each patient so we could stabilize them and treat them for the entire trip to Socorro, which took 58 hours,” Watkins said.

Along the way to Socorro Island, the rescue team coordinated a resupply of medical equipment, medication and blood. The supplies were airdropped to the Tamara at 2:43 a.m. July 11.

Maj. Jennifer Carter, 60th Operations Support Squadron KC-10 Flying Training Unit instructor pilot, was the aircraft commander for the refueling flight that enabled the rescue team to get to the Tamara. She shared what the rescue mission meant to her.

“This mission is why I do what I do,” she said. “The flight was one of my students’ first in the KC-10 and he got to be a part of the most meaningful mission we do. I’m so grateful we were able to help. It was the quintessential demonstration of ‘No Bounds.’”

Carter said her crew was completing pre-flight checks on their KC-10, expecting to fly a training sortie, when they got the call to support the rescue effort.

“We were initially told people were overboard at sea,” she said. “Our entire team quickly worked to ensure we had enough fuel to provide the C-130 with more than 40,000 pounds of fuel, if necessary. The maintenance team was on top of everything and ensured we had everything we needed to leave on time. We also coordinated several things along the way, including diplomatic clearances in case we needed to enter Mexican air space.”

Carter’s crew refueled the C-130 over the Pacific Ocean, ensuring the aircraft had enough fuel to get to the Tamara and fly back to Davis Monthan AFB.

“Looking back, it was amazing to be a part of this mission, but the pararescuemen who jumped out of the C-130 and cared for those men are heroes,” Carter said. “They saved those men’s lives.”

The mission also impacted Master Sgt. Willie Morton, 418th Flight Test Squadron boom operator, who was one of two boom operators on the KC-10.

“I saw a direct reflection of how important my job is,” Morton said. “To be able to perform aerial refueling in support of a mission to save lives was amazing. When we were notified of the mission, we didn’t know who was in trouble, we just knew someone needed our help.”

“We have compassion for human life, it doesn’t matter what country you’re from,” Morton continued. “We are proud to be part of saving lives and we would do it again tomorrow.”

The KC-10 offloaded 30,000 pounds of fuel to the C-130, enabling it to complete the rescue mission. While Morton said he’s proud of supporting the rescue, the praise for the success of the mission should go to the rescue team.

“The pararescue guys are incredible, what they do can be the difference of whether someone comes home or not, and they deserve all the credit,” he said. “We gave them some fuel, but they saved the day.”

The Tamara arrived at Socorro Island July 13 at 6:21 p.m., and the fishermen were transferred to a Mexican navy medical facility. The men stayed on the island for observation overnight and were flown to Mazatlan, Mexico, the following morning for further treatment.

“Being able to help people is a good feeling,” Watkins said. “We train for those moments every day and being able to have our training pay off and be able to have the impact we did, that’s pretty incredible.”

Watkins also said the rescue was only possible because of everyone doing their part.

“From the maintenance guys who got the aircraft spun up, to the aircrew who got us out there, coordinating with the Coast Guard, State Department, Travis AFB, the Mexican government; there were many moving pieces with this mission and it was an extremely complicated rescue. It took everyone to make it happen,” he said.

The company that operates the Mazatun shares Watkins’ sentiment and sent a thank you note via email with a message for all involved in the rescue effort.

“There are not enough words to give you thanks for your support to our crew,” the note read. “Now we see how big your heart is. Please give all your partners a big hug and our sincere thanks for all your support efforts.”

The Airmen who served on the KC-10 crew are listed below.

Maj. Jennifer Carter, 60th OSS FTU KC-10 instructor pilot and aircraft commander

Capt. David Burleson, 9th Air Refueling Squadron, KC-10 pilot and aircraft commander upgrade student

2nd Lt. Adam Smith, 60th OSS KC-10 pilot and initial qualification student

Tech. Sgt. Nathan Rogers, 6th ARS KC-10 flight engineer

Master Sgt. Willie Morton, 418th FLTS boom operator

Tech. Sgt. Matthew Giles, 418th FLTS boom operator