MACDILL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. --
It was Saturday, April 7, 2018 and for the 6th Security Forces Squadron marine patrol unit, it was like any other day. They were routinely conducting patrols around the 7.2 mile coastline of MacDill Air Force Base, Florida.
Every weekend, boaters make their way onto the water to enjoy the mid-70 degree weather. But on this day, water conditions were rough; swells reached heights of six to seven feet tall and winds were around 30 knots.
At approximately 2:08 p.m., Airman 1st Class Christian Britton and Senior Airman Michael Roper, both 6th SFS marine patrolmen, received a “PAN-PAN” alert from U.S. Coast Guard Sector St. Petersburg.
“The call we received said there was a capsized vessel with around four individuals in the water near Davis Island,” said Roper. “Britton and I immediately began heading over to help and we spotted a helicopter hovering over one spot in the water, so we knew that had to be it.”
The helicopter, piloted by Todd Curabba, the chief pilot with Tampa Police Department’s Aviation Unit, was providing aerial support to the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office dive team who were on scene.
“There were victims holding onto a buoy in the channel, and we were told to hold fast because HCSO’s rescue diver was making his way to give them floatation devices," said Roper.
At this point, the situation seemed to be under control. The diver assisted the individuals in the water, and Tampa Fire and Rescue was waiting on the island to transport them to Tampa General Hospital.
But then the helicopter stated over the VHF radio that they spotted another person in the water.
“The HCSO boat had already left with the four rescued, so our boat was the only one in the immediate area,” said Roper. “We headed over to the location that Tampa PD gave us.”
Moments later, the two patrolmen saw a man sprawled out on the shore of one of the spoil islands in the channel, not moving. Britton told Roper that the man looked unresponsive, and dove into the rough bay waters without hesitation, and rushed toward shore.
“I kept the boat steady while Britton made his way to the man,” said Roper. “I then contacted an additional patrol boat of ours to help because the water was so bad.”
The additional boat came with Staff Sgts. Adrian O’Neil and Vaughn Faubel on board. Britton made contact with the man, who was around 75 years old. He gave him a life preserver and instructed that they swim together back to the marine patrol boat. The man gasped, “I can’t swim.”
“I knew Britton wouldn’t be able to swim the man back to the boat alone because of the water conditions, so I dove in to help with the rescue,” said O’Neil.
Roper then maneuvered the security forces vessel as close as possible to the three, without running aground.
“For me, that was the most difficult part because I had to turn off the engines to prepare for them to come on board,” said Roper. “And the waves were so bad that it only took seconds for the boat to start drifting toward land.”
After multiple attempts to keep the boat steady, Roper helped Britton and O’Neil bring the man on board. TFR notified them that they were standing by at the Davis Island boat ramp to receive and treat the man.
“We were making a patrol flight within Tampa when our neighboring sector dispatcher received the 911 call about the capsized boat,” said Curabba, “I have seen a great deal in my 17 years of airborne law enforcement, and all my training came together in a matter of minutes that day."
“It was incredible how all of our agencies worked together seamlessly for the common good of saving a life.”