COAST GUARD AIR STATION ELIZABETH CITY, N.C. -- With their plane running low on fuel and darkness approaching, the crew of the Coast Guard C-130 got word from headquarters to call off its search and rescue mission.
With that order, Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Jose Zuniga, and co-pilot Lt. Ian Bastek banked the plane south and headed back to this base on North Carolina's Outer Banks.
After some six hours of scouring the Pamlico Sound on this Aug. 24 mission, there was no sight of the PIW -- Coast Guard jargon for "person in water" -- known by the C-130 crewmembers only as "white male, age 39, with Hepatitis A, wearing orange life jacket and nothing else."
The search and rescue calls come frequently here. According to statistics on the station's Web site, its SAR teams average nearly 360 missions each year, and over the years have rescued or assisted more than 10,000 people.
During a winter storm in December 2000, Coast Guard crews from the Elizabeth City station rescued 34 people off a sinking cruise ship. In September 1999 during flooding caused by Hurricane Floyd, 463 people were rescued on one SAR mission. But sometimes the missions turn up empty, as did this week's search of Pamlico Sound. "Of course we are disappointed," Zuniga said upon landing. "Whenever you can't find someone, it makes you feel sad."
During the intense search, the crew flew four search patterns, varying altitudes from 1,000 to 500 feet to get a closer look. Each of the eight crewmembers had eyes on the water in hopes of spotting anything that might be the PIW. Whenever an object was spotted, the plane doubled back at a lower altitude until someone could figure out what it was. Most of what they identified was floating trash and debris.
The crew speculated about hopes of finding the man alive. There were several factors in his favor: the water was 80 degrees and quite calm; the sound is considered shallow water, just 20 feet deep in most areas; and there are dozens of buoys just about everywhere.
In back of the plane, bundled in bright orange canvas bags, an assortment of rescue equipment sat ready to be deployed by parachute if the man was located. The bundles included life rafts, radios, survival kits, pumps for vessels taking on water, and survival suits.
The C-130 was joined by four Coast Guard ships, as well as a U-60 Jayhawk helicopter from the Elizabeth City station. "Whenever you do a search, you want to saturate the area," Zuniga explained.
Zuniga, a 13-year veteran who has flown many search and rescue missions, said he knew the most likely reason the search was unsuccessful. "The reality is that most likely this person is dead," he said. Drowning victims, he explained, sink to the bottom and usually surface days later. The man's body has yet to be found.
Because the search had lasted late into the evening, some of the crew radioed the maintenance hangar to tell fellow crewmembers there to alert wives and families that they would be home late. Zuniga said it not unusual for a search and rescue mission to last "12 to 13 hours without stopping."
For the Coast Guard to provide search and rescue response around the country around the clock, it has several facilities like the one in Elizabeth City situated throughout the East, West and Gulf coasts, as well as in Alaska. There are also stations in Hawaii, Guam, and Puerto Rico, the Great Lakes and inland U.S. waterways.
The C-130 Hercules and the H-60 Jayhawk helicopter are the service's primary rescue vehicles. The Elizabeth City station has four C-130s and five H-60 helicopters.
For rescue operations, the unit has equipment that enable it to detect persons and vessels in the water, including forward-looking infrared radar, direction- finding radio equipment and night-vision goggles.
Although search and rescue is a big part of the mission at the station, Zuniga said the station also is heavily involved with drug interdiction and international ice patrol.
He said that after the sinking of the Titanic, the Coast Guard was called upon to help monitor the drift of icebergs so safe passageways for commercial ships could be plotted.
Also, he said, the station helps to enforce maritime laws and responds to environmental situations. For example, he said, during a recent mission, his crew noticed a fishing vessel that appeared to be dumping its bilge into the water. Zuniga said the ship's area was marked and its action videotaped. That information, he said, was passed on the Marine safety office back on the station. "They will find the vehicle and investigate further," he said.