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GW Battle Group assists in Gulf Air recovery

By Journalist 3rd Class Paul Newell, USS George Washington Public Affairs

August 23, 2000 - USS GEORGE WASHINGTON, At Sea (NNS) -- Commander Kurt Martin was standing duty as the battle watch captain in the Tactical Flag Command Center aboard USS George Washington (CVN 73) when the sobering sentences that would set off a chain reaction appeared on his computer screen: "Received information that Gulf airplane crashed on approach to Bahrain International Airport; Contact C5F (Commander Fifth Fleet) to ascertain assistance required..."

Martin, assistant chief of staff for material on the Cruiser Destroyer Group 2 staff, immediately contacted USS George Washington's operations officer and command duty officer at the time, Cmdr. Dana Dervay, who relayed the word to GW's commanding officer, Capt. W. J. McCarthy.

Not 10 miles away from where George Washington was anchored during a port visit to Bahrain, Gulf Air flight 072, with 143 people aboard, had crashed into the Arabian Gulf during an attempt to land at Bahrain International Airport on Aug. 23. The George Washington Battle Group crisis action team assembled and in less than an hour had coordinated the launch of helicopters and boats. Together with Bahraini forces, the U.S. Navy began search and rescue operations.

Search and rescue (SAR) swimmers from the Jacksonville, Fla.-based Helicopter Anti-Submarine Warfare Squadron (HS) 15 lifted off in two of the squadron's SH-60F helicopters, which are equipped to handle SAR missions.

The first swimmer in the water at the crash site was Aviation Antisubmarine Warfare Systems Operator(AW/NAC) John Casale. He had been relaxing and doing laundry when he got the call to help. The Long Island, N.Y., native said he was not prepared for what he found.

"We couldn't see anything but black until we got the illuminating lights in the area," Casale said. "But once the lights were (present), we'd see a piece of wreckage, life vests, a victim, or clothing.

"It was confusing because when I went into the water, I'd become disoriented, because the hoist wire was twisting me in circles," recalled Casale. He was trying to recover one of the victims but was having difficulties. "I'd actually lost sight of the body and started grabbing shirts, thinking it was the victim. I finally found the body and hooked it onto the strap. I remember every detail about it. It was sobering."

Additional help from USS George Washington arrived at the crash site in several boats, including a rigid hull inflatable boat (RHIB), three 50-foot-long utility boats, the Captain's Gig and two liberty ferries. Over 80 Sailors joined the grim search for survivors.

Another SAR swimmer, Boatswain's Mate 3rd Class (BM3) Alan Field from GW's deck department, was listening to the new CD player he bought in Bahrain when he heard the announcement to muster the crisis assistance team. He and a fellow SAR swimmer, 3rd division's BM3 Bryan Hadley, quickly dressed and went to the RHIB, then spent more than eight hours swimming in debris-filled water, hoping to find people still alive. Though he spotted no signs of life, Field said he remained hopeful throughout the rescue.

"I didn't know there weren't any survivors," Field said. "We were looking for survivors the entire night and didn't realize until we left in the morning that there weren't any. It was a real hopeless feeling, but we did our best to restore some dignity to the scene."

Meanwhile, the ship's medical team had been called into action. A team of three doctors and 18 hospital corpsmen stood by to treat survivors. However, when no living passengers were found, the GW medical department changed their focus and joined the ship and air wing chaplains in providing counseling services to those returning from the crash scene.

Divers and swimmers from SEAL Team 2 and the Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team, both embarked aboard George Washington, also joined the search and rescue efforts. And three ships of the multinational Maritime Interception Force - United States destroyers USS Milius (DDG 69) and USS Oldendorf (DD 972), and the Canadian frigate HMCS Calgary - were directed to the crash scene.

After the rescue efforts ended, Capt. McCarthy praised the Sailors aboard GW for their quick response and tireless efforts during the tragic evolution.

"I cannot be more proud of your response to that crisis," McCarthy said. "It was outstanding across the board. You displayed the honor, courage and commitment that make our Navy great ... those of you who participated displayed the best of human nature."

"The skill and courage, especially of those in and over the water at the crash site, were an inspiration to us all," said Rear Adm. Gary Roughead, commander, George Washington Battle Group and Task Force 50. "They never hesitated or wavered. Their tireless efforts, undaunted spirit and overwhelming compassion will serve to bring closure to the victims' friends and loved ones, and will be long remembered."

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