They parachuted into the Atlantic Ocean from a mere 1,400 feet in total darkness, with thousands of pounds of equipment and two boats. And that wasn’t even the most incredible thing they did that day.
Senior Master Sergeant Erik Blom had no inkling of what was to come when he put his kids on the school bus as he did most Mondays. He was supposed to have the day off, but he got a phone call from his team commander about a boating incident they were tracking off the coast.
“I told my wife I was just going to run into the office and check to see if the mission materialized into anything,” Blom said. He headed into work. He wouldn’t see his family for a week.
“Work” for these New York Air National Guardsmen is a little irregular. They are part of the 106th Rescue Wing, an elite team of highly trained, highly skilled pararescuemen and combat rescue officers who get called on to rescue civilians in trouble, and sometimes jump out of planes and helicopters to do it. They are known as the PJs.
PJs conduct civilian rescue operations inside the United States as well as overseas. They pick up wounded US military servicemen in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as respond to emergencies in the US, including operations to rescue hurricane victims off their roofs as storms rage and flood waters surge.
On that Monday, April 24, 2017, some of the team were training with the New York City Fire Department, practicing high-angle rescues using ropes and climbing gear. Others were on the firing range and another was working out in the gym.
Most PJs also have civilian jobs: Blom is a policeman and Jed Smith is a physician’s assistant in the emergency room at Geisinger Medical Center in Pennsylvania.
But when this particular mission was given the green light. the urgency was such that some members of the team were given police escorts out of Manhattan.
The task force consisted of the following:
Mission Commander and Combat Rescue Officer Major Edward “Sean” Boughal.
Technical Sgt. Jordan St Clair.
Senior Master Sgt. Erik Blom.
Staff Sgt. Bryan Dalere.
Master Sgt. Jed Smith, a physician assistant.
PJ 5: Senior Airman Mike Hartman.
PJ 6: Technical Sgt. Joe Piccoli, in-flight support.
Combat Rescue Officer Major Martin Viera.
Lt. Col. Stephen Rush, tele-medicine.
Explosion on board the Tamar
This mission was different. It was urgent, it was complex, and every minute mattered.
The emergency was a mass casualty incident on a ship 1,300 miles East of Cape Cod. An explosion had occurred on board the Tamar, a 623-foot Slovenian-owned cargo carrier, severely burning four sailors.
Two Canadian Coast Guard ships with some medical personnel on board were also rushing to help, but the Tamar was simply too far away. And the state of the victims was too dire to waste even a couple of hours waiting for a ship to arrive.
The weather was also far from ideal and it was getting later and later, and darker and darker. The swells in the Atlantic were between six to nine feet. Not huge, but not exactly smooth.
“Right off the bat when I got the initial intelligence on it, I was like, yep, we are the only ones who can do this. No question,” the team’s commander, Major Edward “Sean” Boughal, explained.
It was the type of mission they prepared and trained for every day, but one that rarely ever happens. It is the type of mission the PJs were formed to tackle.
The distance was too great for any rescue helicopter to make it from the United States; the PJs would have to parachute into the Atlantic Ocean from a mere 1,400 feet in total darkness, with thousands of pounds of equipment and two inflatable boats.
Due to the enormous distance out to sea and the low cloud ceiling the PJs opted to parachute out of their C-130 transport plane at a very low altitude using what is called a static line, which opens up their parachutes automatically.
As they climbed onto the jump ramp, wearing green and red chem lights on their fronts and backs and flashing beacons so they didn’t collide with one another in the air and could find one another as they plunged into the black, freezing ocean.
Their medical equipment and the rubber, inflatable Zodiac boats would be kicked out on parachutes as well. They would fall at about 17 feet per second. Their exposure suits would likely keep the cold water out once they touched down, but given the sea swells it would be a tough swim to the boats. The Tamar was lit up as they jumped, but other than the strobes on their helmets, there was little other light.
In wartime there are quick reaction forces to help the PJs, air support to get them out of a jam, or at the very least a drone overhead providing video assistance in the case of a complex mission such as this one.
But this mission was just too unique, it unfolded too quickly, and the ship was too remote.
Even the C-130 was stretching its operational capacity flying on extremely low fuel. The Tamar couldn’t respond if there was a problem with the PJs’ jump, and any other vessels were hours away. If something went wrong, the PJs only had each other. “We were the rescue piece,” Blom said. They were not deterred.
Once the team had landed in the water and loaded their equipment into the two rubber boats, they approached the Tamar.
Two of the four victims had already died from their injuries. The airmen boarded the vessel using ladders and immediately set up an impromptu emergency room. The two survivors had third-degree burns over more than half of their bodies, including their faces, arms and hands. “
“It was severely complex. It was a mass casualty. One or two medics would be completely overwhelmed,” Boughal said. The team of seven triaged the victims and managed their pain. One was in especially bad shape.
One patient was a 23-year-old Slovenian man. He said he was struggling to breathe so the team secured his airway using a tube in a medical procedure known as endotracheal intubation and laryngoscopy and placed him on a ventilator to keep him alive.
The second patient, a Filipino sailor, also said he couldn’t breathe hours later, but the medics found his airway was too swollen from the burns for a tube. They instead performed a cricothyrotomy, cutting a slit in his throat and sticking a tube into it to allow him to breathe.
Both had terrible swelling from the severe burns, so the medics performed “debridement” of the burns, removing the dead tissue. They also performed “escharotomies,” making incisions in the burned tissue to reduce pressure and swelling on the limbs and allow blood to flow.
A normal emergency room or burns unit would be sterile. They would have special equipment to provide lights, water, intravenous fluids, pain medicine, and a team of nurses, physicians assistants and doctors on call to help. These two victims had just seven guys to help them. The airmen took turns sleeping. They worked 90 minutes on, three hours off.
The team also spoke to the medical director of the wing, Dr. Stephen Rush, numerous times throughout the ordeal. Rush is an oncology surgeon in civilian life.
The team managed to keep the two alive.
36 hours later they were loaded onto a Portuguese helicopter with two of the PJs and one combat rescue officer and transported to Portugal for recovery. Both survived.
The NY airmen have been awarded the highest military honors by the Slovenian president.
They are also in the running for the Air Force “Rescue of the Year.” Most of the men tell CNN that this was undoubtedly the most amazing mission they have ever taken part in during their careers, including various combat tours abroad.
But the best part of the mission was yet to come.
In February 2018, the team flew to Slovenia to meet with one of their victims.
During the mission he was simply “Patient 1”.
That day as they watched him walk towards him, they hugged and shook his hands. He had a name – Borut Skrbec – and a family. The airmen said they felt humbled by his strength.
“It’s an amazing feeling” Boughal told CNN. “Very emotional after having suppressed those emotions during our mission.”
“It has been described as a difficult mission, but I think difficult is the wrong word. The team is so highly trained, even tough missions are easy,” the PJs commander, Lt. Col. Kerry McCauley, said. “I would describe it as a very dangerous mission that the team was more than willing to conduct in order to save the lives of others. These things we do that others may live.”