Coast Guard's 'life-or-death'
decision to close Oregon coast air rescue facility could endanger commercial
By Terry Dillman
A death sentence.
That's what folks who live, work, and play on Oregon's central coast are calling the US Coast Guard's decision to shut down its air facility in Newport before the end of the year. If so, the nearest rescue helicopter bases are in North Bend (near Coos Bay) – 95 miles and another hour in flight time south – and Astoria, 133 miles and more than an hour's flight time north.
Even zipped into the newest generation of survival suits, spending an extra hour awaiting rescue in the icy, rough waters off the Oregon coast is a gamble, fishermen note. To be plucked alive from the frigid, briny Pacific, minutes and seconds matter. Ginny Goblirsch, co-owner of a family fishing business, said most commercial fishermen and marine science researchers are equipped for survival, but recreational fishermen, boaters and other ocean users and beach visitors generally aren't.
One hour without a survival suit or life raft, fishermen say, would turn almost any Coast Guard response from a rescue mission to recovery of lifeless bodies.
Goblirsch – a retired Oregon State University-Oregon Sea Grant marine extension agent specializing in vessel safety and past member of the USCG Fishing Vessel Safety Advisory Committee – is also a long-time member of the Newport Fishermen's Wives (NFW), which actively supports commercial fishermen and their families and communities on Oregon's central coast in many ways. In fact, the group launched the community, state and regional effort that originally brought the air station to Newport. After lobbying for the helicopter's presence for years in the wake of several tragic accidents, the group intensified its request – demand, really – for the USCG to station a quick-response helicopter at the Newport airport after November 15, 1985, when the sea claimed the lives of three fishermen aboard the F/V Lasseigne – skipper Kenneth Lasseigne and crew members Randy Bacon and Jean Yves Guinsbourg.
According to the official report of the incident, Lasseigne radioed the Coast Guard for help at 7:24 a.m. – his boat was taking on water and listing. At 7:28 a.m., he reported being unable to get into the fish hold to find the source of the infiltrating seawater. Coast Guard officials advised them to don their life jackets, and dispatched helicopters from Astoria and North Bend, along with lifeboats from USCG stations in Depoe Bay (13 miles north of Newport) and Yaquina Bay (Newport) to Lasseigne's reported position 20 miles off of Siletz Bay (22 miles north of Newport). The Astoria helicopter crew arrived first to find the boat capsized. They retrieved Bacon, barely alive, transporting him to the Lincoln City hospital, where doctors and nurses tried unsuccessfully for three hours to revive him. The Depoe Bay lifeboat recovered Lasseigne's body. Cause of death for both fishermen was determined to be hypothermia and drowning. Would-be rescuers never found Guinsbourg.
The Astoria aircrew arrived on the scene at 8:38 a.m., just over an hour after Lasseigne's first radio transmission.
"Quick response and rescue are key to surviving cold water immersion," Goblirsch said, noting that the official report indicated the sea at the time was "typical" for off the Oregon coast in November, meaning cold and treacherous. "This is a classic case of sudden capsizing with little or no time to properly don survival gear. Had the helicopter been on scene quicker, there's an excellent chance those young men could have been saved."
The air station began operating in Newport in 1987, but it literally took an act of Congress in 1986 to get it. Oregon's congressional delegation led by US Representative Les Aucoin and US Senator Mark Hatfield pushed through an act appropriating $15 million for the USCG to build and operate the air station. Newport and Lincoln County officials donated land and services, and community members did everything they could to accommodate. Several attempts to close the facility since then were thwarted by the on-going evidence of its necessity. Community members, especially commercial fishermen, feel betrayed by this latest attempt, and some believe it could require another act of Congress to keep it under the circumstances.
Quick and Quiet
The sense of betrayal derives from the way USCG officials handled the pending closure. They made the decision without input from community members and without warning, along with an expiration date just one day prior to the traditional opening of the Dungeness crab season – Oregon's busiest, most lucrative, but most hazardous fishery.
Although rumblings about a potential closure arose at the beginning of the year, state and federal government leaders expressed conflicting assurances, ranging from pending closure at the end of 2015 to no closure at all.
So when official word arrived on October 2 that the facility would close effective November 30, it caught nearly everyone off-guard.
"It happened so quietly and so quickly, it disturbs me," said Terry Thompson, a Lincoln County commissioner and well-seasoned commercial fisherman, who considers the Newport air station "an integral part of the fishing industry today."
Goblirsch deemed the decision "unbelievable," saying it would "leave us in a perfect storm" of compromised marine safety.
"Newport is the main hub for all fishing and marine research activities in this state," she said. "The fleet has experienced tremendous growth over the years, including large numbers of recreational vessels venturing farther and farther offshore. This closure would severely jeopardize the safety of fishermen and marine researchers from all over Oregon and the Pacific Northwest."
USCG officials said the closure stems from federal government directives under the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014 in trying to mitigate the lingering effects of the sequestration budget cuts that began in 2013. The Newport facility is among numerous others the Coast Guard had the option of closing.
"In these extraordinarily challenging fiscal times, the Coast Guard continuously evaluates how best to allocate limited resources while addressing the most pressing risks," Rear Admiral Richard Gromlich, commander of Seattle-based USCG Sector 13 that oversees operations in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana, said in announcing the closure.
Gromlich noted that advances in the search-and-rescue system during the past decade would "enable our crews to effectively protect and assist mariners across the Northwest."
Coast Guard officials say the remaining Oregon Coast air stations at Astoria and North Bend, combined with new capabilities offered by the Rescue 21 command, control, and direction-finding communication network in place all along the entire Pacific Coast, would offer sufficient coverage to the waters off Newport. The upgraded radio monitoring and direction finding capabilities, together with improved integration and incident management, would allow the Coast Guard to meet its standards and requirements for on-scene assistance, even from a distance. The extra flying time to reach Newport from Astoria or North Bend, they add, is well under the national standard of getting a rescue helicopter on scene within two hours.
Coast Guard and Homeland Security bean counters say the move would save $6 million annually.
The announcement galvanized Oregon central coast folks – commercial and recreational fishermen, environmentalists, fire-and-rescue personnel, longshoremen, loggers, local, state and federal government and port representatives, and others, who were quick in responding. A tidal wave of letters, online pleas, and telephone calls focused on getting the attention of Admiral Paul F. Zukunft, USCG commandant, with whom the final decision rests.
Newport folks, commercial fishermen among them, believe the Coast Guard administration in Seattle is "out of touch" with the realities of conditions off Oregon's central coast and at their busy Yaquina Bay port.
The Coast Guard itself, they note, designates the entire Pacific Coast north of Point Reyes, California, as a cold-water area requiring immersion survival suits aboard inspected vessels.
The frigid and treacherous Northwest waters and traffic to the Port of Newport – including Oregon's largest base of commercial fishing vessels, a booming recreational fishing industry, the presence of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Pacific Marine Operations center, and the port's newly-renovated international with the anticipated start of log shipments soon and the possibility of bringing in small cruise ships for coastal cruises – create conditions, they say, that will cost lives without helicopter support nearby.
Local officials say helicopters from Newport are dispatched an average of 50 times per year for all types of water rescue efforts.
Newport is about 40 minutes away at cruising speed for the MH-65 Dolphins stationed at North Bend, and an hour for the MH-60 Jayhawks from Astoria. That extra time, fishermen say, is too long for anyone to be in icy northern Pacific waters before the fatal onset of hypothermia. In addition, the aircraft currently stationed in Newport (although technically part of the North Bend air station – crews fly to the Newport airport daily for watch rotation, with maintenance and support at North Bend) won't return to North Bend. Captain Todd Trimpert, USCG Sector North Bend commander, said the Coast Guard would transfer two of the sector's five helicopters elsewhere and mothball another, drastically reducing the total number of helicopters available to respond to emergencies off the Oregon coast.
Newport, Port of Newport and Lincoln County officials scheduled an October 20 town hall session, where Gromlich joined the commanders of the Depoe Bay, Yaquina Bay (Newport) and North Bend stations in listening to concerns from a crowd of about 400 people.
After promising to attend the town hall, Coast Guard officials initially reneged, based on a decision "at the highest level of Coast Guard leadership." Pressured by Oregon's congressional delegation – US senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley and US representatives Kurt Schrader, Peter DeFazio, Earl Blumenauer and Suzanne Bonamici – Coast Guard leaders reversed course, showing up and listening quietly, but offering little hope.
"I can't do anything about that as far as that closure date or offer to delay the closing in any way," Gromlich, a former helicopter search-and-rescue pilot who served at the Sector North Bend base in the early 1990s, told them. The ultimate decision, he noted, still lies with Zukunft.
That didn't stop folks from pointing out what they say is misguided folly on the part of Coast Guard brass.
During the town hall session, NFW president Jennifer Schock-Stevenson presented a petition with more than 18,000 signatures to US Representative Kurt Schrader for delivery to Zukunft.
"We are aware of the dangers accompanying this livelihood," said Schock- Stevenson, who is part of a second generation fishing family. "The Oregon coast will always be an unsafe and unforgiving environment that requires the deepest respect. While our fishing fleet has embraced new technologies and fishing methods to enhance safety, and even though the Coast Guard has improved response time, the technology is still not available to give us the kind of coverage we need without a local helicopter."
She called the timing of the decision "an ill-advised gamble with human lives."
Ginny Goblirsch and Terry Thompson both said that whoever drummed up the closure idea doesn't "get it" about marine conditions off the Pacific Northwest coast. They and others say the national standard two-hour response time is unrealistic in the Pacific Ocean, with its cold waters and treacherous swells, and along the Oregon coast, with its imposing rocky headlands and high winds.
"It is way past time to change the standard to reflect real conditions, particularly when considering response time in cold versus warm waters," Goblirsch noted. "One hour is too long for our region, never mind two. The standard here, where the water is very cold, the sea very rough, and the coastline very rocky should be 30 minutes, at most."
The proposed changes, she and others pointed out, cuts Coast Guard lifesaving services in half for the entire Oregon coast, with direct impacts on the northern California and southern Washington coasts. "You blame Congress for having to show consolidation of assets, yet remain silent about the ramifications of the air station closure," Goblirsch added. "You say search-and-rescue missions are a Coast Guard priority while you gut basic services."
Some folks suggested that priorities in the USCG's 500-page-plus budget were skewed and filled with misappropriations, questioning, for example, the decision to shut down the air station to save $6 million while still aiming to spend $8 million on a small arms shooting range in Virginia next year. The Coast Guard falls under the aegis of Homeland Security, which Thompson said plans to build eight more cutters at a cost of $8 million apiece. While cutters are a vital part of the Coast Guard fleet, fishermen say they aren't nearly as quick or efficient as helicopters, especially in situations when minutes or even seconds make a difference. A few others who looked beyond the USCG budget into the labyrinthine Homeland Security budget have suggested that the Director of Homeland Security raided millions from the budgets of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Transportation Safety Administration, and the Coast Guard to cover shortfalls created by congressional failure to approve funding for border security. Several folks who spoke at the town hall questioned whether Homeland Security anti-terrorism and other missions were sucking the life out of the Coast Guard's lifesaving mission.
Michelle Longo Eder – successful attorney and author of "Salt in Our Blood: Memoir of a Fisherman's Wife" – said Newport is one of the highest catch commercial fishing ports in the nation. Home to more than 250 commercial fishing vessels, Newport also receives catches from another 500 or so vessels plying the ocean from California to Alaska. She emphasized the importance of the helicopter's presence by recalling a tragedy that occurred on the first day of Dungeness crab season in December 2001, when her family's commercial fishing vessel capsized, claiming four lives: her son, Ben Eder, and crew members Rob Thompson, Jared Hamrick and Steve Langlot.
"They were in the ocean for an hour before their overturned boat was discovered by another fishing vessel and the Coast Guard notified," she said. "Our men had been in the freezing water too long to survive. So please stop telling people that arriving in an hour will be fine."
Eder, also a past member of the USCG Fishing Vessel Safety Advisory Committee, urged them to make the Coast Guard search-and-rescue mission a priority over budget-cutting, noting that making the mission search-and-rescue rather than search-and-recovery requires the quickest response time possible. The stated one-hour flight time from North Bend or Astoria, she noted, doesn't factor in time for incident verification, asset allocation, and pre-flight checks.
"When things go wrong out there, as they sometimes do, we trust that the rescue helicopter will be there in minutes," she concluded. "We have survival suits and life rafts, EPIRBs to locate vessels. We take safety classes. We train and we drill. We voluntarily have our vessels examined for safety. But nothing replaces a swift rescue."
Heather Mann, executive director of the Newport-based Midwater Trawlers Cooperative, which represents 23 trawl catcher vessels, summed up the situation succinctly: "This is simply a matter of life or death for our fishermen."
Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber agrees. In an October 13 letter to Admiral Zukunft, the governor noted Newport's importance as a commercial fishing port, which he said equals the ports at Coos Bay and Astoria, where the Coast Guard maintains aerial search-and-rescue operations. The governor also noted that Coast Guard leaders deemed aerial search-and-rescue from Newport a priority when the air base opened almost 30 years ago. Closing it "on the cusp" of opening day of Dungeness crab season, when offshore conditions are at their most treacherous, "could seriously compromise life safety," he noted.
Kitzhaber and others also pointed out the helicopter's value to all coastal residents and visitors.
Service and Sacrifice
In an October 20 letter to Gromlich, Scott McMullin and David Allen – chairman and vice chairman, respectively, of the Oregon Ocean Policy Advisory Council – noted that the Newport air facility was designed to "fill a gap in quick response coverage" on the Oregon coast, and not just for commercial and recreational fishermen. Oregon's central coast also teems with non-fishing business, recreation, and tourism activities, they stated.
"Coast Guard helicopters provide a very unique service that commercial air ambulance services do not – primarily hoist capability for lifting, but also marginal weather and night flight operation," stated Jim Gahlsdorf of Gahlsdorf Logging, Inc. For forest workers plying their trade in remote inland locations and often on steep terrain and in deep ravines surrounded by tall trees, "there is no substitute for the capabilities and availability of the Coast Guard helicopters in Newport," he noted.
Jim Geisinger, executive vice president of Associated Oregon Loggers, Inc., agreed, noting that the rescue helicopter "is equipped with a higher level of care than land ambulances" and can provide more effective, timely rescue, if needed.
Most folks say shutting down the Newport air facility would also hamper local police, fire, and search-and-rescue operations all along the coast. Emergency responders on Oregon's central coast rely on having a nearby, timely helicopter rescue response for a variety of situations, McMullin and Allen and others noted, and taking it away would impact them and other USCG stations in the region, "putting at risk both rescuers and victims."
"They are often the only ones capable of rescuing our responders should something go horribly wrong," said Robert Murphy, Newport's interim fire chief.
"We are not equipped for – nor are we trained for – water rescue," said Joshua Williams, chief of the Depoe Bay Fire District, an all-volunteer operation led by a small administrative staff.
Williams credits the Coast Guard helicopter being in Newport for successfully plucking five people stranded on a rocky outcropping at Fogarty Creek State Park (16 miles north of Newport) on October 11 – just nine days after the Coast Guard's closure announcement. Williams said they were 30 minutes away from a full tide with 18-foot breakers. Had it taken longer than the 12 to 15 minutes it took for the helicopter to arrive, the rising tide and rough sea would likely have swept the unwary rock climbers away to almost certain death. Three others who chose to leap into the icy water and swim for shore were pulled from the surf, one of them unconscious and requiring resuscitation. The others "were scared and could not climb any higher on the rocks," Williams noted.
"This was a dangerous situation and one we face often," he said. "Visitors to the coast are not often prepared for the dangerous surf conditions we often experience. Time is of the essence. One hour in our water could mean death."
To be fair, in August, a combination of helicopters responding from Astoria and North Bend rescued five people from a capsized charter fishing boat off Siletz Bay, despite the fact that some of the victims in the water were not wearing survival suits. Commercial fishermen say those people were quite lucky, and trusting to luck when immersed in the North Pacific's frigid seawater awaiting rescue is foolish, at best.
Having fewer helicopters elsewhere and none in Newport gives less coverage and slower response times along the entire coast. But perhaps the most compelling argument against shuttering the Newport air station is one uttered by OPAC and Terry Thompson: Unlike North Bend and Astoria, the Newport site is located out of the tsunami inundation zone when a major nearshore earthquake strikes. That situation alone should be reason enough to retain the air station in Newport, they noted.
Gone But Not Forgotten
Since 1900, 122 Lincoln County fishermen have lost their lives while at sea making a living – and a life – for their families. Each is memorialized in a sanctuary established by NFW in 1997 in Yaquina Bay State Park. Clinging to the edge of the Pacific Ocean near Yaquina Bay Bridge, the park overlooks the spot where local fishermen go to observe the bay's bar before crossing to open ocean.
The memorial provides a place to honor the memories of those lost fishermen as their families, friends, and the community adapt to life without them. When a death occurs at sea and the fisherman is never recovered, the family has no formal gravesite to support the grieving process. The NFW sanctuary serves as a substitute – "a place of quiet contemplation" to grieve and experience the support of others – and as a symbol of respect for the industry anchored in the heart of the county's coastal communities.
The memorial's caretakers worry they might have to inscribe more names than necessary on the sanctuary plaque if the Coast Guard takes away the rescue helicopter, but a glimmer of hope appeared on the horizon just prior to press time. Oregon's congressional delegation announced that Coast Guard officials had opted to delay the closure until December 15 to allow additional time to further discuss the risks to commercial and recreational fishing and other activities on Oregon's Central Coast. The delegation members originally requested a six-month delay, and are aiming for a permanent reversal of the decision. They said the federal government's current budget extension ends in early December, raising the possibility of negotiating short-term funding to keep the Newport facility open while they continue working toward a permanent resolution.
Maybe even another act of Congress.