A Coast Guard crew tries to locate people in distress in Jacksonville, Fla., after Hurricane Irma on Sept. 11, 2017. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Jonathan Lindberg)

Heroic USCG Rescue Swimmers Honored for Saving Lives During Hurricanes Irma and Harvey

As part of National Preparedness Month, we continue to spotlight the heroes and heroines working to prepare for and prevent disasters. This week we feature two incredible U.S. Coast Guard rescue swimmers who have this month received the Vice Admiral Thomas R. Sargent III Gold Medal.

Initially awarded in 1982 and firmly established for annual presentation since 1987, the Vice Admiral Thomas R. Sargent III Gold Medal is presented to a Coast Guard enlisted man or woman for an act of extraordinary bravery during a rescue at sea.

Aviation Survival Technician First Class Matthew Silvious, of Air Station Clearwater, was the rescue swimmer aboard a Coast Guard helicopter that rescued two people aboard a sailboat foundering in the outer bands of the Category 4 Hurricane Irma on Sep. 9, 2017. Aviation Survival Technician Third Class Brendan Kiley, of Air Station Cape Cod, was a helicopter rescue swimmer deployed with a crew to the Houston area during Hurricane Harvey, where they rescued 112 people and assisted an untold number more during a three-day period in August 2017.

Petty Officer Silvious is cited for his heroic achievement while serving as the rescue swimmer aboard Coast Guard helicopter CG-6007. Despite knowing refuel and emergency divert airfields were unavailable, he volunteered to fly 420 miles into Hurricane Irma to rescue two mariners from the sailing vessel On Caval as it foundered in the outer bands of the powerful storm.

Arriving on scene, he learned that one of the survivors had abandoned ship and was attempting to row a five-foot dingy to land. With near zero visibility, at night, in torrential rains and 45 to 60 knot winds, he deployed into the water to begin his rescue efforts. While being dragged by the helicopter as it fought to maintain position in the violent winds, he fought his way to the panicked survivor. Quickly realizing the dingy was on the verge of capsizing, he made a split-second decision to transfer the combative survivor into the water. Despite the extreme weather conditions and wildly struggling victim, he quickly employed the rescue strop to execute a safe hoist to the helicopter.

Racing against the strengthening storm and as fuel became critical, Petty Officer Silvious immediately redeployed to retrieve the second survivor from a storm-tossed liferaft as it was blown further out to sea. Petty Officer Silvious’ heroic actions and life-saving skills were instrumental in the rescue of two people who otherwise would not have survived the historic storm.

Petty Officer Kiley is cited for extraordinary heroism while serving as a rescue swimmer in support of Hurricane Harvey relief efforts on Aug. 27-29, 2017. This category 4 hurricane released more precipitation than any other storm system in U.S. history, discharging as much as 52 inches of rain throughout 28,000 square miles of Texas and flooding much of the city of Houston.

Braving the outer bands of the hurricane, the crew of CGNR 6026 flew through extreme precipitation, heavy lightning and tropical storm-force winds in excess of 50 knots to reposition from Lafayette, La., to Houston. Tasking was difficult due to the sheer number of 911 calls coming in for assistance and the vast area of flooding, forcing the pilots to use their smartphones to navigate to street addresses to hoist survivors in dire distress from windows, roofs and tops of submerged cars.

Deploying 18 times from over 100 feet to avoid hazardous trees and live power lines, and battling severe mechanical turbulence in excess of 40 knots and torrential rain, Petty Officer Kiley assisted entire city blocks of survivors desperately seeking assistance. Often working alone, he put children and the old or frail onto his back and swam them through rushing floodwaters to the awaiting helicopter.

Once, while positioning a survivor for a hoist, Petty Officer Kiley turned to see a semi-truck barrelling toward him with water up to the cab. He grabbed the survivor just in time to pull him out of harm’s way before the truck passed, barely missing them both. Waved down by an anxious survivor, he entered an unlit house filled with brown, putrid water and cluttered with floating objects. In the back room, a woman lay on a hospital bed with floodwater already over the mattress. With battery-powered medical equipment still operating, Petty Officer Kiley was shocked multiple times as he struggled to bring the elderly woman outside for the hoist.

On another occasion, he deftly climbed onto a roof where a woman desperately held a rubber storage bin, inside which were her toddler and newborn baby trying to stay dry. Remarkably, he was able to carefully carry the bin down from the roof before helping the mother down and arranging all three in the basket for the hoist.

Petty Officer Kiley’s remarkable stamina, adaptability and heroism were instrumental in hoisting and saving the lives of 112 people during 21.3 hours of operational relief efforts.

HSToday asked Kiley the obvious question: Weren’t you scared?

“I wasn’t scared. U.S. Coast Guard pilots, flight mechanics, and maintainers are the best in the world; all I had to worry about was safely getting survivors up into the helicopter,” said Kiley. “We train on a daily basis for these type of situations both in the ocean with the helicopter overhead and back at the air station in the gym or practicing EMT scenarios, so dealing with the noise, rotor wash and survivors were something that I was very familiar with.”

Kiley told us his training at the U.S. Coast Guard’s Aviation Survival Technician (AST) school prepared him well for the mass-casualty situation that was Hurricane Harvey. “I was pretty tired during the rescue operations, but you learn at AST A-School to focus on what you need to accomplish in that moment – and once you’ve done that, you focus on what needs to happen next,” he said. “AST A-School immerses you in situations that you might encounter as a duty standing rescue swimmer; I was lucky enough to be able to put the training to use.”

“I think I can speak for every rescue swimmer in the Coast Guard when I say that I don’t want people to get in bad situations – but if they do, I want to be the one to go rescue them.”

What advice does Kiley have for the public when faced with situations like Hurricane Harvey? “My primary advice for the public is to heed evacuation warnings,” he said. “Beyond that, wear a lifejacket if you have one and if you meet a swimmer in the water someday just relax!”

Petty Officers Silvious and Kiley were recognized during the Association for Rescue at Sea (AFRAS) Capitol Hill maritime search and rescue awards ceremony in Washington on Sep. 13. The event was hosted by Rep. Jason Lewis (R-Minn.) and coordinated by the board and officers of AFRAS. Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Karl Schultz as well as other senior maritime and congressional officials were also in attendance.

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Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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