The Rescuers

In high seas and rough weather, the Coast Guard crew at Air Station Atlantic City is always ready to take the plunge.

In this training exercise near Atlantic City, flight mechanic Dane McCollister lowers a harness to Vanacore, who has plunged from the helicopter and come to the aid of “survivor” Jesse Flett.
Photos by Marc Steiner and Dru Sutton/Agency New Jersey.

There are bigger and stronger rescue swimmers stationed at the Coast Guard’s Air Station Atlantic City, but perhaps none with a greater sense of determination than Jaime Vanacore. Like her fellow rescue swimmers, Vanacore jumps out of helicopters for a living. She drops into the roiling Atlantic Ocean and its steely back bays day and night, year round, in all kinds of weather. As a trained EMT, part of her job is to keep alive whomever she and the other three crew members—pilot, copilot and flight mechanic—have plucked from danger and hoisted aboard the Coast Guard’s bright orange HH-65 Dolphin helicopter.

Vanacore is a rarity. She is just the sixth woman to qualify as a Coast Guard rescue swimmer—one of the most demanding and selective positions in the service of the United States—and the only female among the 14 swimmers at the base. She and her colleagues patrol the Atlantic Coast from Chesapeake Bay to the Long Island Sound. They rush to the aid of commercial ships and recreational boaters—even kayakers—who have capsized, fallen overboard, become stranded or are otherwise at the mercy of potentially cruel seas.

Air Station Atlantic City, the Coast Guard’s largest and busiest helicopter base, is actually inland, adjacent to Atlantic City International Airport in Egg Harbor Township. The base has 10 helicopters for search-and-rescue missions. Since the base opened in 1998, crews have flown about 5,000 such missions—averaging 29 cases a month year round, but peaking at an average of 43 monthly sorties between July and September. (The base also deals with about 60 hoax calls a year, as was the case in June when it joined nearby Coast Guard Station Sandy Hook in response to an apparently fake Mayday call.)

Vanacore estimates she has been involved in 60 cases since being assigned to the base in February 2011. Suited up in 20 pounds of rescue gear and a helmet, she is barely distinguishable as a woman. She likes it that way. Still, she knows she is seen differently than other swimmers simply because she is female.  “I’d rather not acknowledge it,” she says of being a rare female presence at the base. “It is the world I chose to live in.”

Lieutenant Commander Mike Struthers is one of the Air Station AC pilots who flies swimmers to and from rescues, among other less-dramatic Coast Guard duties. Struthers grew up in Howell, summering in Point Pleasant and Manasquan, watching Coast Guard helicopters fly by. “I think it is pretty neat,” he says of patrolling the same shore where he grew up.

Flying the $9 million Dolphin is a challenge, according to Struthers, 33. “Nothing about that aircraft is natural,” he says. He explains that the craft is flown with both hands and both feet, working simultaneously. Wind, rolling seas and the added weight of hoisting people out of the sea, present a series of constant challenges. “You are never completely in balance,” says Struthers. Under normal conditions, the Dolphin can race forward at about 185 miles an hour and rise at as much as 2,000 feet a minute.

Unlike most of the base’s 62 pilots, Struthers studied marine science, another aspect of the Coast Guard’s mission. The Guard also is responsible for marine safety, maritime navigation, enforcing fishing regulations and maritime laws, clearing ice, port and coastal security, drug and migrant interdiction and defense readiness. Air Station Atlantic City has a hand in each of these missions.

Still, saving lives jazzes Struthers most. “Every time we strap into the aircraft, we know we are [being called on] to do something,” he says. “It is a risky career. When we strap in, we are ready.” Despite the risks, the base has never lost a helicopter or a crewmember.

He recalls rescuing a hypothermic man who was able to walk off the helicopter and shake his hand. “That’s exactly what I joined for.” Another time his crew resuscitated a man, only to have him die the next day from complications. Still, he and his crew took satisfaction in knowing they had done their job.

“You focus on what’s in front of you. You can’t focus on one tough landing or one rough case. You have to switch it off,” Struthers says. “For every case that goes wrong, there are more that are right and it is completely rewarding to serve when we are needed. We train really hard and do the best we can, but we know there are limitations.”

Doing the best—within limitations—is what happened on May 12, 2008, one of the most dramatic days in the base’s history, when a single helicopter crew saved two men on two separate ships; a third man was lost aboard the first vessel. The crew performed the rescues flying into a gale and lowering a swimmer into churning 20-foot seas.

It started when the base received a Mayday call from the captain of the Russell W. Peterson, a barge-like vessel known as a lift boat. The Peterson, which was designed to  lower three legs to the ocean floor to form a support and lift itself above the water, was being used to research migratory bird routes for a company interested in building wind turbines on the Delaware Bay. It was about 14 miles off Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, when howling winds came up, buckling one of its legs and dumping the craft into the seething sea. The captain—on the barge with just a single crewman—radioed for help while trying to steer the stricken vessel. 

Winds had reached more than 80 miles an hour when Air Station AC got the call and dispatched a crew to the scene. The pilot was Lieutenant Clay Clary. Beside him sat his copilot, Lieutenant Junior Grade Bruce Kimmell. Stuffed in the rear of the helicopter were veteran rescue swimmer Tye Conklin and flight mechanic Brett Oquist.

To Clary, it felt as though his Dolphin was flying backward as it approached the Peterson and attempted to hover in place long enough to lower Conklin in a rescue basket. By then, the worst gusts had dropped to about 45 miles an hour. It took three tries to get the basket in place on the storm-tossed boat. Oquist, who operated the hoist, winched the captain of the Peterson aboard. Conklin went back to search for the other man. He found him in the galley, unresponsive and trapped beneath several heavy items. Conklin freed the crewman’s body, hauled him topside and placed him into the rescue basket. Despite attempts to revive the crewman, he died by the time the Dolphin landed in Maryland.  

That’s when they got the next call from a Coast Guard boat station in Ocean City, Maryland.

A caller had alerted the station that a sailboat had run aground. A rescue boat headed out, but wind and waves turned it back. The only way to effect a rescue was with the helicopter. But the pitching sailboat’s tall mast complicated the approach and made it impractical to use the rescue basket. Conklin was lowered into the water from about 100 feet, not the usual 40 feet. He reached the sailor aboard the 37-foot Bonnie Laurie and strapped the survivor to his own body. The pair were then hoisted to safety.

Rescue swimmers like Conklin and Vanacore are a breed apart. Before arriving at the base, Vanacore, now 28, had to make it through the 16-week Aviation Survival School in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. Known as A-School, it is a grueling test of grit and heart, not just muscle. The washout rate for candidates is more than 80 percent. “The pressure gets to them,” says Vanacore.    

No wonder. The initial test—which must be completed in 60 minutes—requires 50 pushups; 60 sit-ups; five chin-ups; five pull-ups; a 1.5-mile run in less than 12 minutes; a 500-yard swim in less than 11 minutes; and four underwater swims of 25 yards each.

For those who overcome this initial hurdle, swim school begins at 6:30 am most days and lasts until 4 pm, mixing physical testing with classroom review of the 137-page swimmer syllabus. The 14-foot-deep test pool is where most candidates wash out. The most dreaded test requires the rescue of a noncompliant survivor, a muscular veteran instructor who resists, often dragging a swimmer candidate under water. “I’m 140 pounds, he’s 200 pounds,” Vanacore says. “I just had to work a little harder.”

When Vanacore completed her training late in 2010, there were just 795 swim school graduates—male and female—in the 27 years since the training began. And while her base commander describes Vanacore as “a stud” and “a rock star,” she is also a wife and mother. Her husband, Paul Vanacore, is a boatswain mate with the Coast Guard’s small boat station a few miles from the air base in Atlantic City. They live with their two children, ages 4 and 6, in Brigantine, the island north of Atlantic City.

Vanacore is two years into her first tour as a swimmer and still mastering the mesh of family and career. The alarm goes off at 5:40 most mornings. The German shepherds are let out and fed. The kids get dressed. Vanacore is out the door by 7 am and off to the sitter, who ferries the kids to school. Sometimes she crosses paths with her husband, but mostly not. Typically, husband and wife see each other without interruption just one day a week.

She’s at the air station by 7:30 am, working on scheduled maintenance of the crew’s safety equipment. At 10 am, she begins two hours of physical training—in the pool, the gym or on the running trails rimming the air station. There are also scheduled morning flights, or sometimes a last-minute fill-in flight. Five or six times a month, she’s required to pull a 24-hour shift, but on a routine day, she’s back home with the kids by 3 pm. The next mission is homework, then dinner. “Then we do it all over,” she says. “In the summer, we go to the beach at the end of the day. It is a part of a lifestyle.”

The West Palm Beach, Florida, native and her husband know they’ll be reassigned elsewhere in two years, but they don’t know where. (There are 27 air stations across the country, including Hawaii and Alaska.) She realizes that in her career little is predictable.

“It took awhile to figure out, but a good day is a case closed and being helpful,” Vanacore says. “I don’t live by a plan; we figure it out as we go.”

Kevin C. Shelly is an award-winning journalist and the author of the book, Lynn Bogue Hunt: A Sporting Life.

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