Coast Guard Pulls Chopper from Newport

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.
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
“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
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
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
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.
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
“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.
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.