Drama on the high seas

Drama on the high seas A USS Vicksburg helicopter hoists the last crew member from the African merchant vessel Al Murtada in the choppy Arabian Sea. The crewman situated in the helicopter door guiding the rescue cable is Petty Officer 2nd Class Heath Moore of Vermillion. The USS Vicksburg detachment "Proud Warrior" rescued all 16 crew members, who barely had enough food to last at sea. (Photo by Peter Ceretti, U.S. Navy) by David Lias Most fathers, if they're lucky, get a simple card or gift from their sons on Father's Day in a simple expression of respect and affection.

Heath Moore, of Vermillion, did much more than that. He risked his life that day, indeed proving himself to be his father's son and making both of his parents a bit worried but very, very proud.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Moore, the son of David and Michelle Moore of Vermillion, is stationed on the USS Vicksburg. The Navy vessel is part of the battle group led by the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy.

On Sunday, June 16, the Navy vessels went to war against one of the toughest adversaries they could face � Mother Nature.

They didn't attack fellow men. They battled a violent storm to rescue the crew of an African merchant ship that was drifting helplessly in the Arabian Sea.

The merchant ship Al Murtada had lost all power in early June. For 11 days it could no more than drift on the waters south of Oman.

Until the storm hit.

The merchant vessel bobbed like a giant cork in raging seas. Heavy rain and winds battered the Oman coast for days.

As reported by Matthew I. Pinzur of the Florida Times-Union, Jacksonsville, FL, the situation for the ship's 16-member crew was growing from bad to worse. The food and water supplies on the Al Murtada were almost exhausted.

The men were growing weaker as they drifted helplessly in the violent storm.

The ship sent a distress call that was received about 8 p.m. June 15 by the battle group that included Moore's ship, the USS Vicksburg.

Foul weather delayed the rescue for 12 hours. The crew of the USS Vicksburg took advantage of that time to close in on the ailing African ship about 170 miles south of the Oman coast.

That same rough weather made it difficult for rescuers to send detailed information about the operation, and ship-to-shore interviews with the Times-Union June 17 were frequently cutoff in mid-sentence.

Pinzur told the Plain Talk via e-mail earlier this week that he never got a chance to speak with Moore.

Moore played a crucial role in the successful rescue. He was aboard one of the USS Vicksburg's helicopters that flew into the teeth of the raging gale to pluck the crew of the Al Murtada, one-by-one, from the rolling deck of the helpless ship.

The Navy rescue team had to deal with 25-foot seas and 40 knot winds. Petty Officer 2nd Class Scott Wade was lowered onto the ship's deck and hoisted up the first crewman within 20 seconds, said Lt. Cmdr. Jim Esquivel, the pilot of one of the rescue helicopters.

And then the furious weather got worse.

"The ship was just rolling back and forth, corkscrewing and pitching up and down," Esquivel told the Times-Union. "Trying to hover above it, the ship was rocking and rolling, and it was tough to keep any kind of visual cues."

Losing sight of the deck, Esquivel began taking navigation cues from Moore while the co-pilot, Lt. Brian Binder, shouted instructions to keep the helicopter over the rescue point and away from the ship's 40-foot cargo crane.

The ship's holds were empty, a Vicksburg spokesman said, which made the 230-foot ship light enough to be tossed around even more violently. The waves were so choppy that the ship was rolling up to 30 degrees.

The wind swung Wade and Moore so wildly that Esquivel said he decided to temporarily pull out of the area.

Deciding the rescuers needed a larger clear area to hover over, they instructed the Al Murtada crew to cut down part of the forward mast. A second helicopter, piloted by Lt. Jamie Brooks, launched from the Vicksburg at 3:30 p.m. to finish the rescue.

The SH-60B Seahawk helicopter could hold only two of the rescued crew, so each rescued pair were dropped off on a nearby merchant ship. After six more trips the entire crew was saved, nine hours after the first helicopter left the Vicksburg.

"There was a great sense of satisfaction and teamwork shared by the aircrew, the aircraft maintenance crew and the entire crew of the USS Vicksburg," said Brooks, whose detachment on the Vicksburg is known as "Proud Warrior."

The crippled Al Murtada was left behind, Navy officials said. The rescued crew was transferred to the Stolt Spray, the merchant ship that originally relayed the Al Murtada's distress call to the battle group. The Stolt Spray delivered the crew to Kandla, India.

"They were doing OK," said Lt. Cmdr. Brad Cooper, the Vicksburg's executive officer. "They had just barely enough food and water, but were about to run out."

"This was a classic at-sea rescue, exemplifying the code of the sea: to help others in distress," said Rear Adm. Steven Tomaszeski, commander of the Kennedy battle group, in a written statement.

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