THEN TRAGEDY STRUCK

September 01, 2000 12:00 am

By Scott Graves

Triplicate staff writer

It was supposed to be a routine assignment: a ride-along in a United States Coast Guard rescue helicopter.

All that changed instantly when pilot Lt. Dave Wierenga received the distress call: a heart attack victim on a fishing boat just north of the Port of Brookings.

This was not a drill. And there was no time to land and let me and Triplicate photographer Stephen Corley off.

We were going to see first hand the Coast Guard in action.

The bright orange helicopter turned abruptly near the mouth of the Smith River and rocketed northward across the sea at more than 150 mph.

Corley and I sat quietly strapped in the cramped belly of the small aircraft. We had no idea what to expect next.

Two rescue boats from the Coast Guards Chetco River Station were just leaving the Brookings port as we soared past. A minute later, we were circling Goat Island, four miles to the north.

There were two dozen pleasure boats scattered across the sea. Which one was the right one?

Tell them to launch a flare, said Lt. Wierenga. He and co-pilot Mark Heubel were in radio contact with the rescue boats, which were communicating with someone on board the victims vessel.

By then, however, we had spotted the right boat a 24-foot pleasure craft tethered to another. One person was standing on board waving at the helicopter frantically while another person was bent over the victim, giving him CPR.

Inside the helicopter, aviation mechanic Isaac Saenz pulled a five-foot-long rescue basket from the back, pushed it out the side door and lowered it down to the boat on a wire cable.

The pilot hovered 40 feet above the victims boat, deftly maneuvering the aircraft forward and back slightly according to Saenzs instructions.

It took Saenz several attempts before he landed the basket in the boat. Coast Guard officers who had boarded the victims boat from their vessel placed the man into the basket and up it went.

I realized then that I was about to cross the line from observer to participant. This man needed help, and Saenz couldnt do it by himself.

I tossed my pen and notebook aside and helped tip the victim out of the basket onto the floor of the helicopter.

I pinched closed the mans nose and began giving him mouth-to-mouth while Saenz used both hands to pump the mans chest.

It took 10 minutes to fly to the Crescent City Airport. It seemed like hours.

I have never prayed as much as I did during those 10 minutes. I didnt know the man, but I wanted him to live. I desperately wanted him to live.

A Del Norte Ambulance was waiting for the helicopter when it arrived. Saenz and I stopped our efforts and helped move the limp man from the aircraft onto a gurney.

The paramedics tried to restart his heart several times using electric shock paddles. Nothing.

I learned later that the man was pronounced dead at Sutter Coast Hospital.

Standing around the helicopter, the crew and I recounted the mornings events. The adrenaline was starting to fade and the reality of what had happened was setting in.

Saenz, Wierenga and Heubel had left Humboldt Bay earlier that day for a routine training flight and to give two journalists a ride.

It can all change in a blink of the eye, Saenz said. It goes from calm to chaos just like that. Thats what we train for.

Although they didnt succeed in saving a life this time, I couldnt think of any other three men better prepared for emergencies.

But that sentiment offered little solace to Saenz. I just like to bring them all back, he said.

I knew exactly how he felt.