ELIZABETH CITY, N.C. – At a new Coast Guard training facility here, rescue swimmers jump from a 12-foot tower into a wave pool as large fans blow 70 mph wind at them. A lighting system produces a night sky and speakers pump out the sound of thunder, creating artificial conditions that help prepare the swimmers for dangerous rescues like the one they carried out when the crew of the HMS Bounty abandoned ship during Hurricane Sandy.
One sailor was killed when the replica 18th-century wooden tall ship went down off the North Carolina coast, and the captain of the vessel featured in Hollywood films was presumed dead when the search for him ended Thursday. Fourteen crew members, however, were plucked from the roaring Atlantic on Monday by rescue teams of helicopter pilots, hoist operators and swimmers who braved rolling 18-foot waves and 50 mph winds.
The day after the Bounty's rescue, a class of seven recruits was put through grueling physical conditioning at the $24 million training center in Elizabeth City, which opened last month and replaced a nearly 70-year-old swimming pool that was too small and too shallow to simulate actual rescue missions.
"It's like Rocky working out in the basement back in the day, back in my day, and now all of a sudden he's got a brand-new gym," said Senior Chief George Marinkov, who supervises the facility. "It gives the student an idea of what he might be doing out there in the ocean."
There are about 350 active Coast Guard rescue swimmers, spread out from Alaska's Aleutian Islands to Puerto Rico and all of the waterways between, Marinkov said. They're the only ones who leave a rescue chopper to help.
Video of the Bounty rescue showed a swimmer being lowered 30-feet from the helicopter, disconnecting from a tether and swimming free to a rubber life boat where crew members were fighting for life. The co-pilot can be heard counting the seconds until the next wave approaches so the pilot could raise the helicopter to avoid being swamped.
An on-board computer reminds everyone in their headsets: "Altitude. Altitude."
The hoist operator and spotter fought the wind and dropped a basket in the water so the Bounty crew members, one by one, could be lifted to safety. At one point, the spotter said he threw his shoulder out, but he kept working anyway.
The rescue played out like a scene from the 2006 film "The Guardian," starring Kevin Costner and Ashton Kutcher, a movie that was partly filmed at the Elizabeth City base.
"It's a hazardous job," Marinkov said. "It's dangerous for the whole crew hovering over water in the middle of the night in heavy seas and the elements and the winds. And then you put somebody on the end of a hook."
Congress ordered the Coast Guard to establish a helicopter rescue swimmer program in 1984, a year after a coal cargo ship headed for Massachusetts ran into a winter storm off the Virginia coast and sank. Numbed by severe hypothermia, the men were unable to grab the rescue basket lowered by the helicopter.
A Navy rescue swimmer swam to the point of exhaustion in 40-foot seas and temperatures so cold that sea water on his facemask froze. Thirty-one of the 34 crew members died.
Congressional hearings determined the Coast Guard needed a cadre of rescue swimmers, and about 800 have graduated in the past 27 years.
The Coast Guard said in a report to Congress last year it has been able to save the lives of about three out of four people in imminent danger on the water.
One of the Bounty rescue swimmers, Randy Haba, said he has dived into the water in a dry suit and flippers only about 10 times during his 13 years with the Coast Guard. Most of the time, Haba is responsible repairing and maintaining survival and rescue equipment.
About once a week he and Daniel Todd, of Tucson, Ariz., — the other swimmer in the Bounty rescue — will be on call for any ocean emergencies that crop up between the Maryland-Virginia state line and the North Carolina-South Carolina line.
Haba, of Stratton, Colo., said the largely successful Bounty rescue was an experience other rescue swimmers only dream about.
"It's one you wait your whole career for," he said.
Emery Dalesio can be reached at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio