The engines of the orange Coast Guard helicopter roared to life. Coast Guard officers, friends and family watched as the rotors picked up speed. Within minutes the helicopter lifted into the air and headed south to drop a decorated wreath into the cold Pacific Ocean off the shore of Cape Mendocino where four crew members lost their lives in a rescue mission 20 years ago.
The Humboldt Bay Coast Guard held a memorial ceremony Thursday to remember the lives of the fallen crew members. Coast Guard officers, family and friends gathered in front of the Humboldt Bay Coast Guard memorial building in McKinleyville just outside of their air station.
On June 8, 1997, aircraft commander Jeffrey F. Krane with his co-pilot Lieutenant Charles W. Thigpen flew a Coast Guard Dolphin helicopter south from the McKinleyville station to respond to a rescue call. Aboard Crane’s helicopter was flight mechanic Richard L. Hughes and their rescue swimmer James G. Gaines.
“Helicopter vanishes; 4 on board,” read a Times-Standard article the next day.
The Coast Guard reported it lost contact with the helicopter around 11:25 p.m. while it was hovering above the water attempting to rescue five stranded sailors headed south from British Columbia. The Times-Standard previously reported the helicopter was trying to hover close to the water in order to save four men and one women aboard a vessel named Ezra II.
Change in command
Coast Guard Capt. Gregory Fuller was seated next to two chairs with flight jackets, helmets and other equipment that represented two of the deceased crew members. A few hours before the memorial service, the Coast Guard had a change in command with Fuller relieving Capt. Arthur J. Snyder.
“It’s a heavy burden to change into command today,” Fuller said as he stood outside of the airfield.
“The safety and lives of the crew are my responsibility,” he added.
Fuller said the memorial ceremony was a reminder of the dangers that come with being in the Coast Guard.
Reporting in 1997
Twenty years ago, the Times-Standard front page read “Search widens but hope fades for copter crew” on June 11.
The Coast Guard reported that it found nine pieces of debris from the helicopter off the coast, which included a door, an extra helmet, a rescue board and a crew members hat, but no signs of the Coast Guard members.
“It was sort of like a roller coaster from hell,” one of the rescued sailors told the Times-Standard recalling the stormy night.
Family and friends who attended the memorial service on Thursday were emotional during the service, appearing to fight back tears.
“They stood exactly where you do now, they worked in the same hangar,” outgoing commander Capt. Arthur Snyder told the Coast Guard members in attendance. Admiral Todd Sokalzuk also spoke during the afternoon ceremony.
“On these hallowed waves 20 years ago today, four men gave their lives while responding to what they knew to be a most noble cause.” Sokalzuk told the group.
Behind Sokalzuk there was a series of items held in a glass casing — a baseball trophy, a BMX trophy, a calculator and a baseball hat represented the four crewmembers who died.
At the front of the ceremony sat that red, white a blue wreath that was flown to the crash site near Cape Mendocino where it was to be dropped into the ocean.
“On behalf of the numerous lives you have saved and those who share in the mourning of your loss, but still celebrate your life, we offer a humble wreath to you.” Sokalzuk said.
Sam Armanino can be reached at 707-441-0509.