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Fla. Tugboat Crew Rescued by Navy

September 16, 1999

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) _ Four hours after abandoning his sinking tugboat in 35-foot waves churned up by Hurricane Floyd, Gerald Keeth was close to giving up hope. Then, out of the gray sky, he spotted a Navy helicopter.

The chopper from the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy came in low and a rescue swimmer jumped in and helped hoist Keeth and two of his shipmates from the roller-coaster waves where they were bobbing in their life jackets, clinging to a broom handle.

Later in the day, a second Navy helicopter saved the five other tugboat crew members who had been able to make it into a lifeboat before the 150-foot vessel sank in the Atlantic Ocean, 350 miles off Jacksonville.

``There was a number of times when I doubted they would find us,″ Keeth said Thursday from the Kennedy, where the tug crew was recuperating from their ordeal. ``I was trying to keep my spirits up.″

The tug, the Gulf Majesty, was on a regular run from Jacksonville to Puerto Rico with a 750-foot barge loaded with cargo containers when it began talking on water early Wednesday. The crew radioed a distress call to the Coast Guard and abandoned the sinking ship at 7:35 a.m.

But only five crew members made it into the life raft before the rope connecting it to the tug snapped.

Two SH-60 Seahawk helicopters left the aircraft carrier at 11 a.m. Keeth and his shipmates set off smoke and signal flares to catch their attention.

``They were just three orange dots,″ said Petty Officer 3rd Class Shad Hernandez, a Navy rescue swimmer.

The 23-year-old sailor from Stanfield, Ore., jumped into the angry ocean.

``When I first went in, I didn’t know how big the waves were. I didn’t realize how big they were until we were on the way back,″ he said.

As the helicopter pilot struggled to keep the aircraft steady in the 65 mph winds, Hernandez attached rescue straps to two men to be hoisted aboard. He rode up with the third.

``It went real quick. I was in the water only 11 minutes,″ Hernandez said.

``They did everything by the numbers,″ Keeth said. ``And they did it extremely well. He jumped in the water without any hestitation.″

The five in the life raft were saved about four hours later.

Hernandez said he has been training as a rescue swimmer for two years, but this was the first time he had saved anyone. ``It came down to remembering what I learned, ″ he said.

The Kennedy was one of several Navy ships that had been ordered to leave port on Monday to ride the storm out at sea.

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