Drama On The High Seas

A rescue attempt off the southwestern coast of Alaska ended in tragedy last week when a rescue helicopter crashed in the Bering Sea.

The U.S. Coast Guard helicopter was sent to save the crew of a massive Malaysian freighter that had run aground. But gale force wind gusts caused the chopper to crash with 10 people on board.

Seven members of the freighter's crew who were in the chopper were lost and are presumed dead. The four rescuers, three of whom were on the chopper when it went down, survived.

The four rescuers spoke to The Early Show's Russ Mitchell Friday, from Anchorage, Alaska.

The chopper's commander, Lt. Dave Neal, explained: "We'd hoisted 18 people off the freighter earlier that day. We were on the final eight, late that evening into the night hours. We had pulled seven of the eight people off. My rescue swimmer and one survivor were left on the ship when we experienced a sudden power loss after a lot of water hit our windscreen. After that, we settled into the water and tried to (exit the chopper) as soon as we could."

Petty Officer Aaron Bean, who had been lowered down to the freighter in the helicopter's rescue basket, watched the chopper go down. "I saw waves coming over the side of the ship and I did hear a loss in power of the helicopter, and I saw the helicopter move forward and down into the ocean," he said.

Things got very hairy for Lt. Doug Watson after the crash. "The cockpit filled up with water immediately," he recalls. "It took me a little while to get out of the aircraft, but I managed to breathe using an underwater breathing device that we carry in our survival vest. I managed to find the door handle and get out of the helicopter, but it did take about a minute for me to get out."

Petty Officer Brian Lickfield told Mitchell that, as the chopper fell, "I held on. My focus was staying in position as we descended to the water. It was a sickening feeling of going down. I heard a power loss also. And I heard a loud bang and I just knew that we were going into the water. So I just hung on and I was able to egress the helicopter and safely get out."

What was going through their minds during all this? "It's hard to explain. There is a lot of instinctive action," Neel says. "I can't really say that I was afraid immediately. I just worked through the procedures as we trained to get out of the helicopter in those situations. And was successful and lucky enough to make it to the surface."

Watson says the news came in a fortunate flash to his family: "Fortunately, it was rather quick for them. The first call that my wife Colleen got back in Kodiak was that there was a helicopter accident, but I was OK. So it's almost like, she says, it's like ripping off a Band-aid. It was quick, and all of the information was right there instantly, so she didn't have to worry about me being missing.

"Later that night, after we landed and secured for the evening, I just told her,"Give my mother a call back in New Jersey to let her know,' because I didn't want her to wake up to news stories of a missing crew or anything like that."