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Prince William assists in Irish Sea rescue

LONDON - It was a rough overnight shift for Prince William.

By the time the Royal Air force rescue helicopter, which he was co-piloting, first arrived on the scene in the early hours of Sunday morning, the Russian cargo ship that had put out a distress call had already sunk in the Irish Sea.

The task — recorded by the helicopter's night-view camera — was to try to find and rescue survivors — two of which were found bobbing a life-raft.

A winchman lowered and — one by one — he managed to get a harness around the seamen and they were hoisted to safety. One crewman from the ship is known to have died — an empty life ring the only sign of where he might have been. Five others are thought to be missing.

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The strong gale was still blowing as other helicopters and ships joined the search. But the Russian cargo ship had gone down fast.

"[The ship] was hit by what he described as an enormous wave; she rolled, broke her back," said Ray Carson, a British Coast Guard spokesman. "She sank very quickly."

Prince William is on a three-year assignment as a search and rescue pilot — working toward his full captain's ticket.

This past summer in Canada, he was shown how the Sea King helicopter he flies can actually be landed on the water's surface — not a technique the British use and not one that would have been much use in the conditions of this weekend's rescue.

The Russian ship — the Swanland — is now gone.

Prince William is now off shift, he and the other three members of his crew did what they could on a cruel night at sea.

  • Mark Phillips

    Mark Phillips is CBS News senior foreign correspondent, based in London.