Rescue On The High Seas

Hurricane Five Years Ago Put Boat At Risk

Rescue on the high seas: It's a terrifying mission, but one that Coast Guard Lieutenant Commander Jim Fitton admits he lives for.

"If you're an adrenaline junkie, you wait for stuff like that," he says. "That's what makes your career - the excitement of going out there and saving people."

Correspondent Susan Spencer takes a look at a dramatic rescue five years ago during Hurricane Gordon in a special 48 Hours Thursday at 10 p.m. ET/PT.

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On Nov. 13, 1994, Ira Hubbard, his wife and their two children were in a 64-foot sailboat, 400 miles east of Norfolk, Va., when Gordon hit. He frantically called the Coast Guard, fearful not just for himself but his wife, their 13-year-old daughter and their 4-month-old son.

"That's what we were worried about; that's what scared us," says Mario Vittone, a Coast Guard diver who was lowered into the 20-foot seas during the rescue.

"It's not something we're trained to do - to handle infants. So we just had to guess. And we were hoping it would work out fine," he says.

"I got into the water; the waves look a lot bigger in the water than they do from the helicopter, but they were manageable," Vittone remembers.

Once in the water, Vittone coaxed Hubbard's wife to leap from the boat, while holding the baby in her arms. They hit the water - and disappeared under the waves. But seconds later they bobbed to the surface, thanks to their life jackets.

"I made a mad dash for them, sprinted over, got a hold of them," Vittone recalls. "I had the baby in one hand and the mother was clinging to me. But I had the baby in that arm; the baby was getting washed by the sea."

"I had to move her away. She caught on and I could raise the baby out of the water," he says.

Vittone secured mother and baby in the basket, and they were slowly lifted into the helicopter. "The baby was so cute he just looked down at me like, 'Can I go now?'" he says.

"[He] wasn't crying, wasn't upset, kind of just wide-eyed, looking at his mother, looking at me like, 'Who are you?'" Vittone says.

Mother and baby made it fine. But there was still the rest of the family. With a little coaxing, the 13-year-old, Laurie, jumped in. Then Ira Hubbard reluctantly jumped off his boat, leaving it to the hurricane.

"By this point I was really ready to get out of the water," Vittone says.

"Before I was about to get back in the flight, [the pilot] was pointinbehind me. And I turned around and right behind me the waves were building to 30 feet," he says.

Seven hours later, all the Hubbards finally arrived on dry land. Ira Hubbard knew he'd been lucky. "We got caught in a situation; I made a big mistake," he says. "And we had to make a decision ultimately to abandon the boat."

The lesson: On the high seas, in a hurricane, man is no match for Mother Nature.

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