MCAS Cherry Point News


Search and rescue service members rappel into forest, save lives

3 Mar 2013 | Cpl. Andrea Cleopatra Dickerson

It was Presidents Day, and Petty Officer 3rd Class John H. Nelson had the day off from work. When he left his house in New Bern, the hospital corpsman with Marine Transport Squadron 1, had no idea how his day would unfold.

“When I got the call that we were needed to assist a search and rescue mission, I was about to take my dog for a walk,” he said. 

Late in the afternoon, local authorities reached out to the search and rescue squadron to help recover three missing children who wandered too far while playing in the Croatan National Forest.

After getting the call, six crewmembers from VMR-1 rushed to the squadron’s hangar to board one of their beloved HH-46E Sea Knights affectionately referred to as “Pedro.”

For most of the crew, this was the first time they carried out a real-world search and rescue mission. This was also the first mission carried out under the squadron’s new commanding officer who took charge of the “Roadrunners” just three days before the incident.

“It made me extremely happy to be able to return the kids to their parents and make their mother happy,” said Lt. Col. Brian D. Bernth. “As a parent with three kids around the same age, I can only imagine what those parents were feeling. I’m glad these highly-trained Marines were able to bring the children to safety.”

After authorities discoverd the children’s whereabouts, Pedro was directed to a secluded deer stand the children were using for cover.

“When we arrived on the scene, the children were waving their arms to flag us down,” said Nelson.

The crew realized after arriving that they did not have enough space to land the aircraft to retrieve the children. They knew the only way to get on the ground was to send crewmembers down to help the children board the helicopter.

“This is the perfect scenario for us,” said pilot Maj. Bryan E. Donovan, who was navigating Pedro at the time. “We train hard for instances like this where there was lots of scrub brush and nowhere to land.”

Nelson and rescue swimmer Cpl. Chad V. D’Ambrogi rappelled out the aircraft to the ground where they were able to fit all three children in a search and rescue basket and hoist them up to the cabin of the aircraft.

“At first, I was in disbelief that this was actually happening,” said Nelson. “Our reactions were sheer muscle memory. Even though we mainly perform hospital transfers, situations like this are what we train the most for.”

D’Ambrogi noticed one of the boys was missing a shoe. He said the other children gave him their socks to put on his foot to help combat the dropping temperature of the already chilly day. 

“Once we had the children inside, we turned the heat all the way up and wrapped them in blankets,” said Donovan.

The children were transported to a field just a few miles from where they were rescued. Newport Fire and Rescue and other local emergency response teams and authorities were on scene waiting when they arrived.

Nelson said the children thanked the Marines and Sailor aboard Pedro for their efforts. He smiled as he said that it made him feel good to help out and give back to the community.

“A lot of time, effort and training is put forth by all the Marines and Sailors in VMR-1,” said Bernth. “Hard work goes into keeping our aircraft and Marines ready to respond to incidents. It amazes me how good they are at doing their jobs.”

Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point