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Rescue Team Awarded Medals for Preventing Ship Disaster

Daily Astorian

Last November, as winds roared at speeds up to 50 mph and ocean swells climbed to 35 feet, a decommissioned oil tanker enroute from Portland to China snapped its tugboat tow line.

Still loaded with about 20,000 gallons of fuel oil, the 906-foot tanker drifted backward toward Willapa Bay, Wash. and the bay's sensitive wildlife refuge.

It was a moment everyone hoped would never come. Officials estimated that there were about 12 hours to prevent a disaster that could equal the New Carissa grounding in 1999.

The U.S. Coast Guard decided to turn the task of averting the disaster over to Portland's Helicopter AirTransport.

"It was a very, very dangerous and threatening situation," said Rand Wintermute, vice president of Helicopter AirTransport who took the emergency call Thanksgiving evening. "(The tanker) was five times larger than the New Carissa, so there was plenty of room to be nervous."

In a harrowing act, pilots and crewmen quickly geared up, landed rescuers on the tanker and after two failed attempts, successfully reattached a new tow line and put the tanker back on its way.

That five-man rescue team was presented Friday with humanitarian service medals for preventing what could have been a terrible calamity. Pilots John Glen, Mike Holtsclaw, Truman Craig and crewmen Troy Fry and Wayne Simpson as well as a host of others involved in the effort were recognized for "valiant action" in a ceremony at the Astoria Regional Airport in Warrenton.

Dena Horton, representing U.S. Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., read a letter from the congressman and a resolution by the Washington State Senate commending the crew. Other attendees included Capt. Bill Worth, master mariner with the Columbia River Bar Pilots Association, Loran Matthews, representing Astoria Mayor Willis Van Dusen and Tom Hutson, president of Helicopter AirTransport.