Sitting in a helicopter several hundred feet above the black waters of the Gulf of Mexico with gale force winds whipping around him, heavy turbulence and near zero visibility, U.S. Coast Guard flight mechanic Dan Berlemann was scared.
Berlemann, 29, was one of four crewmen trying to save two stranded Florida fishermen about 35 miles southwest of Naples, Fla., during Hurricane Katrina. The sinking shrimp boat, beset by winds and taking on water, was trying to return to its port when it was caught in the outer bands of the hurricane.
For his efforts, Berlemann was awarded the Air Medal, the second-highest aviation award for valor, from the Coast Guard at an impromptu ceremony Monday night at Boone County Fire Protection District Station 14. The citation commended Berlemann’s “remarkable focus” as he worked to control a steel cable used to hoist down the team’s rescue swimmer.
Berlemann and three other servicemen had flown out of an air station in Miami in the early morning hours of Aug. 27, 2005, to locate the 70-foot boat called Mr. Natural. Hours earlier, the two fishermen had frantically sent out a distress signal.
But the Coast Guard helicopter was having trouble reaching the fishermen. A line of severe thunderstorms stood in their way, and the boat was falling apart.
“It was unbelievable,” Berlemann said Tuesday. “There were 30- to 40-foot waves and the wind gusts were strong. You could hardly see anything. It was complete chaos.”
After 45 minutes of searching, the Coast Guard crew spotted the shrimp boat’s lights in the distance. But as Berlemann prepared to hoist down a rescue basket to the fishermen, the men panicked, put on their life jackets and jumped into the ocean.
“It was kind of go-time at that point,” Berlemann said.
The helicopter was forced to fly down to a low hover to send down a rescue swimmer.
But the stainless steel cable Berlemann used to hoist down the swimmer became a lash as it whipped the ill-equipped Coast Guard helicopter. It punctured the helicopter’s nose and ripped off part of its door. The cable hit Berlemann’s helmet, gashing it deeply.
At one point, Berlemann’s hand was pinned against the helicopter’s door frame by the swinging cable. His watchband stopped the cable from cutting into his flesh.
“If it wasn’t for my watch, the cable probably would’ve taken a chunk out of my arm,” he said.
In the end, Berlemann hoisted the rescue swimmer and two fishermen successfully into the helicopter before the aluminum rescue basket smashed against the aircraft.
“It was dangerous,” Berlemann said. “But we saved two lives and our own, so it was successful.”
He was told he would receive the Air Medal in the mail, but it never came. Its delivery Monday by three other crew members on the rescue mission came as a complete surprise, set up by his impressed new colleagues at the Boone County Fire Protection District.
The Webster Groves native attended MU in the mid-1990s but dropped out to join the Coast Guard. “I wanted excitement and college just wasn’t doing it for me,” he said. After spending six and a half years with the armed forces, Berlemann moved to Columbia in January, hoping to get a job with the Columbia Fire Department.
He’s still on the waiting list for an opening with the department. In the meantime, he works full time as an emergency medical technician for University Hospital and as a volunteer firefighter with the county fire district.
“We’re happy to have him,” said Boone County Fire Chief Steve Paulsell. “All of this happened way before he came to us, so we’re just lucky to get him here.”
Berlemann said he was “floored” by Monday’s surprise ceremony. “I saw those guys walking in with their green flight jackets on, and I was just shocked that they would fly from Miami just to see me,” he said. “It was great.”