(CHICAGO, IL) – Miles from shore and fatigued from treading water in the choppy waves of Lake Michigan, a sailboat captain who was tossed from his vessel was preparing himself to die. Just before he slipped below water, the four-man crew from Chicago Fire Boat 688 came to his rescue.
At 10:45 a.m. on July 31, 2015, a distress call came in to 911; a person in a sailboat had been knocked overboard by high waves. Lt. Hans Ziegenbein and his crew members – boat engineer Robert Bloome and divers Christopher Heinz and Felix Serrano of the Chicago Fire Department’s Air Sea Rescue Unit – were dispatched to find the vessel. Using radar technology, they identified a fleeting image 10 miles offshore and four miles south of what was first reported. The vessel had drifted because of strong winds and currents. They found a passenger on board, but the sailboat’s captain was nowhere in sight.
The crew learned from the passenger that the captain was a good swimmer, but he was not wearing a flotation device. With the rough currents and erratic wave patterns, he could have been dragged under water or in any direction.
CFD Crew 688 is trained for this type of search and rescue operation. A 19-year veteran firefighter and certified diver, Lt. Ziegenbein fights fires on land from November to April. In the warmer months, he and firefighters Bloome, Heinz and Serrano patrol the lakes and rivers.
The crew examined the wind and wave patterns to estimate where the captain might have drifted. They changed their course and Bloome steered the boat in the direction of an object sighted on the radar. They found the captain adrift and struggling to keep his head above water. Heinz and Serrano dove into the water and swam to him, pulling him to safety.
Battered by waves and exposed in the cold water for more than 30 minutes, the captain was exhausted from struggling to stay afloat – but he was alive, and the crew brought him to a waiting ambulance on shore.
“He told us that he had given up,” Lt. Ziegenbein said. “He had made peace that he wouldn’t be rescued and he would die out there. For him to feel he was that close to death, and survived – that’s what made this a rewarding rescue for all of us.”
The Firefighter Award is presented by ComEd to a professional, volunteer firefighter(s), or medical personnel related to dispatch operations at a fire department who acted above and beyond the call of duty, exhibiting heroism either in response to an emergency situation or through an ongoing commitment to the community.
The American Red Cross of Chicago & Northern Illinois is honoring local people who demonstrated acts of heroism in the community at the organization’s 14th annual Heroes Breakfast, Thursday, April 28 at the Hilton Chicago, 720 S. Michigan Ave. For more information: http://www.redcross.org/news/article/local/il/chicago/American-Red-Cross-Honors-Local-Heroes.
Written by: Patricia Kemp, Communications Manager, American Red Cross of Chicago & Northern Illinois