Monday was supposed to be U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Jane Peñas day off, but the Pierce County native found herself at the center of a dramatic rescue effort as a replica sailing ship sank while trying to outrun Hurricane Sandy off the North Carolina coast.
Peña, a 2000 graduate of Curtis High School whose maiden name is Johnston, was the co-pilot of one of two Coast Guard helicopters that plucked 14 HMS Bounty crew members from the turbulent waters of the Atlantic after they were forced to abandon ship.
It was kind of scary, but it was all worth it, Peña, 31, told The News Tribune on Monday afternoon.
The sinking of the Bounty, built in 1962 for use in the Marlon Brando movie, Mutiny on the Bounty, was one of the major stories Monday as Sandy collided with the eastern seaboard, bringing rain, high winds and flooding to New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and other states.
CNN, ABC, NBC and other news outlets featured the story during their storm coverage, including airing Coast Guard video of helicopter crews hoisting survivors out of the water. Two Bounty crew members remained missing late Monday.
VIDEO: U.S. Coast guard footage of rescue
Troubles for the Bounty, which appeared at Tacomas Tall Ships Festival in 2008, began Sunday night.
The square-rigged ship carrying a crew of 16 was 100 miles off the North Carolina coast about 10 p.m., struggling to reach port ahead of Sandy when crew members radioed the Coast Guard saying the ship was taking on water.
Crew members said they thought the 180-foot vessel might hold together until 8 a.m. Monday, but then theyd be forced to abandon ship, Peña said.
Turns out they were off by four hours, and they were forced into the water about 4 a.m.
The public affairs office for the Coast Guards 5th District reported the Bounty crew radioed it was without propulsion and that its crew was donning cold-water survival suits and life jackets and launching two 25-person lifeboats.
It went badly very quickly, Peña said.
Peña, Lt. Cmdr. Steve Cerveny, flight mechanic Mike Lufkin and aviation survival technician Randy Hoba were aboard the first MH-60 helicopter on the scene.
The conditions were challenging, Peña said, with winds gusting to 40 mph, low visibility and ocean swells topping 30 feet.
This is the first case Ive ever seen like this, said Peña, who graduated from the University of Washington in 2004 and got clearance to fly for the Coast Guard about a year ago.
With the help of a circling C-130 airplane, the helicopter crew spotted a lone survivor bobbing in ocean, Peña said.
While Peña spotted and kept an eye on fuel gauges and the weather, Cerveny maneuvered the helicopter into position about 300 feet above the water so Hoba could jump in and help the Bounty survivor into a rescue basket lowered by Lufkin.
With that person safely aboard, the crew found a life boat carrying seven other survivors, not far from where the Bounty foundered, all but its masts submerged.
Peña and her colleagues got four of them aboard before being forced to return to Air Station Elizabeth City because they were running out of fuel. Another helicopter crew rescued nine more survivors, the Coast Guard reported.
Peña said the mission validated her career choice.
Im glad Im a Coast Guard helicopter pilot, she said.