Rescue From A Flaming Freighter
Lift Off From A Flaming Freighter
During October 1980 Mike Lakey a pilot resident at RAF Lossiemouth Scotland, received a call instructing him to go on a rescue mission. The Swedish Freighter Finneagle was ablaze in a storm. Two other helicopters had responded to the SOS from the freighter and there were 22 people to be lifted to safety. Just before 11.00pm Rescue 38 the Sea King helicopter lifted into the air with Mike at the controls. With him was his co-pilot Flight Lieutenant Dave Simpson, Sergeant Rick Bragg and medical officer Hamish Grant.
A computer fed with the freighter’s position automatically guided Rescue 38 to the freighter. The wind was so strong that although they were flying 190 km/h they were gaining only 95 km/h over the water. Before they reached the Finneagle one of the pilots on site came through on the radio and informed them that his petrol was not sufficient to carry out the rescue operation and he was on his way back to his base.
Freighter On Fire
They noticed the fire on the Finneagle while still far from the freighter. By 12.30am Mike’s helicopter was hovering next to Finneagle. The other helicopter’s searchlight revealed to them the difficulty of their rescue mission. Cargo was sliding and tons of fire sprinkler water, was surging across the hold causing the freighter to list 60 degrees. Frequent explosives caused flames shooting into the air.
The freighter had been on her last stage from New Orleans to her home port of Wallhamn in Sweden. During the violence of the storm at sea some of the large cargo containers broke loose from their chains and one split open. It spilled out chemicals, and mixed with acid from a smashed battery, it burst into flames, igniting drums also containing chemicals. The terrifying explosives that followed caused cables to burn through, cutting off electric power and partially jamming the steering gear.
Captain Waenerlund and his second officer Gustafsson, could only steer an uneven course because of the damaged steering gear. He managed to keep the fumes blowing away from the bridge and living quarters of the freighter by heading his ship into the gale force wind. The Swedes had gone to seek refuge there. The rescue crew was amazed when they noticed survivors crowding on the ship’s flat roof of the bridge. Trying to escape the fumes they were huddled precariously above the violent sea. The fire was approaching a large tank filled with butane. It was imperative that the survivors were rescued with speed before it exploded.
Mike Had to Maneuver His Helicopter To Rescue The Survivors
Mike shone his searchlight to assist the other helicopter who was having difficulty to maneuver his helicopter into position to rescue the survivors. The wind pulled out his winch cable and he had to watch the radar mast that soared from the center of the bridge roof. The flames from the fire made the rescue nearly impossible. Then the Sikorsky had to abandon the rescue operation, they had run out of fuel. Now Rescue 38 was the only hope to rescue the survivors.
Mike saw the fear and desperation of the survivors with two small children clinging to their mother. He knew that this was a very dangerous rescue attempt but decided to put his trust in the Lord. He hovered the helicopter as low as he could over Finneagle’s plunging bows, while the electric winch lowered Rick down to the survivors. But the wind blew him under the helicopter swinging in a huge arc. Mike could see that Rick could never land in the howling wind and winched him up again. The survivors were losing hope of ever being rescued. Two helicopters had already given up on this rescue attempt.
Mike decided to try another attempt. He hovered above the Finneagle he worked out the lowest height he could risk going down and avoiding the radar mast. He flew the Sea King slightly ahead of the ship and Bill winched down a double harness on 30 meters of steel cable. The harnesses was attached to 45 meters of heavily weighed nylon line
Jan Gustafsson was anxious as he watched the flailing line that the crew was trying hard to catch. Helping the captain on the bridge his wife and two young son’s safety upmost in his mind. If only his family could be saved. When a crew member finally caught it everybody was relieved. More winch cable was released and the crew placed Monica into one harness, while she held her three year old son to her chest. The strap was tightened and encircled both of them. Lena the stewardess was placed in the other harness with Monica’s six year old son.
Mike increased the power and pulled the helicopter into a sudden climb when Bill signaled from below when he saw the radar mast swinging towards the helicopter. The women were jerked from the bridge roof so quick that the children slid down inside the harnesses. The women were terrified and Monica grabbed her son by his shoulders and prayed for help from above. Within minutes they were at the cabin door and Rick had scooped the women and children into the safety of the cabin.
The Survivors Were Winched Up
There were frequent explosives on deck and flames reached high. The survivors were winched up, two by two. The harnesses hauled back by the crew at the bottom with the nylon line. With the fire creeping towards the tank of butane they wondered whether they would be saved in time. Then disaster when the line broke and they did not have a replacement. Now the only hope was to bring the helicopter closer until Bill could throw the line directly onto the bridge roof. The helicopter hovered a meter above the radar mast. Simpson monitored the instruments while calling out the helicopter’s height over the sea. The helicopter became tail heavy when the cabin seats were filled and more men were winched aboard. Mike nearly lost control and shouted for the survivors to move to the front. At last only the captain and his chief engineer were left on board. They could not stop the engines but eventually the petrol would run out. Climbing onto the bridge roof they were lifted and carried to the rescue helicopter. Mike radioed the base at 2.00am that all survivors were aboard. They soon reached Kirkwall in Orkney to deliver the survivors.
Rewards Are Bestowed
Mike received the George Medal and the International Helicopter Heroism Award. The rest of the crew also received rewards for their part in the amazing rescue. A replica of Finneagle’s bell was received inscribed with gratitude from the owners of the MS Finneagle and their crew and family members. It has a place of honor in the operations room at Lossiemouth.
© 2017 Anita Hasch