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Airmen use SABC, save three from icy water
After seeing a boat capsize in the Upper Chena River near Fairbanks, Alaska, May 26. 2013, aircraft structural maintenance technicians Senior Airman Noe Puente, Staff Sgt. Travis McKee, and Tech. Sgt. Zach Stewart (not pictured) from the 354th Maintenance Group, took action to save the lives of three local citizens using Self Aid and Buddy Care. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Peter Reft/Released)
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Airmen use SABC, save three from icy water

Posted 10/1/2013   Updated 10/1/2013 Email story   Print story


by Senior Airman Shawn Nickel
354th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

10/1/2013 - EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska  -- Every Airman trains for emergencies and Self Aid and Buddy Care then proves their skills during exercises, inspections and deployments. For three Icemen, SABC and communication skills became a real matter of life or death during a family trip May 26.

After seeing a boat capsize in the Upper Chena River, the aircraft structural maintenance Airmen from the 354th Maintenance Group took action to save the lives of three local citizens.

After having their campground flooded by the swelling river and moving to higher ground, Staff Sgt. Travis McKee, Senior Airman Noe Puente and Tech. Sgt. Zach Stewart found the group troubled by the raging water.

Jeremy McDonald, driver, along with brothers John and Billy Minerva and a dog, Cutie, were forced into the water when the current of the flooding river pushed their boat against a log, called a sweeper, and turned the vessel upside down. McDonald, who was temporarily trapped under the boat, wiggled free and reached the shore safely, yet was quickly chilled by the icy water.

The Minerva brothers' situation was far worse.

"As soon as I hit the water my breath was taken away and it seemed like thousands of pounds were crushing me because of the current," said John, the older of the two brothers. "We were both trapped under a log jam and there was no way I could move. I could see and it seemed like I could hear everything, but I just couldn't move. I knew I was going to die."

Almost four feet under the frigid water, John's luck turned. His brother's flailing knocked them loose from the logs and they were pushed even deeper. The rushing current swept them under the jam and into open water.

"As soon as I could, I took a breath, but it was just water," he said. "When we finally made it to the surface we could barely move let alone swim and pull ourselves up. At this point we couldn't even fully breathe because water was rushing over our heads."

McKee and Puente had kept close eye on the water and started running down the shore to a position where they could grab the helpless victims. John said he could hear them shouting directions and pointing out where he was floating.

With little regard for their own safety, McKee and Puente crept along a sweeper into the water and pulled the freezing brothers to safety. Cutie was nowhere to be found.

"We would have certainly died if it wasn't for those Airmen," John said. "Not only in the water, but maybe when we made it out from hypothermia."

The three Airmen quickly went to work bandaging minor wounds from the crash and treating symptoms of hypothermia and shock; all skills they learned from Self Aid and Buddy Care training, McKee said.

"We have been forced to watch [Computer Based Trainings] our whole careers and it seem like nothing but a chore. When you're asked to use the training in an exercise, you fumble through it, but in real life all the practice paid off," McKee said. "It was like second nature communicating and being able to help."

After the group was sure no hypothermia was present, they searched for the dog. After hours of searching miles downriver, Cutie was still missing. The boat had completely sunk and was pushed downstream by the rushing current. The group gave up and Stewart drove the three victims home.

Four days later as the spring runoff subsided, Cutie was found under the boat safe and sound.

"There is no way I would be around to have a dog or do anything if it wasn't for these guys," John said. "I would just like to thank them for sacrificing their own safety to save us that day and for sacrificing every day doing what they do."

Although John and others call them heroes, McKee, Puente and Stewart all have humble attitudes about the event.

"We were just happy to be there," McKee said. "It was just common sense at the time. I would expect anyone to do the same no matter who they are."

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