U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Daniel Blaich said he began “running through a lot of scenarios in his head” as soon as he learned he would be on a team responding to the Golden Ray cargo ship that capsized off St. Simons Island in Georgia this month.
The call came at 10 o’clock the night before, so Blaich didn’t have much time to consider what he and the rest of his crew would be getting into the next morning, Sept. 9. Top on his mind was the type of equipment they would need, plus how to configure the aircraft, including fuel, “because of the weight of it.” Every pound counts when your helicopter will land on the side of a ship.
“We didn’t have a lot of specific information until we got down there,” he told CNY by phone last week.
Blaich, 34, a native of Staten Island and a 2003 graduate of Msgr. Farrell High School, learned in the morning briefing that his crew would work to assist a specialized civilian rescue team flown in from out of state to rescue four crewmembers on the capsized ship.
“We had to get them and their equipment on board and be available to assist them as needed for the duration of the day,” Blaich said.
Blaich, a pilot certified in search and rescue and air intercept missions, served as co-pilot on the four-person crew that day which included a rescue swimmer, the flight mechanic and the pilot.
In their initial discussions at a morning briefing with experts, including representatives of the shipping company and other rescuers, “there was some concern about the stability of the ship and the weight it would support,” Blaich explained. To lessen impact, the helicopter hovered over the ship with some power on before slowly lowering down.
The helicopter they flew, a MH-65 Dolphin, weighed about 9,000 pounds, with its own crew as well as two of the rescuers from the civilian rescue teams. (Over the course of the day, they made other trips to carry additional rescuers to the ship.)
“The ship was very level. Over night, it had rolled to about a 90-degree position,” Blaich said.
Dropping off the rescue team members atop the ship “was the fastest and safest way” for them to get on board so they could reach the area of the hull “they needed to drill in,” he said.
Blaich said the first three crewmembers were rescued from the ship rather quickly although he did not track that part of the operation because his team was busy carrying out its own assignment. The extrication of the fourth crewmember was more complicated, because of “where they were positioned in the ship,” Blaich said. From what Blaich learned, the crewmember was sealed inside the engine room behind thick glass.
The rescue team was able to reach and ultimately release that crewmember in fairly short order, so that the entire operation, which began with an initial drop-off at 8:30 a.m., was completed around 4 p.m. Blaich said the Coast Guard had been prepared to spend several days on the operation, with the involvement of other teams.
There was surprise and relief that the successful mission had ended so quickly. “The time was very quick for the amount of work that had to be done,” Blaich said.
Being able to “rescue someone, to save their life and bring them back to their family, it’s very gratifying,” said Blaich, who noted the fact that the Coast Guard “does their mission on a regular basis” factored heavily in his decision to enter the Coast Guard in 2008.
Blaich, who is engaged, has only been serving since July at Coast Guard Air Station Savannah, which is located about 60 miles from where the cargo ship capsized.
“Lifesaving was a strong factor in seeking out the Coast Guard,” said Blaich, who added that service in the Coast Guard enabled him to combine that mission with his love of aviation.
You could definitely say life-saving careers run in the Blaich family. Daniel’s dad, Charles Blaich, is a retired deputy chief with the FDNY.
“He is a big role model for me, and his firefighting career and being a lifesaver motivated me to seek out that kind of job,” Daniel Blaich said.
His mother, Mary DiBiase Blaich, a news photographer, has been a leading freelancer for Catholic New York for many years.
“They’re a great family, wonderful people,” said Larry Musanti, who remembers Daniel and his older brother, Andrew, from their days at Msgr. Farrell, where Musanti is now principal.
Musanti quickly ticked off many of Daniel’s activities at Farrell and recalled that even as a high school student Daniel knew that “he wanted to be a pilot.” After graduating from Farrell, Blaich attended Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla.
“He knew what he wanted to do, and he didn’t deviate,” Musanti said.