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CLEVELAND — Friends, family members, former crew members and Coast Guardsmen from the Coast Guard 9th District are honoring the service and sacrifice of a fellow Coast Guardsman 20 years after his tragic death during a search-and-rescue mission in Lake Erie near Cleveland.
Petty Officer 3rd Class Michael O’Neill died on Sept. 21, 1993.
On Sept. 20, 1993, just before midnight, a Coast Guard rescue crew from Station Cleveland Harbor launched aboard a 41-foot Utility Boat in response to a search-and-rescue case. The crew of five, responding to the 70-foot tug Duke Luedtke taking on water 14 miles offshore in Lake Erie, included O’Neill. The rescuers arrived on scene to find the commercial tug’s crew still aboard the vessel as water poured on and over the stern. O’Neill boarded the tug with another crew member to start de-watering operations.
Within minutes of boarding the tug, however, the ship rolled to port striking the Coast Guard rescue boat. The Duke Luedtke sank stern first.
The tug’s crew and the other Coast Guard crew member escaped, rescued by a second Coast Guard UTB crew that had arrived on scene. Tragically, O’Neill was trapped inside the tug and could not escape.
O’Neill’s service in the Coast Guard began in August 1991 when he graduated from basic training and reported to his first unit, Coast Guard Cutter Baranof, after he completed basic training. The Baranof operated primarily in the Caribbean Sea.
O’Neill was involved in several significant events in his short career including the mass-rescue of 212 people from a vessel on the verge of capsizing in November 1991. He participated in the rescue of two 40-foot vessels severely overloaded with more than 300 Haitian migrants. He helped transfer the Haitians from their overloaded vessels to the Baranof.
On another mission, just one day before Hurricane Andrew came ashore, the crew aboard the Baranof, with O’Neill as the crew's coxswain, or smallboat operator, saved the lives of migrants who were rescued from 55-gallon drums in the Straits of Florida.
O'Neill was a seaman when he died and was posthumously advanced to petty officer third class in the boatswain’s mate rating.
O'Neill's family and Coast Guard shipmates are scheduled to hold a remembrance ceremony on Saturday afternoon in his hometown of West Alexander, Pa.