On September 16, 1990, the Tanker Vessel Jupiter, a million gallon gasoline tanker, caught fire and exploded at a pier in Saginaw Bay, Michigan.
Coast Guard Auxiliarists Robert and Jean Colby were on standby Search and Rescue duty at the nearby Coast Guard station.
Their 20-foot outboard and a 41-foot Coast Guard utility boat were on the scene within eight minutes of the first distress call. They found several of Jupiter’s crew members shouting for help from the waters around the blazing vessel, some without personal flotation devices and some who couldn’t swim. Undaunted by the smoke and intense heat, Robert Colby maneuvered his boat toward the Jupiter while his wife prepared to pull survivors onboard. “We were close enough to touch the Jupiter,” Robert Colby said, “and we could hear the fire crackling.” Despite the danger of further explosions and asphyxiation, the Colbys pulled five survivors from the water and assisted with the rescue of three more, took them ashore, and provided medical attention until an ambulance arrived.
The Colbys were awarded Gold Lifesaving Medals, one of the highest Coast Guard honors awarded to civilians, for their “determined efforts, outstanding initiative, and fortitude during this rescue while jeopardizing their own safety…in saving the lives of eight people.” The Gold Lifesaving Medal has been awarded 645 times since it was established by Congress in 1874. The Colbys are members of a distinguished group of brave Americans who have been recognized for over a century for acts of heroism in saving or endeavoring to save others from shipwreck and other perils of the water. At Robert Colby’s funeral Saturday, this act of heroism was only one of the achievements he was remembered for. Equally important were his 27 years of selfless volunteer service in the Coast Guard Auxiliary as a leader. His positions included election as Commodore of the Ninth District Central Region for 1998-1999, when he championed and oversaw the return of Auxiliary Air to the 9CR. This vital force multiplier continues to be heavily leveraged by the two Coast Guard Air Stations on the Great Lakes located centrally in Michigan. His practical wisdom was incorporated into the rewritten Auxiliary manual to the benefit of Auxiliary operations since. Commodore Colby leaves a continuing legacy of service in those he mentored, including the current active duty Officer in Charge of Station Saginaw River Master Chief Jerry Backus, and Auxiliary National Vice Commodore, Mark Simoni. “Bob Colby was a born leader. He was always ready to help members upgrade their skills. He set the bar high in his life, and he worked hard to help everyone excel,” said Simoni. “Bob was an unassuming hero, he never bragged about his exploits, but we all knew he walked the walk, so when he gave you a tip on how to do things better, you listened. As someone following in his footsteps I often think about how the example Bob set as a leader, a mentor and friend.” Auxiliarists play an integral role in the Coast Guard’s past, present, and future. From promoting boating safety to providing search and rescue support from the air to cooking breakfast at a boat station so the cook can have a weekend morning with his or her family, Auxiliarists contribute in countless ways. The Auxiliary is a force multiplier—they allow the Coast Guard to do more with fewer resources. Their efforts to educate the public about safety on the water – from PFD’s and flare requirements to rip current awareness – means their fellow citizens are able to self-help when trouble finds them, or be the good Samaritan to someone else in trouble on the water. Our Coast Guard Auxiliarists represent service in its purest form: they volunteer for administrative duties, teach safety classes, use Coastie to interact with children and get the message out, stand the watch at the Station, and are “Semper Paratus,” or “Always Ready,” to brave heavy seas, scorching fires, and frigid waters to protect their fellow man.
Their dramatic rescue of Jupiter’s crewmembers merits honor and praise, as does the 27 years Robert Colby devoted to the United States Coast Guard as an Auxiliarist. By his comrades, his family, and the U.S. Coast Guard, he will be missed. Fair winds and following seas, Commodore Colby.
Robert Colby, past Commodore of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Ninth Central Region, passed away April 17th. His obituary can be read here.