A line of strong thunderstorms moved through west Florida in late September, bringing with it 45-knot winds and heavy downpours that significantly reduced visibility. Although command center watchstanders issued marine information broadcast, the storm caught many boaters off guard.
Phones rang off the hook and radios blared with transmissions from distressed boaters. By storm’s end the watch team responded to the highest volume of distress calls in the sector’s history, answering more than 60 reports of distress. It was a night of remarkable dedication to duty by watchstanders at St. Petersburg; it was a night they dubbed SARmageddon.
Leading the response coordination during the 12-hour period was the team of Petty Officer 1st Class Ronnie Leavell, Petty Officer 2nd Class Will Lengyel and Petty Officer 3rd Class Brittany Doss.
An array of reports had come in running the full gamut of maritime emergencies: capsized and swamped boats, people in the water, sunken vessels, boats adrift, people stranded on islands and shoals, flares, overdue boaters, vessels beset by weather, maydays and, last but certainly not least, vessels dragging anchor.
It was up to Leavell, Lengyel and Doss to cut through this chaos and get to the task at hand – saving lives.
On most weekend nights, the command center at St. Petersburg will work between four and seven cases, but this was far from a normal night; at one point the command center had three operations unit controllers calculating five separate search and rescue patterns simultaneously.
Through the planning and coordination prepared by Leavell, Lengyel and Doss, boat crews from Station Cortez, Station St. Petersburg and Station Sand Key got underway, assisting boaters in need, while Coast Guard Cutter Marlin searched for a 19-foot boat sinking with four people aboard.
“Without question the efforts of Sector St. Petersburg’s command center, and the response that night of the brave men and woman of Station St. Petersburg, was exemplary and saved the lives of many that would have otherwise perished,” said Senior Chief Petty Officer Eamon McCormack, officer-in-charge of Station St. Petersburg.
The tasking of aircrews also played a critical part in the response that night. Ready crews for both helicopters and airplanes launched from Air Station Clearwater, while crews not set to work until the next morning reported to work to do their part.
In one case, the command center watchstanders expertly executed a search plan that placed one of Clearwater’s helicopters in prime position to search for six missing persons from three separate cases. The helicopter successfully located all six persons and recovered the six people and a dog with the help of Station Sand Key.
“The entire team had to perform perfectly to ensure that all mariners made it home safe that night,” said Lt. Ben Oloughlin, chief of the command center. “The outstanding teamwork and expert response of all crews involved during SARmaggedon was a testament to the hard work and dedication of our Coast Guard men and women along the west coast of Florida.”
As if coordinating dozens of cases at the same time wasn’t enough, SARmaggedon just so happened to coincide with Leavell’s 10th wedding anniversary. While his long-standing dinner plans with his wife, Charlene, went awry, he was proud to stand the watch that night.
“I was just proud to play a small part of the big picture and working with people the caliber of OS2 Will Lengyel and OS3 Brittany Doss made the night, which felt like a month of Sundays, go much smoother during that time.”
By storm’s end, the Coast Guard saved 30 lives and protected $156,500 dollars in property. It was a Sunday night for the record books but it was just another night of standing watch for the men and women of the U.S. Coast Guard.