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Guard Bureau Honors Heroes of Water Taxi Tragedy

By Master Sgt. Bob Haskell, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service

ARLINGTON, Va., March 16, 2004 – Four Puerto Rico Air National Guard members were saluted as heroes at the National Guard Bureau headquarters here March 15, nine days after helping to save the lives of other water taxi passengers in the Baltimore harbor.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Four Puerto Rico National Guard airmen who helped rescue passengers from a capsized water taxi in Baltimore on March 6, pose with Brig. Gen. Charles Ickes II, the Air National Guard's chief operations officer, at the National Guard Bureau's joint headquarters in Arlington, Va., March 15. From left are Staff Sgts. Luis Nazario, Antonio Acosta and Alejandro Gonzalez, and Master Sgt. David Blakeley. Photo by Master Sgt. Bob Haskell, USA
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Master Sgt. David Blakeley and Staff Sgts. Alejandro Gonzalez, Antonio Acosta and Luis Nazario had a day off March 6 and were among 25 people aboard a 36- foot pontoon water taxi, the Lady D, which a rogue wind capsized about 100 yards off shore from historic Fort McHenry.

Four passengers drowned in the accident.

The noncommissioned officers kept their wits and pulled the ill-fated craft's first mate, Michael Homan, out of the 44-degree water and gave him cardiopulmonary resuscitation. They said they pulled another man to safety and also rescued a woman.

The Guard NCOs are serving at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, D.C., with other members of the Puerto Rico Air Guard's 141st Air Control Squadron, helping to maintain airspace security over the nation's capital.

The four were sightseeing in Baltimore when they got caught up in the dramatic event that grabbed the entire country's attention.

"I applaud you for what you did," Brig. Gen. Charles Ickes II, the Air National Guard's chief operations officer, told them. "It's hard to measure how much of an impact you guys have had. I'm sure that a lot of people will never forget you for the job you did out there.

"I would think that people probably don't have a feel for what you went through," Ickes added.

"We were just at the right place at the wrong time," said Gonzalez.

They first escaped from the overturned boat by opening and breaking out windows before turning their attention to other passengers. All four were treated later for minor injuries. Gonzalez had an eight-stitch cut on the back of his head, caused by jagged glass.

All four feel lucky to be alive. They do not consider themselves to be heroes, and they provided detailed accounts of how they helped other passengers.

"I don't know how to swim, so I don't know how I got out," Gonzalez told Puerto Rico National Guard officials. "I just commended myself to God and asked him to give me one last breath to see my children," added the father of three daughters and a son.

"An angel saved me, because I cannot remember how I got out," Blakeley said. "As I came up, I saw our guys and breathed a sigh of relief. I saw a couple with a child, who still had two kids at the bottom, and they were screaming for someone to help them."

"I dove back down to the boat and reached inside the boat and felt a foot, and pulled out the first mate," Blakely continued. "He was turning purple. Acosta and Nazario gave him CPR and brought him back to life."

"Two minutes after I was up and still catching my breath I was called by Acosta to help Blakeley bring up the first mate," said Gonzalez.

"An older man floated up and Acosta grabbed him by his jacket and pulled him in," Blakeley added. Blakeley also grabbed a woman who was drifting away from the boat and brought her back, so Nazario could pull her out of the water.

"You've got to be proud of yourselves. God put you there for a reason," said Col. J. Craig Brown, the Air Guard's director of command and control, communications and computers. "We're glad you were here. We're glad you had a day off. And some people aboard that boat are very glad that you had that day off and that you were there.

"This just goes to show what you bring to this country and the world, your skills, your talents and your dedication

Naval reservists and firefighters assigned to Baltimore's fireboat unit pulled most of victims from the water and rescued them from hull of the water taxi.

"When the naval reservists came up, they got into the water without a second's thought to get the others who were still down," marveled Gonzalez. "The rescuers did not even stop to put on wetsuits. They just dove right in."

Gonzales added that the experience strengthened his religious beliefs. "After this brush with death, I was born again," he said.

Blakely said he was the last of the four to come out. "When the boat turned over, water started coming in really fast. As the water started coming up to what was now the top of the boat, I took a deep breath. A feeling of tranquility came over me, and I thought about my wife and the guys with me.

"As I got ready to exhale, I saw a light despite the dirty water, and the next thing I knew I was on the surface and saw our guys," he added. "It was not our time to go."

The four airmen can expect further tributes for their brave deeds, Guard officials said. Maj. Gen. Bruce Tuxill, the adjutant general for Maryland, has indicated he wants to present the four men with awards. So has Brig. Gen. Francisco Marquez, Puerto Rico's adjutant general.

Homan, the first mate, and his wife, Peg, thanked the men during a 90-minute visit in Alexandria, Va., March 14. Peg Homan gave each of them a crucifix and told them they were like angels, Blakeley said. "She told us we gave her the best gift we could give her when we saved her husband's life, and that she would pray for us for the rest of her life."

(Army Master Sgt. Bob Haskell is assigned to the National Guard Bureau.)

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