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Posted 9/10/2018

Release no. 18-049

Sharon Gavin

On Sept. 10, 1957, Col. Jackson Graham, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Portland District, visited the hopper dredge William T. Rossell to present the crew with an award for a spotless two-year safety record. Sadly, shortly after Graham arrived back in Coos Bay via helicopter, the Rossell was struck by the Norwegian freighter Thorshall. What followed was one of the most dramatic events in the history of the Coos Bay – the helicopter rescue of 15 sailors from the rapidly sinking vessel.

“We were just returning to Coos Bay when we saw a number of small boats leaving the harbor,” recalled Wes Lematta, the pilot who ferried Graham to and from the Rossell. “We thought they were headed out fishing, but then Graham realized the dredge was sinking. We turned and flew toward the ship.”

As they got closer, Lematta and Graham saw crew members getting into lifeboats, clinging to the rigging and dredge’s superstructure, and “wreckage all over the channel.” Shortly thereafter, the pilot flew to a nearby jetty to drop off Graham, then went to work.

Over the next two hours, Lematta made more than 20 trips out to the Rossell, flying close enough to the rigging to retrieve crew members and carry them to shore one at a time. He saved about a dozen crew members before the winds picked up and he was unable to get close enough.

Back on the jetty, Lematta and Graham tied a rope to the helo’s skid, so the remaining three men could wrap it around themselves and be lifted off the sinking dredge to safety.

In all, 46 of the Rossell’s 50-person crew survived, because of Lematta’s efforts, and those of Coast Guard Boatswain’s Mate 3rd class Myron Colburn – whose skill and seamanship allowed him to rescue four crew members from a small crane on the dredge. Three men, Harry C. Petersen, Ong W. Tip, and Andrew H. Ferguson drowned; a fourth, George N. Quinton, made it to shore but suffered a heart attack and died.

Both Lematta and Colburn were commended for their rescue efforts, with Lematta being one of the few civilians awarded the Army Corps of Engineers Air Medal.

Coos Bay Dredge history