Sailor's suicide attempt prompted complex, 'heroic' response
Ship pilot Richard Willette was out to dinner with his wife last Friday night when he got the call from the Navy. A sailor had sustained a life-threatening injury at sea.
There were a lot of unknowns for Willette, who handles all submarine and other military vessel traffic coming in and out of the Naval Submarine Base and New London Harbor: visibility at sea, the sea conditions, whether the submarine would be able to make it all the way to one of the piers at the base.
Back at the Naval Submarine Base Fire Department, Assistant Chief Jeffrey Post took a call about 6:30 p.m., just after dinner, informing him of the critically injured sailor. Initially, there was a lot of back and forth to establish the location of the submarine and the best plan for responding.
At an 8 p.m. briefing between Navy and fire personnel, a plan was melded together, and a team of four from the fire department — Capt. Patrick M. O'Brien and firefighters Michael Pierangelo, Andrew Caron and Brad Crandall — were sent out on the tug boat John P. Wronoswki, captained by Cal Edmonds, just after 9 p.m.
The USS North Dakota was about 150 nautical miles from the base when a petty officer aboard intentionally shot himself in the right shoulder with a government-issued rifle, according to reports from the Navy and those who responded. The incident occurred about 5 p.m.
About seven hours would pass from the time the sailor shot himself until he got into an ambulance at Fort Trumbull in New London.
In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, the corpsman — a submarine's version of a doctor who is trained to perform medical duties such as triage — led a team of sailors who treated their shipmate's injuries and stabilized him as well as possible.
When the sailor was lucid, his shipmates held a phone in front of his face so that he could watch music videos, according to North Dakota's commanding officer, who highlighted the crew's response in a post on the boat's Facebook page. The post has since been deleted.
"NORTH DAKOTA responded in heroic fashion," Cmdr. Mark Robinson wrote in the post about 6 a.m. Tuesday.
On the tug, the team from the fire department had packed equipment for a variety of circumstances and was prepared to restock the submarine with medical supplies.
"We we're planning on the worst, knowing what we were going into," said O'Brien, the fire captain.
The risk was one they hadn't taken before: coordinating the extrication a sailor out of a tight space on a submarine at sea, at night, in dense fog. It was a situation that the department hadn't come across in the 28 years that fire Chief Thomas Clapsadle Jr. has worked there.
"We can't train to that. That's outside the box," Clapsadle said during an interview Thursday at the firehouse.
As the tug made its way down the Thames River, Willette, the ship pilot, could see lights on both sides of the river. He estimated visibility to be about a half-mile to three quarters of a mile. "From there, though, it just decreased. We couldn't see the rudder from the sail," he recalled Thursday.
On the tug with the firefighters were two Navy doctors. Despite the bad weather, the radiomen on the North Dakota kept up communication, enabling the doctors to remotely lend assistance. The North Dakota's navigation and ship driving team found the fastest way back, traversing heavy seas, dense fog, intense wind and rain.
"It was the worst weather I've ever seen for something like this," Robinson wrote in his Facebook post.
The rendezvous between the submarine and the tug took place at the mouth of the Thames River. Given the poor visibility, Edmonds, captain of the John P. Wronowski, let the submarine go by the tug and came at it from behind "so we could at least see the stern light." Sailors on the North Dakota braved the storm to stand topside and flash lights to help the tug find the submarine.
"Several NORTH DAKOTA Sailors lashed themselves to the deck of the boat at hours near midnight in 'Pea Soup' fog to brace against the weather and make a human safety net for paramedics who helped with our transfer," Robinson wrote.
The crew disassembled parts of the submarine to facilitate getting the sailor off in a stretcher more comfortably. Another team of sailors set up for a complex helicopter transfer, in case they had to get their shipmate off the submarine that way.
The hatch that the fire department and other personnel were initially going to hoist the sailor out of would have involved much more complex maneuvering. Instead, the crew positioned him near the weapons hatch. "That's a home run for us. It's so much easier," Pierangelo, one of the firefighters, said.
With help from his shipmates, the firefighters hoisted the sailor — a tall man, at least 6 foot 1, they said, with a stocky build — diagonally out of the weapons hatch. Given the heavy seas, the crew was worried about water flooding into the hatch, so they wanted to keep it open only for as long as was needed to get the sailor out.
Edmonds, the tug captain, guessed the sailor was off the submarine within 15 to 20 minutes.
"They were pretty efficient. Real efficient, actually," he said.
With the sailor in the pilot house of the tug, which was just south of Electric Boat, Edmonds took off, getting to Fort Trumbull in less than five minutes, where a team of emergency responders coordinated by Post, the sub base fire department assistant chief, were waiting.
"It was a lot of anxious waiting," Post said.
The sailor was placed into one of the sub base fire department's ambulances about 11:45 p.m., and was at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital within two minutes, according to Post. He later was transferred to Yale New Haven Hospital.
"I can't truly express the amount of heroism I saw in the last 48 hours," Robinson, the sub's commanding officer, wrote. "As a result, the Sailor is recovering from surgery in a hospital in New Haven with his parents by his side."
Suicides on submarines
In 2017, five submariners took their own lives, including two Groton-based submariners.
After four Groton-based sailors committed suicide in a span of 13 months from 2004 to 2005, Navy leadership looked into whether the culture of the base was a contributing factor. The deaths apparently stemmed from personal circumstances, a Navy official said at the time. Suicide-prevention programs were intensified.
When a submariner commits suicide, a team of mental health professionals usually meets personally with the crew within 72 hours to help them process the loss, and to identify other crewmembers who might be struggling and need support. The Navy also is working to intervene well before a suicide happens, engaging with submariners early in their careers to help them better cope with stress.
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