It is a mindset unfamiliar to most; a level of training and ability that enables someone to react immediately to a crisis. A mindset that at times, appears to supersede logic. To react almost without thinking, allowing one’s self to rise above mental and physical limitations is the ultimate goal of a Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewman (SWCC). When a SWCC takes to the water on a mission, he is at that level. These young sailors make decisions with an increased level of responsibility daily. They are the maritime experts of today.
Some were able to put training into action July 7 when a barge struck a “Duck Boat” in the Delaware River sending 35 passengers and 2 crewmembers into the water. The amphibious tour vehicle entered the Delaware River and then suffered a small engine fire rendering the boat helpless. It was struck about 10 minutes later by a barge used to transport sludge, then immediately sank.
“We heard a distress call come over the marine band radio that a boat had been struck by a barge in front of Penn’s Landing, so we quickly mobilized the boats, got underway and launched the CRRC (Combat Rubber Raiding Craft)” said Special Warfare Boat Operator (SWCC) 2nd Class Doug Sexton, a Mark V Special Operations Craft (MK V) boat captain from Special Boat Team 20. Two MK V boats from Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek were in Philadelphia to participate in community relations events. “We were able to recover three victims from the CRRC and two others from the pier.” The SWCC were at the location of the rescue in approximately 5 minutes from receiving the distress call.
Five SWCC onboard the Zodiac took part in the maritime rescue. Three victims were pulled into the craft and then taken to a pier near-by. They were lifted up by four additional SWCC who ran to the pier immediately to assist other victims in the water. Quickly thinking they threw a nearby fire hose into the water to pull victims up and into safety, and then transferred them to a medical staff, waiting to provide care. “When we pulled them into the CRRC, I did a quick triage and aside from being under stress and fatigue from the accident, I didn’t see any physical injuries” said Special Warfare Boat Operator (SWCC) 2nd Class Oran Finer, a Special Operations Combat Medic with Special Boat Team 20.
“Driving the CRRC up to the site, we saw boats having trouble rescuing a few people in the water.” said Special Warfare Boat Operator (SWCC) 2nd Class Alexander Kennedy. “I saw those people and thought ‘we have got to get them out of there.’"
There was a 10-knot current which made it difficult to keep the boat from floating downstream. Kennedy saw this and reacted right away by holding the pylon to keep the boat steady, allowing the others to pull the three victims onboard.
These elite boat operators are trained in a cadre of disciplines including water survival, first aid, navigation and many different types of weapons. Their school has a 75% drop out rate. That means that approximately one out of every 4 students make it through. While this is a large ratio, it also means that these sailors are at the top. They perform at the peak of their ability and are the best at what they do. These operators expertly navigate and pilot specialized high-speed, low profile and highly technical surface combatant craft during special operations force missions. They focus on the clandestine infiltration and exfiltration of SEALs and other special operations forces. SWCC provide stealth and rapid mobility in shallow water areas where larger ships cannot operate. SWCC operate three state-of-the-art craft including the MK-V Special Operations Craft, Naval Special Warfare 11-meter Rigid Hulled Inflatable Boats (RIB) and the Special Operations Craft-Riverine (SOC-R). The MK-V involved in the rescue has the ability to be air transported by a C-5 aircraft to a theater of operations within 48 hours of notification and is prepared to commence day or night special operations.
SWCC missions include direct action special reconnaissance, interdiction, and rapid response to a myriad of non-combatant evacuation operations. SWCC conduct counterterrorism and deception operations, riverine warfare, and search and rescue missions, not unlike rescuing victims from this tragic accident.
SWCC are the masters of maritime Special Operations, and employ their specialized training, equipment, and tactics in missions worldwide.
As experts of the waterways, these 14 young men had never experienced a type of crisis such as they did in the Delaware River. On the water, one could see life vests and other debris, which was a cause for concern for these young sailors, with one thought on their minds, to rescue any remaining survivors. Reacting swiftly with their life-saving skill-set, they sped into action.
“There was debris everywhere when we launched the CRRC. I noticed the police pulling in two people, one was larger, and they were having difficulties getting him in,” said Special Warfare Boat Operator (SWCC) 2nd Class Kevin Mahoney, “So that’s when I hopped out and onto the Philadelphia police boat and helped them pull him up out of the water.” Afterward, Mahoney pulled the last person out of the river and on to the police boat, a young boy.
“My only thought was saving the people drowning when we were coming up on them,” said Special Warfare Boat Operator (SWCC) 2nd Class Brandon Mullinix, “after transferring the three to the pier, we heard a head count of only 15 out of over 30 people rescued. We kicked into high gear and started a search for more survivors. My focus was finding others.
“We started looking for other survivors once we noticed the search beginning. With a higher elevation it is easier for us to spot items or people that you just can’t see from a couple feet off the water,” said Sexton, referring to the MK V. Using a depth finder they were able to acquire an approximate location of the sunken vessel. They gave this information to the local authorities as a point from which to begin an underwater search.
A boat captain of one of these vessels has an incredible responsibility. Not only is he accountable for the safety of the other men on his boat, he has to have his situational awareness on overdrive, being keen to his surroundings. More importantly, a boat captain has weapons release authority. He can tell his gunners when to start shooting. This authority is similar to that of a Tactical Action Officer. In most cases, these men are in their early 20s, and are either first or second class Petty Officers. To some, it might be alarming to have such a young sailor with this degree of authority. Yet these men are the best in the world at what they do. They are the cream of the crop, a cut above general- purpose force service members.
After conducting a search in the area with no further survivors, the MK V crew recovered the CRRC and made the decision to depart. Unfortunately, there no other survivors recovered. There were 35 of 37 victims were accounted for. Two people had perished in the accident.
“I just wish we could have done something more to get those other two. I’m sorry for their families I know this must be tough,” said Mahoney.
“While we do grieve with the families of those who died in the accident, I’m very fortunate that my men are well adept and trained to react on a short notice to virtually any type of situation on the water,” said Senior Chief Weaver, MK V Detachment Commander for Special Boat Team 20. “Their training was truly put to the test, and came in very useful during the rescue. I am very pleased with the caliber of people we work with in Naval Special Warfare.”