One of the bedrock principles of military service is to leave no one behind. So when an airman, Staff Sgt. Cole Condiff, 29, fell from a cargo plane into the waters south of the Florida Panhandle during a training exercise last week, an intense search effort was quickly underway.
Rescue teams started from the spot where he was believed to have fallen on Tuesday, about four miles offshore between Fort Walton Beach and Pensacola. The Coast Guard dispatched three different types of aircraft over the course of the search, along with a number of boats. Army Special Forces joined the search as well.
But after three and a half days scouring 700 square miles of the Gulf of Mexico without success, the rescue teams faced the grim reality: The sergeant was unlikely to have survived that long unaided. Their mission was no longer to rescue him, but to recover his body.
“It’s not an easy decision,” said Chief Petty Officer Lauren Jorgensen, a spokeswoman for Coast Guard’s Eighth District in New Orleans, which covers the Gulf Coast. “Every piece of information that can be gathered about the person’s characteristics helps in creating our search patterns, and then determining how long it makes sense to keep searching.”
There is no hard and fast rule for when to make that call. Rescue coordinators must take into consideration environmental factors like the weather and the water temperature, and also whether the search effort is putting the searchers in danger from hazards like high seas and storms.
Capt. Chip Lewin has made the call to suspend a search a couple of dozen times in his nearly 29 years in the Coast Guard. “It’s of the most difficult decisions we have to make in search and rescue,” said Captain Lewin, who serves as the chief of incident management for the Eighth District. “There aren’t any two cases that are identical. Each time we have to take new factors into account, and give the person the best chance of being saved.”
“We call it off when we believe that the chance of survival is unlikely and our efforts are no longer fruitful,” Captain Lewin explained. “Emotions are there, and we’ve all lost people,” he added. “But we try to put logic and empathy into the decision.”
Bad weather was not a factor in the search for Sergeant Condiff, and the waters temperatures near Fort Walton Beach were around 70 degrees Fahrenheit. But even in fairly warm water, hypothermia can set in when a person is immersed for a long time. “Any water that is colder than your core body temperature will eventually cause hypothermia,” Chief Jorgensen said.
The Coast Guard can base its decision in part on computer software that calculates the probability of survival for a given temperature and time. The service’s search and rescue manual notes that when a person’s a core body temperature falls to 82.4 degrees, he or she is expected to lose consciousness.
It is a kind of brutal math that no amount of physical conditioning can overcome. Sergeant Condiff’s job as a combat controller — an expert at calling in airstrikes from the ground — who was assigned to the 23rd Special Tactics Squadron at Hurlburt Air Force Base required him to be in top physical condition. He had completed a rigorous two-year training program in parachuting, combat diving and air traffic control, and was among the elite of the Air Force.
The sergeant was taking part in low-level parachute training over a drop zone on one of the nearly two-mile-long runways at Hurlburt when he made “an unplanned parachute departure” from the aircraft, an MC-130H Combat Talon II plane, when the aircraft was over the Gulf of Mexico, according to the Air Force.
Though the service has not released additional details, the wording of its statements may point to a parachute malfunction while inside the aircraft. For low-level jumps, military parachutists typically wear harnesses with a main parachute on their back and a reserve parachute strapped to their chest. If one of the canopies accidentally deploys inside the plane while the rear cargo ramp is open in preparation for jumping, the slight vacuum created could cause the parachute to fill with air and yank the wearer out of the plane.
Because Hurlburt’s runways are positioned so close to the Gulf, planes like the MC-130H often fly briefly over the water before turning to drop parachutists on dry land.
Sergeant Condiff, a Dallas native, is presumed dead, survived by his wife and two daughters. He had completed deployments to Africa and Afghanistan and was awarded an Air Force Commendation Medal with a combat device.
“Cole was a man with deep-rooted beliefs who dedicated himself to God, our freedoms, peace, and his family,” said Lt. Col. Steven Cooper, Sergeant Condiff’s commanding officer. “This is a tragic loss to the squadron, the Special Tactics community and our nation.”
The Condiff family released a statement expressing “our deepest and unending gratitude to those that have searched so diligently.”
“We would also like to thank those who have been and continue to stand at the ready to help serve the family in this time of crisis,” the statement said.
The accident remains under investigation, and the military was still combing the Gulf on Monday.
“We will continue our recovery effort as long as circumstances and resources allow, to bring our airman home,” Col. Matt Allen of the Air Force said.
Colonel Allen commands the 24th Special Operations Wing at Hurlburt. Sergeant Condiff was one of his own.
The post ‘Not an Easy Decision’: Rescue Mission Ends With an Airman Still Missing appeared first on New York Times.