‘I immediately sunk’: Coast Guard crew reflects on mission to rescue pilots

Polk County

POLK COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – A U.S. Coast Guard rescue swimmer said he immediately had to be pulled back up to safety after his first attempt to rescue two pilots who had crashed near Fort Meade Thursday.

“We got a hand signal – this is up,” said Nathan Renshaw, touching the top of his head to show the signal that he needs to be pulled up. “Usually once you touch down that’s not the first thing to do. I immediately sunk up to my chest and gave the up signal right away.”

The anecdote demonstrates the challenges rescue crews faced because of the wet, mucky conditions on property owned by the company, Mosaic.

Thursday afternoon, a gyrocopter, flown by 56-year-old Jeff Wright of Lutz, Florida, took a hard landing on the Mosaic property.

Then, the Polk County Sheriff’s Office helicopter sent to help went down too.

“It was just an unfortunate set of circumstances. Don’t know why,” said Polk County Sheriff’s Office public information officer Brian Bruchey.

The cause of the crashes are being investigated by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Pilot Lavon Hughes (Courtesy Polk County Sheriff’s Office)

The PCSO helicopter was being flown by Lavon Hughes, 52, who has flown for the agency since 2007.

“It was a thick soft clay and so they couldn’t walk out, deputies couldn’t walk in. We had a hard time getting to them so that’s why ultimately the Coast Guard came in,” said Bruchey.

The Coast Guard crew was dispatched from the Clearwater air station at 4 p.m.

“From a pilot’s perspective, obstacles, terrain, towers, other aircraft – it’s much busier over the middle of the state. Generally, the Coast Guard’s primary search and rescue response is in the maritime environment,” said Lt. Eric Bonomi who piloted the rescue helicopter.

The quicksand-like terrain meant the rescue crew had to pull the pilots to safety rather than land.

“The firmness of the terrain was such that if a landing was attempted the helicopter would sink into the mud very rapidly,” said Lt. Bonomi.

When they arrived, both pilots were waving.

“They were in very high spirits, joking around and everything in. They were in much better moods than I’d be if I got in a couple helicopter crashes,” said Nathan Renshaw.

Hughes and Wright were taken to Tampa General Hospital.

Hughes was treated and released. Wright was still hospitalized as of Friday afternoon.

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