'A' Flight, 202 Squadron, RAF Boulmer
EVERY day, RAF search-and-rescue teams risk their lives to save others but few can
be as brave as the four men of 'A' Flight.
This amazing crew defied danger to save five men from a burning ship which was set
to explode off the Northumbrian coast.
The freighter MV Rosebank was well alight when the Sea King helicopter, crewed by
Flight Lt Andy Smith, Lt Bill Sasser, Flight Sgt Al Hegerty and Sgt Neil Finch,
reached the scene.
The ship's life-rafts were burning and, worse still, it was carrying 27 tonnes of
potentially explosive fertiliser and diesel, they were flying over a floating bomb.
Flight 'A' got the first four of Rosebank's crew off but the chopper started filling
with smoke as conditions suddenly worsened. Winchman Neil was preparing the ship's
captain, John McMath, for rescue when two huge explosions forced the helicopter
to move away.
"That was when the guys in the helicopter had a lot of trouble seeing where they
were," recalls Neil, 34. "I remember looking up and I couldn't make out the aircraft
through the smoke. They tried to move in twice and almost hit a large mast."
As the fire intensified, Neil could have jumped into the freezing water but realised
the captain would not have survived. He stood his ground on the burning deck.
There was virtually zero visibility, the threat of further explosions and the chopper
had lost radio contact with Neil.
It moved back into the choking smoke and, when the cable was almost vertical, the
crew knew it was directly above Neil. The smoke cleared for an instant and Al was
able to winch him and the captain clear.
Neil adds: "During the rescue it crossed my mind the ship would explode. Afterwards,
I thought we had got away with murder there."