Seabee diver attempts rescue after helicopter crash

19 May 2003 | Army Sgt. 1st Class Donald R. Dunn II

Battling time and the fast moving currents of a tributary of the Euphrates River, a Navy Seabee risked his life to try and save the lives of four Marines who perished after a CH-46 helicopter crashed May 19 near Camp Babylon. 

It began as a typical day for Petty Officer 2nd Class Jim Shaw, a utility man with Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 15 (Air Detachment) based out of Kansas City, Mo.

The St. Louis, Mo., resident had just returned to camp after spending the day rehabilitating one of the schools near Al Hillah, Iraq. After spending the day working in temperatures that pushed well beyond 110 degrees, he was not looking forward to pulling security at Camp Babylon.

Gathering his gear needed for his detail, Shaw saw people running and shouting that a helicopter had crashed in the river and the Marines and sailors there were organizing a rescue.  Shaw, a Navy reservist and certified scuba diver, knew he had to help.

He and some fellow Seabees ran and grabbed tools that they would use to try and rescue the downed Marines and headed to the crash site a half-mile away. 

Along the way, Shaw saw small boat chained to a nearby dock the day before. They cut the lock, took the boat and proceeded to the crash site.

Bouncing down a dirt road, Shaw was not thinking about the danger of the rescue, but what this crash would mean to those families affected.

"I was only thinking of my family and the family of those in the helicopter crash," he said.

The site of the gray Marine CH 46 Helicopter partially submerged underwater shocked the Seabee, whose hardest job up until then was figuring out how the Iraqis had water pipes inside old schoolhouses. Pulling himself together, he knew that he would have to go underwater to find out if he could find any sign of life.

"I knew it would be a long time before any real help arrived," Shaw said. "I once saved a woman from a flooded jeep in Missouri back in 1993 and I was hoping to do the same here,"

Launching the small boat into the fast moving river, Shaw and his fellow rescuers had to improvise to get to the downed crewmen.

"Upon arriving to the site, I dropped all my gear and got into the boat," he said. We just took and me and another Marine, who I did not even know. We used the butts of our M16's and paddled out to the crash."

Though the scene was chaotic, Shaw hoped the crewmembers could be saved in a swift current.  When his commanding officer arrived he had to convince him that even though it was dangerous he was inclined to go.

Shaw told him of his qualifications and efforts and asked him if he could continue the search.

"I saw he was the only chance they had because of his diving experience and we were not going to have the real Navy divers out here until the next day," said Navy Lt. Jeff Gerken, the officer in charge of NMCB 15.

Shaw also gathered some local Iraqi residents in other canoes to help, even though the current was too swift for them to be effective.

Despite the effort the men learned later that not only were the lives of the Ch-46 crew lost, but also a Marine who also drowned while trying to save his brothers in arms.  

"(Shaw) did what he could do," said Petty Officer 1st Class Chris Lyerla, a fellow utility man and a resident of St. Louis, Mo. "Lives were lost but the effort was made and this is what counts. He did not stand by he took the initiative and this is what is important."

Another Seabee who was working with Shaw realized that going into the river was necessary.

"I helped get him in and out of the water for over two hours before we realized there was nothing we could do for the crew," said Petty Officer 2nd Class Bill Epps, a utility man and a resident of Omaha, Neb. "The important thing is we tried and Jeff was the only one who had diving experience."

Although Shaw does not consider himself a hero, he and his fellow Seabees wish they could have done more for all involved.

"I know each one of those crew members in the helicopter had a family," said Shaw who was married back in December 2002. "I wish I could have saved just one of them, but I gave it my all and I know this was the only thing I could do to help."