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NEWS | Aug. 7, 2020

Pennsylvania Helicopter Aquatic Rescue Team saves two motorists from drowning during Tropical Storm Isaias response

By Army Lt. Col. Angela King-Sweigart

FORT INDIANTOWN GAP, Pa.- The Pennsylvania Helicopter Aquatic Rescue Team rescued two motorists stranded in rapidly rising water during flooding caused by Tropical Storm Isaias Aug. 4 in Berks County.

The PA-HART was comprised of four Pennsylvania National Guard members operating the aircraft and hoist and two credentialed civilian rescue technicians.

After receiving the mission from the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency at about 1 p.m., the team was dispatched from Muir Army Airfield at Fort Indiantown Gap aboard a UH-60 Black Hawk to the rapidly rising Perkiomen Creek and Pachwechen Run waters near Tollhouse Road, Hereford Township, according to Sgt. 1st Class Sean Merrill, the rescue hoist operator for the mission.

“We were already ready to respond to missions per PEMA,” he explained. “We got our gear together and were out the door in about 30 minutes.”

The daring rescue was made more challenging and dangerous due to power lines. The car and motorists were underneath live power lines. The pilots, Chief Warrant Officer 4 John Wuensche and Capt. Zachary Krise, circled the area and found a way to access the vehicle by hovering about 15 yards away from the lines, said Merrill.

After getting in position, Merrill lowered the two rescue technicians, George Brees and Darryl Tripp, downstream from the vehicle while Staff Sgt. Noah McElroy assisted in air crew operations. Brees and Tripp then swam to the vehicle and rescued the first person. The helicopter briefly repositioned and then the repeated the effort to save the second person.

“They were then transported to a field, where ambulances met us,” said Merrill. “They were checked out by the rescue technicians who are certified paramedics and appeared to be in good condition.”

Merrill said that training together made the team stronger when the call came for the rescue.

“You train and train and train,” he said. “And then to be able to do it and save someone’s life words can’t explain how I feel. It makes everything worthwhile. Training in the rain, cold, snow heat, makes it worthwhile when you see someone get out safely.”

Approximately 100 Pennsylvania National Guard members along with 35 high-water capable vehicles and two helicopters supported the Commonwealth’s response to Tropical Storm Isaias. In addition to the rescue, a Pennsylvania Guard CH-47 Chinook helicopter and crew members accompanied by PA-HART members searched for a missing person in the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia.

Other Pennsylvania Guard members staffed a traffic control point at a flooded road with Upper Darby Fire Dept. in Delaware County. More remained on ready to respond in armories throughout southeast Pennsylvania and managed operations at the Joint Operations Center and Muir Army Airfield at Fort Indiantown Gap.

Pennsylvania National Guard has responded to 60 natural disasters since 1953 with more than 25 of those responses to flooding. It is one of the largest and most deployed National Guards in the nation and headquartered at Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania. In addition to its federal mission, the Pennsylvania National Guard responds to domestic emergencies, working with the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, U.S. Northern Command and dozens of federal, state and local agencies. The Pennsylvania National Guard maintains a joint operations center at Fort Indiantown Gap staffed by Pennsylvania Guard members 24/7 that support its domestic mission.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Please contact Lt. Col. Keith Hickox (717) 861-6254, or e-mail