It wasn't a sailing boat and it didn't happen in your waters or mine. But it served SO effectively to point out to all of us the high importance of every sea-going vessel carrying at least one EPIRB. There is no question in Eric Hopkins’ mind that he owes his life to two things: a personal EPIRB and the United States Coast Guard.
Sea Wolf at the dock - she’s not a sailing boat, but carries a message for all sailors
A 406 EPIRB was the only thing that stood between him and certain death when the party boat he was on sank last December. He was found in a field of debris which had been his boat, and which took the life of the other crew member. The EPIRB helped Coast Guard rescuers find Hopkins in time to get him to a hospital before hypothermia took his life.
'It is rare that we get an opportunity to come together as a team, as a team of lifesavers that spans the whole spectrum, to meet somebody, one of our customers, who had it not been for you would not be standing here today,' said Rear Adm. William 'Dean' Lee, fifth District Commander, in introducing Hopkins to an audience made up of Coast Guard members from throughout the fifth District who played a role in the rescue mission.
EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP, N.J. – Eric Hopkins receives a plaque from his rescuers at Coast Guard Air Station Atlantic City, N.J., in Egg Harbor Township, March 8, 2011. Coast Guard crews saved Hopkins after the boat he was aboard, the Sea Wolf, sank on Dec. 23, 2010. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Lindberg.
'His 406 EPIRB enabled the command center to vector the boats and the helicopter directly to the debris field that we found there. Without this device, we eventually would have found the debris, but it would have been too late. It would have been far too late.'
Yesterday, Hopkins was afforded the opportunity to meet the men and women who saved his life when the vessel Sea Wolf broke apart and sank seven miles off the coast of Atlantic City. During the ceremony, he read aloud the letter he sent to Petty Officer third Class John Opsal, the rescue swimmer who pulled Hopkins out of the water on December 23, 2010.
'I think this has got to be the hardest letter I’ve ever written,' read Hopkins. 'How can I ever express my gratitude to you and your crew for saving my life? I wish I was rich; I would pay off the mortgages on your homes. Sadly, I’m not rich. All I can do is sincerely say thank you.'
Hopkins holds up a plaque from his rescuers that includes: 'Thirteen command center hours - So many dollars. Six 47-foot motor lifeboat hours - More dollars. Five MH-65C helicopter hours - Even more dollars. The simple joy of saving your life - Priceless. Here's to buying toothbrushes! From your friends at the fifth Coast Guard District and Air Station Atlantic City.' U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer third Class Jonathan Lindberg.
For Opsal, it was quite possibly the second most memorable day in his young Coast Guard career. The Sea Wolf case and rescue of Hopkins were both firsts for the unassuming petty officer. Hopkins presented Opsal with a framed copy of the thank you letter he wrote after his life was saved.
'I will keep it as my first case and first legitimate life saved,' said Opsal.
The sinking of the 65-foot wooden vessel Sea Wolf happened at about 1:30 a.m. Thursday, seven miles off Cape May. Gregory Arlotta, 62, of Florida, is still missing and presumed dead.
The Coast Guard battled eight-foot waves and steady winds of 29 knots and even higher gusts, and pulled Eric Hopkins, 42, of Washington D.C., from the water.
Hopkins suffered hypothermia and was listed in critical condition at the trauma intensive care unit at the AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center City Campus.
Authorities said Arlotta purchased Sea Wolf several days ago from a retiring party boat captain in Sheepshead Bay, N.Y., and was transporting it to New Orleans when he ran into rough seas at the mouth of the Delaware Bay. It’s an area that mariners say can be more hazardous than the open ocean due to shallower waters and swift tidal currents. The Sea Wolf left Sheepshead Bay on Wednesday morning.
The Coast Guard and the New Jersey State Police are investigating what caused the Sea Wolf to break up. The Coast Guard found a field of debris. Hopkins was in a life raft but Arlotta was found face down and unresponsive in the debris field. He did not have a survival suit and the water temperature was 36 degrees. A Coast Guard rescue swimmer tried to retrieve Arlotta but when some of the debris sank Arlotta was pulled down with it.
But had they not had a precise point of reference through the EPIRB to find Hopkins, the outcome for him would have been very different.