Remarks at a Ceremony Honoring the Coast Guard for the Rescue of the Crew of the Soviet Merchant Ship Komsomolets Kirgizii

March 17, 1987

Secretary Dole, Vice Admiral Irwin, Charge Sokolov, American and Soviet citizens: Good morning and welcome to the White House. And I want to make my welcome especially warm, because for so many of you, coming here today was -- well, let's just say that it was unexpected, to say the least.

The first distress signal reached the Coast Guard station at Cape May, New Jersey, at 8:20 this past Saturday morning. Just 15 minutes later, the Coast Guard had established radio contact with the stricken vessel -- a Soviet freighter -- and fixed her position at a point some 200 miles east of Cape May. The distress signals were relayed to the Coast Guard Air Station on Cape Cod, and what took place next represents one of the most dramatic rescue missions in the history of the Coast Guard.

Three Coast Guard helicopters left Cape Cod to rendezvous with two C - 130's already flying above the troubled vessel. The first chopper, piloted by Lieutenant Keith Comer, reached the ship at 11:19 a.m. He found her listing 26 degrees to port, in seas that were running 20 feet, with waves that would soon crash over the pilot house, the highest point of the ship. Lieutenant Comer's helicopter was being blasted by rain and sleet and gale force winds that were gusting up to 55 knots. But Lieutenant Comer managed to hover steadily some 75 feet above the ship. And then, with infinite care, he and his crew lowered a wire basket to the pitching deck. A woman was the first to climb into the basket, then others. And in all, Lieutenant Comer and his crew rescued 15 people before heading back to shore. The second helicopter, flown by Captain Richard Hardy, a Canadian Air Force pilot on an exchange program, arrived at 11:40 a.m. and took 16 crewmembers aboard. The third helicopter, piloted by Lieutenant Commander Gary Poll, plucked up the last six crewmembers and carried them to safety. And the only injury in all of this -- a cut finger.

Coast Guard officials said afterwards that it was hard to overstate the skill and bravery that the rescue involved. I think we all know what they mean: screaming winds, the rain, the sleet, the pitching seas, transferring people from a moving ship to moving helicopters, pilots contending with the helicopters' fuel range. One Coast Guard spokesman said with admirable understatement that ``in view of the fuel situation, they had to do it pretty rapidly.''

This mission represents just one more example of cooperation between the United States and the Soviet Union in search and rescue missions. Indeed, the Coast Guard and the Soviet merchant marines are scheduled to hold further talks in Moscow early next month. But in the end, the story of this rescue is above all the story of human beings, of men and women in desperate danger and the men and women who saved their lives.

And if I could just interject something here, in the past I've often talked about what would happen if ordinary Americans and people from the Soviet Union could get together -- get together as human beings, as men and women who breathe the same air, share the same concerns about making life better for themselves and their children. And here we have a case where just that happened -- where pilots from Mission Viejo, California, Cincinnati, Ohio, and Prince Edward Island, Canada, reached out to sailors from Leningrad, Novgorod, and Yaroslavl. I hope and pray that, no matter how stormy international affairs, the leaders of the world can look at what happened between these fliers and sailors and be duly inspired. After all, this good planet whirling through space isn't so very different from a ship upon the sea. We must reach out to each other in good will, for we have no other alternative.

And so, to Captain Khurashev and his fine crew rescued from the Soviet vessel: Welcome again to our country, and we thank God for your safety. As you prepare to return home -- I'm going to be very brave here -- Schastlovogo puti [Good journey]. And to all the men and women of the United States Coast Guard who made this rescue possible: As your Commander in Chief, it's my high honor to commend you on a job well done. In your courage, your tenacity, your know-how, you summed up all that is best in the American spirit; in a word, all that is heroic. Congratulations once again! God bless you.

Note: The President spoke at 11:14 a.m. in the Rose Garden at the White House. His remarks were translated into Russian by an interpreter. In his opening remarks, the President referred to Secretary of Transportation Elizabeth Hanford Dole; Vice Adm. James C. Irwin, Vice Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard; and Oleg M. Sokolov, Soviet Charge d'Affaires in Washington, DC.