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106th Rescue Wing, and its LI contingent, soars to rescue again

Members of the New York Air National Guard 106th Rescue Wing, based at the Francis S. Gabreski Air National Guard Base in Westhampton Beach, returned to Long Island after responding to hurricanes Harvey and Irma within two weeks. They spoke about their experiences on Friday, Sept. 15, 2017. (Credit: Randee Daddona)

Its members were portrayed in the movie “The Perfect Storm,” they located John F. Kennedy Jr.’s plane after it crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, and they were first on the scene of the explosion of TWA Flight 800.

They responded to the World Trade Center attacks, battled the 1995 Sunrise wildfires in their own backyard, and assisted in the disaster relief effort after superstorm Sandy.

Members of the New York Air National Guard 106th Rescue Wing, based at the Francis S. Gabreski Air National Guard Base in Westhampton Beach, are back in the spotlight and back on Long Island after responding to both hurricanes Harvey and Irma within two weeks.

“We had boats in the driving rain and then a helicopter hoisting people nonstop,” Technical Sgt. Matthew Zimmer, 35, said of the Harvey deployment. “We were pulling people from their homes from the get-go — it was intense work.”

Some of the rescued Texans saw the magnitude of the devastation in their neighborhoods for the first time from the rescue wing’s aircraft.

The 120 members of the 106th sent to western Houston and Beaumont, Texas, included 26 pararescuemen, 15 pilots, 47 maintenance personnel and 30 support personnel. Aircraft used were three HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters and two HC-130 Hercules cargo planes in addition to four Zodiac boats.

More than 300 lives were saved, Zimmer said. And not only human lives were rescued.

“We rescued dogs, a pet pig and an iguana — all kinds of stuff,” said Zimmer, of Westhampton Beach, who helps plan and execute the missions.

On Sept. 7, about 130 members of the 106th were called to respond to Irma. The areas of operation were St. Croix, the U.S. Virgin Islands and St. Maarten. They helped evacuate nearly 1,600 people with the assistance of Kentucky and Puerto Rico Air National Guard units.

In addition to pararescuemen, who specialize in recovery and medical treatment, and maintenance and support staff, that team involved combat rescue officers and logisticians.

Zimmer said that on St. Maarten, “There was looting and rioting and people didn’t feel safe.” When rescuers got there, “people cheered and hugged us.”

The 106th Rescue Wing is prepared to perform any of these rescue efforts and more at any time, said Lt. Col. Neil Theisen, chief of the 106th Operations Group.

“That’s what they prepare for 24/7,” he said.

Zimmer said the training members receive is grueling so that they can be prepared for just about anything.

“They test us and punish us to extremes,” Zimmer said. He said part of their training involves “essentially drowning ourselves in a pool for 10 weeks straight.”

The unit comprises about 1,000 members, with about 90 percent being Long Islanders, said Capt. Linda Varela, the wing executive officer.

Varela, of Baiting Hollow, said that about a third of the members are full time.

Members represent different walks of life and include lawyers, teachers, firefighters, police officers and entrepreneurs. They train for war and peacetime missions involving all kinds of weather and other scenarios.

Theisen said that for both Harvey and Irma, in less than 24 hours crews were brought in, equipment was set up and “boots were on the ground.”

“For the last 42 years we’ve been known as a premier rescue wing in the U.S.,” said Theisen, 44, of Sound Beach.

Varela noted that since the 106th received international attention for its role in Harvey and Irma, interest in joining the unit has spiked. She added that civilians who live near the base but didn’t know it was there or pay much attention are also taking notice.

“It put us on the map” for some locals, Varela said.

Staff Sgt. Robert Sorrentino, 34, a C-130 crew chief from Ridge who makes sure the aircraft is safe to carry out missions, said that while some members like himself have regular jobs, when duty calls everyone makes arrangements to answer.

Sorrentino, who was sent to San Juan as part of the Irma rescue effort, is also a correction officer for the Suffolk County sheriff’s office, and a firefighter in Ridge.

While the rescuers are out on missions, they make things work at home with help from neighbors, friends and relatives.

“Friends come by and cut my grass for me to help my wife out,” said Technical Sgt. Jemille Charlton, 36, a father of three from Bridgehampton who is also a C-130 crew chief.

Whatever has to be done, being with the 106th and helping others is all worth it, Theisen said.

“It’s a great mission because you can help anytime,” Theisen said. “Tomorrow you could get the call again.”

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