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A taste of adrenaline in the waters of Tampa Bay

Ready for anything, Petty Officer 1st Class Jessica Herrick talks about her mission piloting a U.S. Coast Guard cutter.
Petty Officer 1st Class Jessica Herrick joined the U.S. Coast Guard at age 19 and loves the job. “This was the right path for me,” she said.
Photo : Courtesy Petty Officer 1st Class Lisa Ferdinando
Petty Officer 1st Class Jessica Herrick joined the U.S. Coast Guard at age 19 and loves the job. “This was the right path for me,” she said. Photo : Courtesy Petty Officer 1st Class Lisa Ferdinando [ Courtesy Petty Officer 1st Class Lisa Ferdinando ]
Published Aug. 7
Updated Aug. 7

Times Correspondent

U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Jessica Herrick pilots a cutter that patrols the waters around St. Petersburg and Tampa.

“So I have all the fun,’’ as she puts it.

Before that, she served in the Pacific on the 418-ft. national security cutter Bertholf. Herrick, 33, talked with the Tampa Bay Times about two dramatic experiences from nearly 15 years in the Coast Guard.

One night last February, you took part in the rescue of a teenager, distraught over the death of her boyfriend, who survived a jump off the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. What happened?

Earlier in the day, we went out, did our boarding and came back and anchored out near Fort De Soto.

I was doing work on the bridge on the computer. It was about 10 p.m. and I hear a broadcast… report of a person in the water in the vicinity of the Skyway Bridge. ... And we got there within, like, five minutes. ...

Our goal was to beat (Coast Guard) station St. Pete, because they’re right there at Bayboro. … We launched the small boat (from the cutter). … I got my most experienced two crewmen on board. The fire department’s on scene. We beat the station; they finally get on scene. It was really neat to see everybody just come together and help each other out. We’re doing search patterns, we’re looking for this person in the water, and the fire department spots… the female. They’re pointing the spotlight. ... “She’s right over there.’’

Our small boat is the... shallowest platform compared to the fire department and station St. Pete, so we’re able to get into shallower areas. I’m driving slowly so I don’t run the girl over. ... I’m looking for somebody in the water and I don’t see her. … And then they shine the spotlight on the rocks, and this girl was on the rocks. It was really mind-boggling… because normally people that jump off that bridge, one, they don’t survive, and two, they suffer severe injuries where they’re not able to get themselves on rocks. ...

As I approached the rocks, my two guys, they jumped onto the rocks. And they’re assessing the victim, asking her questions. … She didn’t have any feeling in her hands or her feet, so that’s telling us, okay, she probably suffered a spinal injury.

You were able to transfer medical personnel from the bigger Coast Guard boat from Bayboro Harbor to your boat and then the rocks, you say.

They have to get her on a stretcher. They strap her in. Me, I’ve got to make a decision, am I going to beach the boat on these rocks? For me, that’s taking a risk because I don’t know how sharp these rocks are. We puncture the small boat; we could end up sinking. … I ended up beaching the bow of the boat on the rocks because at that time it became life versus property, and I’m not dropping this girl in the water. It’s not happening. ...

I’m going maybe half a knot. … I put in a little bit of power to hold the bow. ...

We get the litter onto (the) giant inflatable fender, a collar that goes around the entire small boat. … So, we set her on the side because there’s no room on the small boat, and we’re just holding her, she’s just on the edge. And I’m yelling at the guys, “Hang on to her!’’ “We got her!’’…

We transferred them onto the (bigger boat), a little bit tricky in itself, but we managed to get the job done. … It was probably the most rewarding feeling that I’ve had in a while.

You were a member of the boarding party on one of the Coast Guard’s first liquid cocaine busts when you were in the Pacific. It was a fishing vessel from Guatemala. How did that come about?

We got intel (on) this one case. … This fishing vessel was towing pangas. The panga is just another name for a drug runner boat. … They have several twin outboards on them. ...

When we do these cases, we do them late at night. ... This was around 11 p.m. … We launch the small boats. We… darken the ship. We don’t have our nav(igation) lights on. That way we’re not seen. … Once we get closer, we’re going to throw on the … nav lights, spotlights. ...

So anyway, we get alongside. There’s probably about 14 men on board. ...

We muster the crew and we put everybody at the back of the boat, sitting down. (We) put a watch on them while the boarding team is doing their job. … They’re being compliant… they’re trying to pretend like nothing’s going on. …

As I’m watching these guys, my boarding officer, he’s jumping on the... pangas to see if there’s any drugs on them just in plain view, if there’s any bales or anything. And we’re not finding anything. …There’s one panga that looks (more) suspicious than the other ones. This one just looked a little bit weird... had an odd shape to it. ...

And I’m watching the 14 men the entire time and I was looking at everybody’s facial expression, and when the boarding officer went on that particular boat, they were getting kind of nervous, and the captain and another crew member were, like, whispering back and forth to each other, just getting really nervous. ...They’re telling on themselves.

So I grab the boarding officer and say, “Hey, every time you go on that particular panga, these guys are getting really nervous.” ...

We get approval to drill a hole into that panga so that we can throw a camera down there and see if there’s any bales built into that small boat. So we drill, we throw the camera down there. We don’t see any bales. ... We get permission (from the captain) to cut a 12-by-12 little square. So we cut the square. ... We just see this liquid sloshing around... and it had a very strong smell to it. We’re just confused. ...

All of a sudden my captain comes back, and he gets on the radio and says, “Test it.’’ … We take a little sample; we test it for cocaine. … We took a couple more samples and sure enough, it was pink (indicating cocaine). And we’re sitting there, like, just amazed. What the –? Is this really cocaine?