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Copter crew honoured for daring North sea rescue.

Byline: By Vince Gledhill

Helicopter heroes who went beyond the call of duty to save five seamen from a floating bomb off the North East coast are being honoured at a star-studded ceremony in London tonight.

Prince Charles and Prime Minister Tony Blair head the list of celebrities paying tribute to the four-man crew of A Flight 202 Squadron at RAF Boulmer.

They are among the winners in the Daily Mirrors' Pride of Britain Awards 2004.

Search and rescue teams from the RAF regularly put their lives at risk to save others, but the A Flight crew went beyond routine danger when they were scrambled from their Northumberland base after a distress call from the 1,600 tonne freighter MV Rosebank.

The ship was ablaze off the Northumberland coast and the 27 tonnes of fertiliser and diesel it was carrying turned it into a floating bomb that could explode at any moment.

The task facing Lieutenant Bill Sasser, Flight Lieutenant Andy Smith, Flight Sergeant Al Hegerty and Sergeant Neil Finch was to hover over the ship and winch off its crew of five before the exploding ship could blast them out of the sky.

When their Sea King helicopter arrived at the scene they immediately realised the urgency of the situation as even the life rafts were burning.

The first four members of the ship's crew were rescued relatively simply, but as they tried to retrieve the last man the situation suddenly took a turn for the worst.

The helicopter began to fill with smoke and pilot Andy Smith found it difficult to hover. He was then forced to move away from the ship as it was rocked by two massive explosions.

Winchman Sergeant Finch was on board the freighter with its captain John McMath, preparing him for rescue when the blasts happened.

Sergeant Finch, 34, said: "I couldn't make out the aircraft through the smoke. They tried to move in twice and almost hit a large mast on the bow. Twice I remember thinking it was about to crash."

As the fire rapidly spread towards him Sergeant Finch knew he could safely jump into the sea where his flying gear would protect him. But he knew Mr McMath would not survive in the freezing water and decided to stay on the burning deck.

Above them the helicopter crew were flying in near zero visibility, facing the threat of further explosions and had lost radio contact with their winchman. But they refused to give up.

Lieutenant Sasser, 36, said: "We moved back into the choking smoke and when Al felt the cable was almost vertical he knew he had to be directly above Neil. The smoke cleared for an instant and Al was able to winch him and the captain clear ."
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Publication:Evening Chronicle (Newcastle, England)
Date:Mar 15, 2004
Words:461
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