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Office worker turns rescue hero

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Brandon Kalloo-Sanes
  • 920th Rescue Wing Public Affairs
On July 7, approximately 80 Reservists and four aircraft from the 920th Rescue Wing geared up for a long-range rescue of two German citizens whose vessel caught fire approximately 500 nautical miles east of the Florida coastline in the Bermuda Triangle.

Those 80 Airmen consisted of four aircraft aircrews as well as maintenance and operations teams who are accustomed to prepping airplanes and taking off in response to worldwide crisis, but one of those Airman who normally serves as an office worker stepped out of her element and onto a combat rescue aircraft to act as a translator for the injured victims.

“We were informed by the rescue command center that there were two survivors, one of which was severely burned,” said Col. Michael LoForti, 920th Operations Group commander. “We were concerned that the amount of pain he was in may render him unconscious and we knew that communication could have been an issue once our team got out there. So one of the questions asked was, do we have a translator on base?”

LoForti knew having a German speaker during the mission would be helpful because the rescue team could communicate clearly, which is important during a rescue. After the initial recovery, they would need to communicate things such as pain levels, safety instructions and allergies.

That’s when Master Sgt. Isabelle Klier-Graham, 920th RQW Equal Opportunity advisor, received a very unexpected phone call.

“I remembered that she was fluent in German from a previous conversation,” LoForti explained. “When I called to ask if she would go on the mission I couldn’t finish my sentence. She said, ‘Yes absolutely I’ll do whatever you need me to do.’”

Within a few hours, Klier-Graham went from sitting at a desk to sitting on a plane, tasked with a 1,000-mile roundtrip rescue mission, far away from her usual administrative responsibilities she had grown accustomed to over the years.

After covering approximately 500 miles of open ocean, 920th Airmen located the survivors floating in a small orange raft, and immediately deployed their medical rescue professionals known as pararescuemen.

A Guardian Angel team, of four pararescuemen and one combat rescue officer, deployed their equipment and jumped into the water to inflate their own boat. Upon contact, they transported the victims to a nearby commercial ship which offered to lend assistance. After two aerial refuelings each, two HH-60s hoisted the patients onboard to be transported back to Florida.

“I was really worried about them,” Klier-Graham said. “I tried to put myself in their shoes and it made me worry because I knew at this point they had been through a lot.”

The survivors were airlifted to a hospital in Orlando, Florida. According to LoForti, they had to land in a nearby football field because the helipad at the hospital could not support the weight of a combat helicopter.

The next day, Klier-Graham, a Bayreuth, Germany, native went above and beyond her mission and took the men get-well gifts.

When Klier-Graham arrived at the hospital she was directed to a room where Customs and Border Protection Officers were preparing to interview Karl-Heinz Meer Sr., the father rescued at sea. Meer’s face lit up with delight when she greeted him in German. The officers noticed the interaction and asked if Klier-Graham would translate for their interview and she immediately accommodated their request.

“I want to personally thank Master Sgt. Klier-Graham for her German translation skills,” said Orlando Area Port Director, Gaetano Cordone. “Her willingness to help ensured we were able to quickly admit these two gentlemen into the United States on a humanitarian parole and exemplifies our commitment to work together to ensure these gentlemen received medical treatment as quickly as possible.”

Klier-Graham, a 14-year Air Force veteran, did not stop there; she ended up as the liaison between the survivors and the German embassy in Washington D.C.

In the midst of her back-and-forth conversations with embassy officials, Klier-Graham finally met with Karl-Heinz Meer Jr., the son rescued at sea.

Meer Jr. explained that he and his father had no money to spend because it was all in Euros. Klier-Graham immediately volunteered to take the bag of money the sailors had salvaged from the burning ship, and drive to a currency exchange, returning their money in the form of U.S. dollars.

According to her translations, the men were extremely grateful for all of the help they received. Meer Jr. said the situation, although difficult, changed his perception of the U.S. because everyone involved with their rescue was comforting and supportive through it all.

“Her participation didn’t stop there,” said LoForti. “She engaged with the hospital and the survivors and served as an advocate for them.”

Klier-Graham and the 920th RQW continued to check on their new German friends as they recovered and even sent a small contingent of rescuers by the request of the men to meet the American Airmen who saved them at sea.

“Meeting their rescuers meant so much to them,” said Klier-Graham. “I’m glad I could be a part of that. It was an emotional reunion.”

As long as the father and son remain in Orlando, Klier-Graham’s hometown, she said she will continue to check up on them and help in any way she can.

“I know they are in a tough situation,” she said. “I’m just happy to help.”