JOINT BASE CHARLESTON, S.C. –
Sailors know their ship. The constant hum of machinery, the pitch and roll of the ship as it rides the waves, and the routine announcements over the ship's 1MC (public address system) all become sounds of normalcy and provide a sense of comfort to Sailors at sea.
Sailors can also sense when something is wrong. And when Sailors are jolted out of their racks in the middle of the night, it's a pretty clear indication something bad is happening.
On Jan. 17, 2013, Petty Officer 3rd Class Travis Kirckof, a mineman currently assigned to Naval Munitions Command on Joint Base Charleston - Weapons Station, S.C., knew immediately something was wrong. Kirckof had just been unceremoniously woken from a deep sleep at 2:30 a.m. onboard USS Guardian (MCM 5). But as his feet hit the floor, Kirckof had no way of knowing the next 48 hours would require him to push himself beyond his limits, both mentally and physically, and eventually lead to him receiving one of the U.S. Navy's highest honors.
"I looked around and saw some of my shipmates had also been shaken awake." Kirckof said. "We didn't know what, but things just didn't feel right. We woke the rest of our shipmates in our berthing, got dressed and headed topside to see what was going on. As I moved down the passageway towards the stern, I noticed I was running downhill and I could tell the ship wasn't moving."
The Guardian, an Avenger class mine countermeasures ship, wasn't moving because it had run aground on Tubbataha Reef in the Sulu Sea, about 70 nautical miles south east of Palawan in the Philippines. At the time of the accident the ship was traveling from Subic Bay in the Philippines to Indonesia.
"I grabbed a battle lantern and we could see waves crashing over the fantail of the ship, but because it was dark, we couldn't tell how bad the situation was," Kirckof said.
The morning light confirmed the crew's worst fears. To better assess the situation, the ship's commanding officer had Kirckof, one of the ship's two Search and Rescue swimmers, accompany the ship's Damage Control Assistant over the side to assess the damage.
"I grew up in Toms River, N.J." Kirckof said. "I was always around water. When I was 20, I joined the Navy in hopes of becoming a diver, but I became a mineman instead. When I reported to the Guardian, they needed a SAR swimmer and I volunteered."
Dozens of sharks were swarming around the ship, so every Sailor who was qualified to handle a rifle was instructed to stand "shark watch" to ensure the two Sailors' safety while in the water. Kirckof swam along with the DCA who then reported the ship's condition to the captain. At that time, the ship was not too damaged and the propellers were still in open water, so the crew spent the day trying everything in their power to move the 224-foot ship off the reef.
But the sea state was building. Waves began crashing into the ship and by nightfall, flooding below decks was becoming more severe. The waves eventually pushed the ship broadside, shoving the entire length of the ship onto the reef as they continued to batter the port side of the ship. The crew spent the night feverishly and heroically conducting damage control to minimize the flooding.
By the morning of the 18th, it was clear the crew needed to be evacuated. Two small boats arrived from MSV C Champion and removed crewmembers who were not confident swimmers. Then, the order was given to deploy the ship's two Rigid-Hull Inflatable Boats, followed by the life rafts. After the first RHIB was lowered into the water, Kirckof jumped over the side and swam to it, taking his appointed place as a SAR swimmer, waiting for the impending exodus.
But due to the high seas battering the ship, as the port side life rafts were lowered into the ocean, their lines snapped and the boats drifted away, leaving only three usable rafts for the remainder of the crew.
Those rafts, located on the starboard side of the ship which was now completely over the reef, were released and floated to where a senior chief petty officer grabbed the lines and held them fast. The senior chief had jumped off the ship's fantail and swam to the reef to make sure others could make the treacherous swim. He had spent 20 minutes fighting to make it to safety and was bruised and bloody from the coral.
It was now time for the crew to leave the ship. They had been fighting to save their ship for more than 36 hours in the baking, equatorial heat with no sleep. Making the swim through the strong, churning ocean currents would require every bit of strength they could muster.
To ensure their safety, Kirckof positioned himself in the swirling water behind the fantail as his shipmates began to leave the Guardian.
"I grabbed hold of the first Sailor that jumped in and started moving him toward the reef, but the waves separated us. I swam as hard as I could, grabbed him and got him to safety," Kirckof said.
Safety was the life boats on top of the reef itself, a distance of almost 70 yards. It was 70 yards back against the strong ocean current to the fantail to get the next Sailor. Kirckof was only able to get four Sailors to safety in the first hour, so he directed his shipmates to tie two lines together and secure one to the ship so he could haul himself back against the current instead of trying to swim, speeding up the process.
Kirckof spent almost five hours in the swirling ocean, ensuring 46 of his shipmates made it to safety. He is credited with saving at least two lives that day and for his heroism, the Director of the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program, Adm. John Richardson, presented Kirckof the Navy and Marine Corps Medal in front of his shipmates and his family April 11, 2014 at Joint Base Charleston - Weapons Station.
"We're here today to recognize a real Navy hero," Richardson said during the ceremony. "A typical rescue is over in a matter of minutes. Petty Officer Kirckof was in the water for more than four hours, sacrificing his personal safety. Only after his last shipmate had been helped to safety, and he had used up everything in his body, did he stop. He had given it his all."
Other than some minor injuries, the entire Guardian crew made it off the ship safely and was picked up by the Champion and USNS Bowditch (T-AG 62). The Guardian, damaged beyond repair, was later dismantled and removed from the reef and stricken from the register of U.S. Navy vessels.
"This was probably the most humbling experience I have ever had in my life," Kirckof said. "I've made a few wrong turns in my life, and I occasionally wondered if the Navy was another wrong turn, but after this experience, I knew that joining the Navy was the right decision for me.
"Every SAR swimmer wonders how they will react when the time comes and people's lives are on the line. I happened to be the SAR on the Guardian. I'm pretty proud of the fact that when the occasion came to put my training to use, I lived up to the standards."