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Emergency services / Winch paramedic receives bravery awards for rescuing fishermen from sea

The engineer of a fishing boat has also been recognised for his part in the rescue

John Thomson (right) pictured alongside first minister Humza Yousaf (third from right) at the awards last week. Also pictured from left to right are fellow St Andrew's Award winners Scott McNally and Angela McNally, David Garbutt chair of NHS Education for Scotland and the Brave@Heart validation panel, and firefighter Ryan Witkowski. Photo: Scottish Government

A COASTGUARD helicopter winch paramedic from Shetland who was involved in the dramatic rescue of fishing crew from rough seas after their boat sank last year has been awarded bravery medals.

John Thomson, from Lerwick, was recognised at Scotland’s Brave@Heart awards last week.

The Sumburgh coastguard crew member was given both a Brave@Heart honour and the St Andrew’s Award, which is given out for exceptional acts of bravery.

Thomson was recognised for his role in saving the crew of the Guiding Star around 45 miles off the coast of Sumburgh on 6 October last year in poor conditions.

The boat had collided with her sister vessel Guiding Light whilst fishing together, and ended up sinking.

Eight crew ‘safe and well’ after fishing boat sinks following collision with another vessel

The Guiding Light’s bow rose in the swell and struck the Guiding Star, slicing its stern open.

Thomson, who has worked with the Sumburgh-based helicopter for around 20 years, said whilst the awards were given to him, it was a team effort with the rest of the crew.

“But I’m really proud,” he told Shetland News. “And it’s really good that Sumburgh is recognised as well, because it was a challenging job for everyone.”

Meanwhile the first engineer of the Guiding Light, Kriss Leel, has been recognised by the Shipwrecked Mariners’ Society at its annual skill and gallantry awards ceremony.

Eight fishermen from the Guiding Star entered a life raft after abandoning ship, and with the use of a crane system and power block Leel helped to hoist three fishermen out of the raft and bring them aboard the Guiding Light.

The lifejackets and immersion suits were inaccessible to crew on the Guiding Star because the compartment containing them had already flooded.

The Guiding Light‘s crew responded quickly by transferring their own equipment, using a heaving line to act as a pulley system.

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When the coastguard crew arrived at the scene by helicopter, five fishermen were left in the life raft in rough conditions.

But with the choppy seas, a large wave struck the raft, resulting in the five crew falling into the water.

Two of them managed to get onboard the nearby vessel, but three remained in the water in what was described as life threatening conditions.

The helicopter team, who are employed by Bristow, winched Thomson down to the water.

He said the wave which struck the life raft was up to around 30 feet in height.

“The only way to get them out was to winch me in [to the sea],” Thomson said.

“I was always connected to the winch wire from the aircraft, but I was in the sea [and] obviously getting engulfed by waves while I was there.”

Thomson managed to recover one man amid the diesel-polluted waves, before going back for the second casualty.

He was clinging on to the life raft, refusing to let go, resulting in Thomson needing to use his strength to take the fisherman up in the air until they were safely on board the aircraft.

The third fisherman was entangled in lines attached to the life raft – and as Thomson was winched down, the raft flipped over, threatening to pull the pair back down.

However, Thomson’s quick thinking saw him pull out a knife and sever the line which enabled him to winch the man to safety.

All fishermen were reported as being safe and well after checks at the Gilbert Bain Hospital in Lerwick.

Thomson said the helicopter crew were on scene quickly after leaving Sumburgh within about ten minutes.

He added that whilst the coastguard crew are regularly out training, there are certain conditions that always prove challenging during callouts.

“Physically that was quite a demanding job for myself as well, being in the sea,” he said.

“There’s always going to be one or two jobs that during your career you look back again, and this will definitely be one of them.”

Director of UK SAR [search and rescue] Graham Hamilton said: “This was an exceptional rescue and John displayed courage, bravery and great physical fitness that day.

Fishing boat engineer Kris Leel (left) was recognised recently by the Shipwrecked Mariners’ Society.

“He is a credit to Bristow SAR and a worthy winner of the Brave@heart award and the St Andrew’s medal.”

First minister Humza Yousaf said the courage and heroism shown by the bravery award winners was “truly humbling”.

“In every case, they didn’t hesitate to act when it came to helping others,” he said.

The Brave@Heart awards are presented every year to recognise acts of bravery and heroism by emergency service personnel or members of the public.

Meanwhile Captain Justin Osmond RN, chief executive of the Shipwrecked Mariners’ Society, paid tribute to Leel’s contribution.

“Kriss demonstrated exceptional seamanship in the face of a grave situation, in relentless conditions and under considerable pressure,” he said.

“While unconventional as a rescue, Kriss’s calmness and skill in operating the power block, supported by his fellow crew, resulted in the rescue of his five colleagues from a life-threatening situation,” he said.

“Kriss is an extremely deserving recipient of the Society’s Lady Swaythling Trophy for 2023.”

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